Whose side is the Film Commission on, anyway? ‘Commodus’, or ‘Maximus Decimus Meridius’?

Above all, however, one would expect the Malta Film Commission to also wade directly into the issue at hand... by telling us, for instance, where it actually stands in (to borrow a line from Peter Jackson’s LOTR trilogy) ‘the great battle of our time’

Remember that scene, from the original ‘Gladiator’ movie, where Russell Crowe – surrounded by the butchered corpses of all the other gladiators he had just slaughtered – turns to the cheering amphitheatre audience, and defiantly shouts out:

“Are you not entertained? ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED...?”

Now: I might be reading too much into that particular detail... but when I first watched ‘Gladiator’, almost 30 years ago, the question I asked myself was:

Which ‘audience’ was Russell Crowe actually addressing, at that precise moment? The one in the amphitheatre, 2,000 years ago? Or the one in the cinema (myself included), watching Ridley Scott’s ‘Gladiator’ for the first time in 2000?

Truth be told, I still can’t really answer that question, all these years later. Certainly, it would be an exaggeration to describe the entire movie as some kind of ‘historical allegory’, about the contemporary socio-political realities of its own age (in the same way as, for instance, Stanley Kubrick’s ‘Spartacus’ was clearly a commentary about McCarthyism, and the 1950s ‘Hollywood Blacklist’)...

Nonetheless, the analogy seems to work too well, to be a mere coincidence.  Even just on a plot level – i.e., without adding any ‘meta-cinematic’ interpretations – that line is delivered at a significant turning point, in Maximus’ entire character-development arc.

It’s the moment when he achieves his first real taste, of the gladiatorial fame that would later catapult him to ‘cult celebrity status’ within the Colosseum (i.e., the pulsating heart of Ancient Rome’s entire entertainment industry; in other words, the ‘Hollywood’ of its time.)

Already, then, the movie seems to be inviting comparisons with the entertainment industry of our own age (and in particular, between those ‘Colosseum audiences’... and ourselves.)

From there, it is a very small step to argue that Russell Crowe’s ‘Maximus Decimus Meridius’ may have actually represented a whole lot more, than just the “father to a murdered son; husband to a murdered wife”, and all the rest of that ‘screenplay stuff’. It could even be (at that precise instance, at least) that the screenwriters/director actually intended Russell Crowe to represent, not ‘Maximus Decimus Meridius’ at all; but rather...

... well, just plain old ‘Russell Crowe’, himself. That is to say: a Hollywood actor, momentarily venting his own frustrations (not to mention those of his entire profession; and of the screenwriters, who inserted that line into the script to begin with) with a ‘ruthless, tyrannical’ movie industry, that greedily enriches itself through the exploitation of ‘slaves’, for the entertainment of the masses... you know, just like ‘Emperor Commodus’ does, in that same movie.

See what I mean? It is almost too easy, to interpret ‘Gladiators’ as ‘exploited Hollywood movie stars’; and ‘Evil Roman Emperors’ as embodiments of ‘unscrupulous Hollywood studios’...

... until, of course, you reach the limit of how far the analogy can actually be stretched. For starters: it is highly unlikely that Ridley Scott would have intended any such interpretation, way back in 2000. For while the movie industry was certainly no stranger to ‘industrial disputes between actors/screenwriters and producers/studios’, etc., there was simply nothing going on, back then, that can even remotely be compared to the crisis that has engulfed Hollywood today.

Ah: but the same cannot exactly be said for Ridley Scott’s 2023 ‘Gladiator 2’, can it? And this time, I’m not referring to any finished movie, by that name... but to the production of that film, that has now been halted by the ongoing strike called by SAG-AFTRA (the unions representing Hollywood actors and screenwriters, respectively).

Or at least: that’s the only aspect of this entire issue that has so far been reported, in the local press. And, well, I suppose we can all see exactly why, too.

After all, ‘Gladiator 2’ is (sorry, ‘was’) being filmed here in Malta... and the sudden disruption in shooting schedule, also means that at least 700 local extras – and probably a couple of thousand other employees, in various other aspects of movie production – have now been ‘put on hold, for the foreseeable future’.

This fact, alone, explains why pretty much ALL Malta’s newspapers, reported the strike as though its effects were somehow limited only to ‘disrupting the shooting of Gladiator 2, here in Malta’ (instead of portraying it for what it truly represents: an attempt to ‘disrupt the entire Hollywood status quo’, that has reduced actors, screenwriters - and especially, ‘extras’ – to the status of mere ‘slaves’, owned by corporations...)

And this, too, is what prompted Malta Film Commissioner Johann Grech to comment publicly on the issue: telling this newspaper that, “We are following developments, and we remain especially supportive to our local crew affected by this strike”; “We are in full solidarity with all those affected...  As Film Commissioner, I will be engaging with all stakeholders throughout this process,” etc. etc.

Now: don’t get me wrong. Given the immediate threat to such a high-powered, high-calibre, ‘Malta-made’ Hollywood movie... I can fully understand how the foremost concern, for the Malta Film Commission, would certainly be the ‘700 extras’ (and other crew) who have been left jobless, by the strike.

What I find a little harder to comprehend, however, is how this seems to be the Film Commissioner’s ONLY concern, right now... for all the world as though the only thing that really matters to him, is that the production of ‘Gladiator 2’ simply ‘gets back on schedule’, as quickly as possible... so that things go back to normal, and we all go right back to the usual business of ‘milking large-scale Hollywood productions, for all they’re worth.’

In other words: as if the issues underpinning this strike, will have no other consequences, for Malta’s film industry as a whole... other than the postponement (possibly, cancellation) of a single, Malta-made film.

And yet, the issues at the heart of this dispute, may have momentous, ‘game-changing’ implications... for a local film industry that is (let’s face it) far more involved in the ‘servicing of foreign productions’, than on the creation of an actual ‘film industry, of our own’.

For instance: most newspapers summarised SAG-AFTRA’s demands, as a combination of ‘better pay, working conditions, etc.’... but also, ‘safeguards against the replacement of professional actors, and screen-writers, by artificial intelligence’.

What very few of them also specified, however, that the concerns with AI are not limited only to the use of technology to replace the physical presence of an actor, onscreen. They also extend to issues of ‘copyright’, and - above all -OWNERSHIP of the identity of all those artificially ‘recreated’ actors. (And what was it again, that was so morally reprehensible about ‘slavery’ in the first place... if not the  exact same concept, of ‘OWNERSHIP of a human being’s identity’)?

As Hollywood actor John Cusack put it, in his own defence of the strike: “Studios wanna have extras work one day, scan them – own their likeness forever – and eliminate them from the business.” [...] “Do you think they will stop with extras ? That’s what AI is – a giant Copyright identity theft.”

At which point, it should be clear that what this strike is REALLY about, is... well, the equivalent of what Maximus Decimus Meridius did, immediately before delivering the above, immortal line (which was basically to throw his spear directly at the slave-owners, sitting in their ‘Royal Box’... an act which he would replicate at the end of the movie, by ‘killing Emperor Commodus himself, in the Gladiatorial arena’.)

Simply put, it is a pitched battle between the ‘creative forces’ that are responsible for the artistic aspects of any movie production – the actors, writers, extras, costume-designers, stuntmen, etc. – and the ‘executive/corporate’ side of the movie industry: which stands accused of ‘monetising’ their talents, for its own gain.

As such, one would expect that the Malta Film Commission would also have a thing or two say, about the long-term implications of this strike for Malta’s film industry. For instance, the possibility of a not-so-distant future, in which plenty of ‘big-budget Hollywood blockbusters’ continue to be made in Malta... only this time, without any input from any local actors/extras, etc. (whose ‘avatars’ would, by then, be the sole property of studios such as Disney, Warner Brothers, Paramount Pictures, etc.)

Above all, however, one would expect the Malta Film Commission to also wade directly into the issue at hand... by telling us, for instance, where it actually stands in (to borrow a line from Peter Jackson’s LOTR trilogy) ‘the great battle of our time’.

Is it on the side of ‘Maximus Decimus Meridius’, as he defiantly strikes a blow for artistic liberty, at the ‘Evil Emperor Commodus’ himself? Or – as has so often been the case, in Malta’s general approach to ‘all things Hollywood’ – is it on the side of the major Hollywood studios: whose only interest, in all this, is that... well, as I said just a few lines up: ‘that things go back to normal as quickly as possible,,, so that they can go back to milking those Hollywood stars, for all they’re worth’?

Because let’s face it, folks: you can’t exactly be on ‘both those sides, at the same time’...