His 60 seconds of fame at our expense

Grech’s tenure at the Film Commission appears to be causing more harm and controversy at this stage than creating value added to the industry and the people within it

Johann Grech wanted his 60 seconds of fame, appearing in a speaking part alongside David Walliams for a 10-minute short film publicising the Mediterrane Film Festival awards. This cameo appearance was Grech’s acting debut.

The production was intended to showcase Malta’s past link with the Knights of St John and the rich heritage from that period. It was supposed to serve as an advert of sorts for foreign filmmakers.

Whether the latter aim was ably reached is debateable but instead of discussing the actual production people have ended up talking about Grech and his follies.

Grech is no ordinary individual; he is Malta’s Film Commissioner, appointed by the government to further the film industry.

And herein lies the problem. When the subject of controversy, public ridicule and concern becomes the Film Commissioner himself, you realise something is wrong.

We know the film industry is all about glamour and out of the box thinking that can cost money with intangible immediate benefits. Holding a film festival to showcase the island to foreign producers and at the same time encourage home-grown talent to flourish is one of these expenses. The marketing value of such events should not be understated.

However, there is one big caveat to be made. The money administered by the Film Commission comes from taxpayers and thus every cent spent should be put to judicious use.

Unfortunately, Grech has been allowed to create his own unchecked fiefdom at the Film Commission. His latest cameo appearance in the short film was the culmination of bad taste and with an estimated conservative price tag of €500,000, a matter of bad spending as well.

If he wanted his 60 seconds of fame, Grech shouldn’t have done so at taxpayer expense.

Had all this happened in an environment where the film industry is running at full throttle and home-grown talent is being helped to produce films and series’ that are worthy exports, many would have probably closed an eye to the extravagance. But there is a growing disconnect between Grech and Maltese producers, actors and others who ply their trade in the sector despite the much-vaunted economic contribution the industry has made over recent years.

Grech’s appearance in a 10-minute feature film is not simply a misstep as Tourism Minister Clayton Bartolo implied. It is symptomatic of a prima donna who believes taxpayer funds are his to use as he pleases.

But the situation became even more problematic over the weekend when a respectable actor like Lara Azzopardi came out all guns blazing, accusing Grech of acting like a bully. Others followed with claims they were left unpaid for services rendered to the industry despite pledges by the commission to safeguard incomes. The situation now is one that goes beyond one man’s follies.

There is something deeply unsettling when somebody like Azzopardi decides to stand up and air her grievance in public. She is no ordinary individual but somebody who has a lot to lose in an industry that can be very fickle and where fragile egos get hurt easily.

Her outburst is a warning signal that the government cannot ignore. At the very least, Grech should be called in and asked for an explanation by Tourism Minister Clayton Bartolo. At the most, an investigation by people unconnected to the ministry should be carried out to ascertain the facts and make recommendations to change the situation.

The allegations of bullying should not be swept under the carpet even if Bartolo believes Grech has been successful at his job.

Unfortunately, the Bartolo-Grech tandem has proved to be anything but salutary. Grech continues to do as he pleases and in these circumstances the Prime Minister should transfer the portfolio out of Bartolo’s hands.

Really and truly, the film industry is an economic sector that has little to do with tourism and more to do with investment and job creation in the creative arts. That it serves as an advert for Malta is ancillary and should be reflected in the manner by which incentives are drawn up.

It appears that the Prime Minister did clip the Film Commission’s wings when funding for Maltese productions was taken out of its hands sometime this year. This move was unbeknown to many until Grech spilled the beans about it in comments he gave to sister newspaper Illum last week.

The move must have been a subtle admission that something was not right at the Film Commission and that Grech’s attitude towards Maltese producers had created unnecessary friction.

Grech’s tenure at the Film Commission appears to be causing more harm and controversy at this stage than creating value added to the industry and the people within it.

The sector needs someone who has knowledge of the industry with all its unorthodoxy, can market Malta abroad, is able to foster a healthy dialogue with Maltese producers and filmmakers but comes with less drama and egocentric follies. Maybe it is time for change at the top.