The film industry has had its up and its downs. While most of the sector relies on servicing international productions which periodically shoot on the islands, a nascent local industry is still fighting its way to the surface. Outgoing film commissioner Engelbert Grech, who was appointed in 2013, has had to contend with both realities over the past four years. Yet, when he recently spoke to this business portal, he looked back positively at the achievements accomplished during his time at the entity.
“My time at the film commission was an incredible experience. Film has always been my passion, and the opportunity to guide the industry was an honour and a privilege. Over a span of four years we managed to attract over 50 film and TV productions, with a foreign direct investment of 200 million euros into the Maltese economy.”
He attributed this to collaboration, a mainstay of the sector. “This was a collective effort: my great team at the film commission, the hard-working crew, the public and private companies. Everyone was important and played a role in creating an efficient system to service one film after another. We lived up to our reputation as the ‘mini Hollywood in the Mediterranean’.”
When he first jumped on board, the industry was experiencing a slump, with many enquiries having dried up and investment into the sector abating. “The first big challenge was to kick start the industry. When I was appointed, the industry was passing through a very difficult time, and there was an urgent need to get the ball rolling again. There was a vision, backed up by a strategy. The first priority was a revision of the financial incentives, which we managed to do in a record amount of time. The second step was to train and re-skill our human resources. The third challenge was to put Malta on the international map through a worldwide advertising, marketing and PR campaign,” Mr Grech said.
Mr Grech described what he sees as the achievements wrought by the strategy, listing some of the biggest names in Hollywood, all of whom set up shop for a few months on the islands to film.
“Once we ticked all the boxes, we got an incredible response, with a growth of 600% in the first year, and a record breaking second year. “By the Sea” was the very first film the commission managed to attract under my helm. Bringing Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie was no mean feat, and it gave us incredible momentum. Malta was back on the agenda of the top Hollywood studios and film producers. “13 Hours” was another incredible production. Michael Bay is one of the biggest grossing directors in the US and his production turned out to be the biggest film that was ever shot in Malta, leaving around 50 million euros in the economy.”
He also noted the new promising markets, such as India, which have opened up in this past year. “Thugs of Hindostan” was another milestone since it was the first Bollywood blockbuster to be filmed in Malta. With this film, Malta can make inroads in one of the biggest emerging markets,” he said.
The local sector, Mr Grech asserted, had also received a boost. “An important achievement was the launch of the first ever film policy. This included a new vision, which saw heavy investment in education, and the training of members of our local indigenous film industry. More funds were also allocated for the film fund to create new opportunities for local talent.”
The outgoing commissioner now leaves behind him an entity which is, today, six times what it was when he first joined, and whose remit also includes the managing of the water tanks in Kalkara, known as the Malta Film Studios, which he describes as a “huge challenge”, but he emphasises “the studios are instrumental in the evolution of our industry.”
He is being replaced by Johann Grech, Government’s former head of marketing, and he described the demands facing the fresh commissioner in his new role. “Malta needs to change the game again because the competition is very tough, and many countries are catching up. Various countries have now introduced incentives similar to ours and we need to be pro-active to keep our competitive edge. The continuous investment in our human resources, investment in film infrastructure, and the nurturing of our own indigenous industry are all crucial to the overall strategy in developing a sustainable film industry.”
However, true development of the industry is a long game, according to Mr Grech, requiring the input of time, and energy in instilling the passion for film amongst young and old.
“We laid the foundation for the creation of a ‘culture of film’. From a very young age, people need to learn about the art of filmmaking. They have to be aware of the opportunities it offers, both on a creative and financial level. We need to make people fall in love with cinema. This is not something you can do in a year or two. It’s a change that has to be implemented over a number of generations.”