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14 February 2010

Consistency the key for local film services industry

By: Patrick Cooke

Foreign film production companies may have slashed budgets last year in the wake of the global financial crisis, but Malta's film services industry is attracting a consistent flow of productions to the country for the first time in its history, according to Film Commissioner Luisa Bonello.

Despite a slow start to last year, Malta still attracted 14 foreign productions to its shores, compared with eight productions in 2008 and 10 in 2007.

"We only had a few quiet months in the early part of the year which broke the continuous spell of productions since 2007. This is the first time we have seen consistency in the industry," Ms Bonello said.

Last year's productions consisted of eight TV programmes, four feature films and two commercials. Production companies came from nine different countries including Italy, UK, Germany and Scandinavia.

In all, these productions are estimated to have spent €6.5 million directly on Maltese services, crew and goods, compared with an estimated €20.6 million in 2008 and €4.5 million in 2007.

Big budget Spanish production Agora, shot entirely in Malta, "distorted" the financial figures for 2008, but Ms Bonello thinks the fall in revenue should not distract from the fact that there were more productions filmed in Malta last year compared with 2008.

"Even though less money was spent, there were more productions, more work, more activity for the local sector, our crew improved and secured higher positions and general progress continues to be registered," she said.

She added that the key to developing a successful local film services industry was to ensure productions were in prep or shooting every day of the year.

"Hollywood's big-scale productions are a bonus, but they can never sustain us. Our aim is to attract the medium and small, budget films and TV productions, and I think they are developing into a steady niche," she said, adding productions from India, Japan and Russia contributing to the diversity of the flow of work.

"In these types of productions, local crews can take higher positions which will help them learn. More experienced crews available in Malta make us more appealing as a filming destination," she said.

Ms Bonello said she was unable to say with any certainty that there would be growth in terms of productions filmed in Malta or revenue generated by the local film services industry this year, but she expressed confidence that there would continue to be a consistent flow of productions.

The commission is in touch with several potential productions for this year, including returning clients. An Italian TV production is set to shoot next month, and currently shooting is The Devil's Double, based on the book of the same title by Latif Yahia, who was the double of Saddam Hussein's sadistic son Uday during the dictator's reign. Malta is doubling as Iraq in the nine-week shoot - which began on February 6 - but will also feature as Malta "in a scene or two".

"Doubling as Iraq is good because it's another country that we can say we have doubled as when trying to attract productions," Ms Bonello said.

India, which has the largest film industry in the world, is one market the Film Commission is targeting in the hope that Indian production companies will return regularly. Last year, song and dance sequences for the film Vinnai Thankdi Varuvaya (Will You Come from the Sky?) were shot in Malta over eight days. Ms Bonello met major production companies and studios as part of a trade delegation to India last November.

"We had very, very good feedback. They have a hunger for new locations. It's a very different style of film-making but one that can generate substantial amount of work for Malta and also promote its image to a huge home audience. It's about diversifying," she said.

When Malta introduced its audiovisual financial incentives scheme in 2007, in the form of a cash rebate given on eligible EU expenditure to qualifying production companies, it was only the third of its kind to be approved by the EU. The scheme has been extended to the end of 2012 and remains a crucial factor in attracting productions to Malta, but now almost every EU country offers similar incentives.

Although competition for attracting films is fierce, Ms Bonello believes Malta can continue to compete because of its strong combination of attractions. She cited the water tanks at the Mediterranean Film Studios, which are the largest in Europe, the backlots of Fort Ricasoli, the incentives scheme, Malta's capacity to double for almost anywhere in the Mediterranean, and the ability of local crew to speak English as being the main draws.

Malta's main shortfalls are the absence of huge soundstages and the lack of technical crew in high places, training schemes for local people and film-specific technical equipment, but Ms Bonello insists measures are being taken to address these issues.