You can’t have a ‘best year for Malta’s film industry’… without a Maltese film industry

I don’t know: if that’s Clayton Bartolo’s idea of ‘the best year for Malta’s film’; I’d hate to hear his pitch for an ‘Annus Horribilis’…

Honestly, though: what’s the Tourism Minister even going to come up with next? Promoting Malta as the ‘best destination for skiing holidays’… when we all know that:

a) we don’t have any mountains (well, not counting Maghtab, at least);

b) we don’t have any snow;

c) we don’t have any ski resorts;

d) we don’t even have any goddamn TREES, for the occasional world-famous Formula One racing driver to actually crash into, while skiing?

Sorry, but it just can’t ever work in practice. The basic infrastructure is simply not in place, for Malta to ever seriously compete with the likes of Zermatt, Chamonix, Verbieres, St Moritz, and other ‘world=class skiing destinations’…

Except, perhaps, when it comes to the partying side of things. For let’s face it: the sort of mayhem that takes place in Paceville, on any day of the week, would put to shame even the most decadent of grappa-fuelled ‘apres-ski’ debauchery, anywhere in the Alps…

But still: it remains scientifically impossibile to have ‘apres-ski’, without the ‘avant-ski’ part that comes first. And it’s exactly the same with other things apart from skiing, you know.

Like ‘making movies’, for instance (which, at the end of the day, is what the term ‘movie industry’ all along implies: the making of movies, on an industrial scale.) You first have to have at least the bare bones of a ‘national movie industry’, in place… before you can boast that it’s doing so spectacularly well, that it’s already entering its own ‘Golden Age’.

But, oh well. I guess it’s something Clayton Bartolo didn’t consider, before he casually informed a journalist this week that: “2022 was the best year for the Maltese film industry in a decade.”  And it evidently didn’t occur to the Malta Film Commission, either: which last year organised the first ‘National Malta Film Awards’ – on a scale to rival the Oscars, no less – even though Malta hasn’t actually produced more than just a handful of full-length feature films, in its entire history.

But then, that only raises the inevitable question: what did Clayton Bartolo REALLY mean to say, when he claimed that 2022 was some kind of ‘landmark year’ for the entire industry?

Let’s see now: it clearly can’t have been because of the sheer output of Maltese films, produced or released over the last 12 months. And – with all due respect to the five or so (mostly short) local films that DID come last year – it certainly can’t have been on the basis of any ‘international acclaim’, either.

Unlike 2021 – when at least one Maltese production, ‘Luzzu’, could certainly be described as a ‘critical and commercial success’ – 2022 does not seem to have produced any comparative milestones, for local film. Ok, there was the aforementioned ‘Carmen’: which at least tried its luck on the international circuit, by (unsuccessfully) submitting an Oscar bid…

But leaving aside Oscars, and other such unlikely accolades: ‘Carmen’ was one of but five local productions to be released in 2022; and - in terms of scale, scope and budget – it seems by far the most ambitious of the lot. The other four consisted of either entirely self-financed, low-budget (and don’t get me wrong: highly laudable) personal efforts, such as Keith Albert Tedesco’s short film, ‘Uwijja’; or cinematic remakes of past TV mini-series (like ‘Merjem’, and ‘The Way Back’).

Naturally, I don’t want to sound too dismissive; but while it’s great that some degree of film-making IS taking place, locally… let’s be honest: it doesn’t exactly amount to a ‘Golden Age’, does it? In fact, it probably doesn’t even qualify as ‘the bare bones of a movie industry’, either [Note: if you think I’m being too unkind, Keith Albert Tedesco put it far more bluntly: “A local film industry doesn’t exist,” he said…)

What is it, then, that makes Clayton Bartolo think that 2022 was such an outstanding year for Malta’s (mostly non-existent) film industry? Well: what else could it possibly be, but… MONEY, of course! (Or in Bartolo’s own words: “2022 was the best year for the Maltese film industry in a decade, [because] 24 productions injected €85 million into the economy…”

And of course, we all know precisely what sort of productions he was talking about. Historical epics like Ridley Scott’s forthcoming ‘Napoleon’ – not to mention (if Bartolo’s prayers come true) the ‘Second Coming of Maximus Decimus Meridius’– as well as chart-smashing blockbusters like ‘Jurassic World: Dominion’: a movie so monumental, in the annals of Maltese film history, that it was ‘celebrated’ by little Velociraptor monuments, sprinkled all over Valletta…

In other words: ‘Hollywood movies’, of the kind that just happen to be (in most cases, partly) filmed here in Malta. And while I’m the first to concede that… yes, it’s also fantastic that Malta manages to attract such lucrative – and glamorous – international productions, each year…

… sorry, but they’re still ‘Hollywood movies’, at the end of the day. And that automatically makes them products of another country’s ‘movie industry’; not Malta’s.

So even if any of those blockbusters go on to achieve international fame and fortune - or even ‘classic’ (or ‘cult’) status – those successes will forever be associated with the history of American cinema… and NOT ours.

But let’s agree to gloss over that objection for now: for the simple reason that I see nothing remotely ‘wrong’ – and plenty that is entirely ‘right’ – about Malta trying to position itself as a world leader, in the ‘foreign production-servicing’ circuit.

No, the real problem is that… even by Bartolo’s own (rather myopic) yardstick, his claim that 2022 was a ‘record year’ – for the film-servicing sector, if not for anyone else – doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny, either.

Let’s start with that figure of ‘E85 million’. It has already been widely reported that it represents the total sum that was SPENT by foreign productions, while filming in Malta. It doesn’t account for the percentage – whatever that turns out to be – that the same production companies are entitled to claim back, according to Malta’s recently-introduced rebate system.

And given that industry experts – including Ridley Scott’s executive producer Aidan Elliot – have described that system as “probably the most generous cash rebate in the world”: it is debatable in the extreme, how much of that E85 million will actually end up being ‘pumped into Malta’s economy’, as claimed.

Not just because a hefty chunk of it will sooner or later have to be paid back (after which: who knows? Maybe 2022 will turn out to have been LESS ‘profitable’, than previous years)… but also because Malta’s cash-rebate system is so very generous, that it encourages major film studios to come here complete with all the servicing staff, and support-structures, that they’ll ever need.

Except for ‘location scouting’, perhaps… and other site-specific skills, where it’s obviously going to be cheaper to hire someone already on the ground; than to fly someone in all the way from Los Angeles, California…

As for everything else, however: all the individual crews and teams responsible for lighting, props, special effects, and other technical stuff… it seems that – according to a couple of (local) film-makers I consulted, before writing this article – Malta’s cash-rebates DO, in fact, make ‘flying all those people in from LA’ a more feasible option (for the larger studios, at least) than ‘hiring them all from the local workforce’.

Effectively, then, at least part of that E85 million will have involved expenditure on salaries, etc, for people who were already on the studio’s own payroll, before they even came to Malta. How much of that money, then, is really destined to fill up Malta’s coffers?

Much more cogently however: how much of an impact do all these major foreign production even have, on Malta’s fledgling-film industry itself? Bartolo, for instance, went on to argue (words to the effect of): ’attracting foreign productions to Malta is important, because it offers unique opportunities for Malta’s film-makers to acquire international experience’.

Is that really happening, though? Or is it more a case that – in our desperate bid to attract only the ‘BIGGEST’, and more ‘BLOCKBUSTING’ movies of all time … we have come up with conditions that are so outstandingly (and outrageously) advantageous, that it is actually cheaper for major film companies to shoot on location in Malta, than in their own studio’s backyard?

And that, as such, the only vacancies left to be filled, by the small percentage of employees that their contract forces them to hire locally, are… well, the ‘extras’? Or the roadies? Or the location scouts, etc?

Not, of course, that I mean to devalue the contributions of any of those sectors, to the movie-making process (you try making a film without any extras, or roadies, and see what happens)…

But still: when you consider that 2022’s only real ‘claim to fame’ – insofar as the film industry concerned - is that a bunch of foreign studios simply availed of very generous financial conditions, to make a few blockbusters that may – or may not, in the end – prove profitable for Malta…

… while Clayton Bartolo’s government did not invest a single centime, throughout 2022 – no, not even the E600,000 Malta Film Fund: which wasn’t actually distributed last year - in its own country’s movie industry (which, let’s face it, needs a cash-injection just a little bit more than Hollywood, right now…)

I don’t know: if that’s Clayton Bartolo’s idea of ‘the best year for Malta’s film’; I’d hate to hear his pitch for an ‘Annus Horribilis’…