The Malta Independent 29 January 2023, Sunday
View E-Paper

Maltese filmmakers ‘forgotten’ as all support goes to foreign projects - film producer

Marc Galdes Sunday, 27 November 2022, 07:30 Last update: about 2 months ago

The Malta Film Commission is primarily concerned with attracting foreign films, rather than supporting local filmmakers, says producer Pierre Ellul. “All the focus is on the foreign projects and the Maltese filmmaker is left out in the cold.”

He said that Hollywood films like Jurassic World and Napoleon are given a strong financial backing, whilst very little money or support is given to local filmmakers.

The Malta Independent on Sunday conducted an interview with Ellul to discuss the challenges local filmmakers face.

Ellul is a Directors Guild of America Award nominee, a European Film Academy member and the National Coordinator for European Audio Visual Entrepreneurs. He has worked internationally as part of the directorial team of directors such as Steven Spielberg, Ridley Scott, Alfonso Cuaron and others. He is the founder of Falkun Films in Malta.

He produced Carmen which has won several film awards in Canada and has been chosen as Malta’s submission for the best international film category at the Oscars. He is also one of the producers for War Sailor which is currently being screened in Maltese cinema. War Sailor was in the official selection of the Toronto International Film Festival and is Norway’s entry for the Oscars.

These achievements can be placed on a much higher pedestal when understanding that local filmmakers receive very little support.

“Insignificant funds”

When asked about the biggest challenges a local producer faces when making a local film, he said that “there are many challenges but the biggest is always raising the finance for a film project. Even after you complete the film, it is far from over as here in Malta we have zero structures to support the distribution.”

He gave a breakdown of the funds local filmmakers can apply for. There is the Screen Malta fund which offers a pot of €600,000 for all filmmakers.

There is the cash rebate which was “primarily created to attract foreign films to shoot here.”

Also, a fund which no longer exists is the co-production fund, which is run by a government company called Film Finance Malta, but this stopped in 2018 after funds to produce Carmen were received. Carmen was the last film to be awarded this fund.

He described the Screen Malta fund, as a “tiny fund” when compared to the financial support other European filmmakers receive. He brought up Iceland as an example; although Iceland has a smaller population than Malta, Icelandic filmmakers have access to a pot of €10.8 million.

“€600,000 as a pot for all the filmmakers on the island to fund the five strands within the lifetime of a film project - writer grants, development, production, distribution and marketing – is ridiculously poor.”

“Film is an expensive medium. Professionals in the field should be able to earn a decent living out of it, not be treated as hobbyists. There are people in Malta who actually work in film and make a living out of film.”

Recently, Maltese filmmakers have called out the Malta Film Commission for failing to launch this year’s Screen Malta fund. Back in July producers had flagged the government about the lack of funding, and although filmmakers were told they would receive funding soon, four months later, filmmakers are still waiting for the Screen fund to be made available to them.

“Maltese filmmakers have been left in the dark. Without a film fund to apply to, they cannot develop and move forward with their projects.”

He spoke about the importance of planning ahead, but filmmakers are unable to do so without any indication as to whether or when they can even apply for this fund.

“In our case, we have two Maltese stories which we'd like to develop, but we haven’t been able to apply for development funds.”

When the Times of Malta sent questions to the Tourism Ministry and the Film Commission about this it gave no indication as to whether this fund was going to be launched. Instead, they mentioned that in the coming weeks a “new scheme” will be implemented.

As far as Ellul is aware, the guidelines for the film fund are being revised after multiple requests have been made by the film community.

“The film fund was always under the de minimis scheme, which means that any one company could only apply for a maximum of €200,000 over a period of 3 years. This has been very limiting for a film production company which is developing and producing film projects. So we asked, and we had been asking this for quite a while, to shift the fund from under the de minimis regulations to the general block exemption rules, which would mean that there would be no limit on how much funds a production company can win over time.”

He said that the excuse that filmmakers have been given for the delay of the launch of the 2022 Screen Malta fund has to do with this change.

However, he mentioned how when the National Book Council made the same change for their fund it was done within a matter of weeks.

“The mantra repeated is that 'we take care of our local talent'. It's not true, our local talent is not being taken care of.”

Prioritising foreign projects over local projects

It was recently revealed that the aid allocated for the Financial Incentives for the Audiovisual Industry (or the cash rebate as it is known) is €50 million, which is a lot more than the €11 million annual budget allocated in parliament. Information communicated to the European Commission shows that the government’s annual budget for “cash rebate” for “motion picture, video and television programme activities” was €50 million.

Prospective Nationalist MEP candidate Peter Agius was the first to flag the discrepancy in the allocated budgets.

It is no wonder that Andy Elliott, one of Ridley Scott’s producers of Napoleon said that Malta has the “most generous cash rebate in the world.”

When asked whether the servicing film industry is given more importance than the local filmmaking industry Ellul said: “Yes for sure. Local filmmaking is totally disregarded. As filmmakers, the servicing industry and the local film industry are intrinsic to each other. The servicing industry is extremely important. I think the misconception here is that they are seen as distinct. To his merit the film commissioner has managed to increase the rebate to keep Malta competitive, however, it also needs to be sustainable. We have serious doubts that it is, and if this is the case, we will all crash and burn.”

He mentioned how earlier this year the same thing happened in the Czech Republic where the government had to stop the cash rebate as it “caused a lot of reputational damage”. This has since been reinstated but Ellul believes it will take a while before confidence returns in the market.

Ellul spoke highly of the servicing industry as being economically important, and it also exposes the crew to a very high level of filmmaking.

But it shouldn't be at the expense of the local film industry. The government is willing to give so much support in cash rebates to projects like Napoleon because of the economic activity that is generated, which is all well and good. But then when it comes to local filmmakers telling our own stories, the government is not giving the resources and the structures and the support necessary to make those stories.”

He mentioned the Jurassic World production which was a $150 million project by Universal Studios. “The Film Commission has incessantly promoted this film to the tune of over €60,000 (that we know of) when it isn’t a Maltese film, whilst giving very little promotional support to Maltese films.”

Since Screen Malta hasn’t been launched yet, Ellul said they were unable to apply for the tiny marketing fund and had to pay for everything out of their own pockets for the premieres of these films in the local cinemas.

He said that the truth is that film all over Europe is supported by public funds because other countries understand the importance of nurturing artistic and cultural endeavours.

“Let's be clear, private investment in Malta is close to non-existent in film. Private investors will invest in buildings or yet another ugly block of apartments, but they will not invest in a film, because film is a very high-risk business. The government doesn’t incentivize investment in the arts like other countries do. That would be a game changer for all the arts in Malta if it did.

“Film is not only a business endeavour. The importance of film goes beyond making money from the film, which is extremely difficult. Film is an important medium to tell a nation's stories, to build our cultural identity, so that people can look at the big screen and identify with the characters there; for people beyond our shores to understand more about Malta and the Maltese.”

“There is so much more to film and what it can contribute to our country. Film is an artistic expression putting beautiful stories on screen which resonate emotionally with an audience and which can even bring about change that is needed for society.”

He mentioned Iceland again which has a very thriving service industry, where they service films like ‘Star Wars and ‘James Bond. Big Hollywood stuff and big Netflix shoots go to Iceland.

Besides the service industry, Icelandic stories are still significantly supported. “Iceland produces on average close to 20 projects a year be it feature films, TV-series and documentaries. In Malta, we're lucky if we get two films a year.”

The politicisation of the industry

Following the scandals at Malta Philharmonic Orchestra and the Manoel Theatre, the Malta Entertainment Industry and Arts Association (MEIA) has called for the “depoliticization of public cultural organisations”.

When asked whether the cultural industry is politicised he replied: “Unfortunately yes. I've been in the industry for nearly 25 years, and I've never ever seen film being used as a political tool as it has been used over these past 3 to 4 years.”

“The film industry is not being developed as an industry in its own right. Film is now just another tool to gain political mileage and is seen as simply a feeder for the tourism industry.”

“There is very little to no consultation with the industry. Giving us an hour meeting and then saying that we have been consulted, is not consultation.”

He brought up the Film Week last January which he said was “a very good initiative and extremely encouraging. However, since then notwithstanding all the promises made, nothing changed. It was simply sweet political talk.”

Ellul said that “proper and continuous consultation is key”; this is what the Malta Producer’s Association and MEIA have been asking for. “But that has never happened, there's no consultation with the stakeholders.”

He also mentioned how supposedly a new film policy is being drawn up, but to date, there has not been any call for consultation.

The ‘government that listens’ has never listened to this industry. There are many people who have been working in the industry for decades if not more and we have a lot to give. Frankly, we know more about the challenges of making films and earning a living from it, than someone who came out of the PR office of Castille. Being good at marketing isn’t sufficient. There is more to it than that. If we are brought together we can add serious value for the benefit of all.”

Out of the six film commissioners that he experienced, he said that only one film commissioner was not politically appointed.

“All of them were politically appointed because they were close to the government of the time. The person is not chosen from the industry, they're put there.”

He compared the role of the film commissioner to a Minister, who should bring in people and hold open consultations with them to understand, learn and implement fruitful policies. In an ideal world, this is what should happen, “but no, nothing of that happens here.”

In conclusion, he said that moving forward “a lot needs to be done” and it is difficult, to sum up, all the issues here.

“We have to have structures put in place just like our European counterparts have. Be it a proper film fund which can cater for all the different strands with decent levels of funding, real and proper support for distribution and marketing, a restructuring of the cash rebate so as to enable more co-productions to be made. We have to have more transparency on how funds are awarded and there needs to be more accountability on how the Film Commission spends and manages its budget. We have to have a clear way forward and most important of all, we have to have open consultation with all industry players, not the select few so that the ‘Opportunity for All’ mantra can be truly achieved.

  • don't miss