For over a year now, the global film industry has been suffering under the unwavering weight of the COVID-19 pandemic – productions have been postponed time and again, cinema ticket sales have slumped, and the fear of returning to closed spaces has raised the question whether streaming services will phase out the good old ‘trip to the movies’.
Lovers of cinema and theatre, however, will beg to differ, and although the local film industry too has been affected by global events, it has continued to work hard over the past year to maintain and boost Malta’s competitiveness as a film location, in preparation for better times ahead.
This has been the focus of Malta Film Commissioner and CEO of Malta Film Studios, Johann Grech and his team throughout the turbulent months of 2020. “Despite the global film industry being affected by the pandemic, Malta was one of the first countries to reactivate its film industry and open for productions,” he explains. “We worked very hard to not lose any productions that were planned to come to Malta. Unfortunately, some did lose their financing and/or move to a future date, but most were postponed by a few months, and some already wrapped their shooting in Malta – including Jurassic World: Dominion.”
Throughout 2020, in just seven active months, 11 productions from Belgium, Italy, Finland, Spain, United Kingdom, United States and Canada filmed in Malta. “We even had a couple of co-productions – Malta, UK and Canada respectively. Moreover, preparations are underway to host a sci-fi Apple TV Series and the third season of the German drama series, Das Boot, both of which will be shooting at the Malta Film Studios.”
All this is on the back of notable achievements for Johann since taking the helm of the Malta Film Commission in 2017, namely raising the cash rebate for filmmakers from 27 per cent to 40 per cent, making the financial guidelines more attractive for the film industry and enhancing Malta’s competitive advantage. “We also launched the masterplan for the Malta Film Studios, which will rebuild the studio facilities to ensure that Malta becomes a world-class film industry,” says the Commissioner. “We’re proud of attracting more people to the industry as we find solace in the arts during these challenging times. We’ve worked hard to start turning the industry from a seasonal one to having back-to-back productions shooting in Malta.”
Addressing the impacts of the pandemic on the Maltese film sector, Johann explains that productions halted between March and July 2020, during which time Malta’s borders were closed. “We’ve shown how Malta continues to be a great place to shoot with the added essential element of demonstrating how to do so in a COVID-secure way. That’s why we were able to reactivate the industry as soon as the airport opened and two productions began shooting in August, including Jurassic World: Dominion,” he asserts.
“Productions were somewhat interrupted due to the number of cast and crew allowed on set, other countries being closed for travel, as well as the closing of theatres and cinemas, which resulted in the postponement of productions’ release dates. However, productions had their own guidelines and protocols, and we worked hard together with our health authorities to ensure everyone abided by them.”
While work on location slowed down dramatically, it provided an opportunity for the Commission to turn its attention towards other pressing matters. “We focused on the implementation of the Malta Film Studios’ masterplan and working further on Malta’s first soundstages. This is a really exciting time for us as we work towards ensuring an ever-larger percentage of productions can be shot in Malta. Everyone knows Malta for its stunning landscapes and water tanks. But with the studios’ masterplan, we can offer so much more.”
2020 also saw the launch of Screen Malta, a collaboration between the Malta Film Commission and the Ministry for Tourism and Consumer Protection, which aims to create new methods for the financing of local productions. With an annual budget of €600,000, Screen Malta’s objective is to nurture and support the development and production of Maltese films and scripts, creative documentaries, and high-quality TV series, which in turn contribute towards building an indigenous film industry.
“Screen Malta takes into consideration projects which can boost various economic aspects in the country, while providing direct help to Malta’s indigenous film industry, with the aim of promoting investment by local producers towards this national project,” says Johann.
“This is an initiative which, for the first time ever, is open to the production of films as well as television, and which includes drama and documentaries, among others.”
Various elements are considered when assessing applications for funding, including the creative, cultural and economic benefits of the production, as well as the development of skills in audiovisual productions, with the aim of boosting and encouraging employment in this sector. An independent evaluation is carried out by a panel of experts, including foreign industry professionals, while applications are open for film and script projects in all genres, including animation, for new and established filmmakers in Malta.
“The Malta Film Commission follows up on the outcome of these productions on a commercial level, particularly as regards distribution, both locally and internationally, as well as for theatrical activities, festivals and TV broadcasts. We’ve managed to make some excellent local productions become a reality and I want to ensure that audiences at Cannes, Berlin and London film festivals see ‘supported by Screen Malta’ as a mark of quality and a reminder of where they should be making their productions too.”
Turning his attention towards the opportunities and outlook of the industry for 2021, Johann asserts that the Commission will keep working and striving to attract more productions to Malta, to reach new milestones and to start leading in new film sectors, such as VFX and animation. “We’re also working to attract more people to join this exciting industry, while maintaining momentum to upgrade our facilities and implement more projects from the Malta Film Studios’ masterplan, and of course accommodating the different needs of any production being filmed here,” he explains.
“We’re also eager to continue work on building soundstages. This is our next step, and it will create huge opportunities for our industry, including the creation of more jobs which will fulfil our ambition of seeing more people join the industry,” says Johann.
“The challenges are clear. We’re looking at how the industry can be more inclusive, both in front of and behind the camera. We know we need to play our part in the fight against climate change by building a sustainable industry. And we need to ensure that the creative industries remain part of the ‘build back better’ narrative and are recognised as a crucial part of our economic and social infrastructure. Malta has the potential, and we want to attract even more productions to our islands. We will not stop dreaming to achieve more.”
This interview is part of a serialisation of 50 interviews carried out with Malta’s top CEOs, featured in the bumper edition of MaltaCEOs 2021 publication, which was recently released. Despite the many challenges of 2020, this is the largest edition to date.
Photo by Inigo Taylor
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