Face off: Film Commissioner’s statement rebutted

Guest commentary by the Malta Producers Association rebutting the statement by Film Commissioner Johann Grech.

The context of this piece is a recent investigation by The Shift revealing that the Malta Film Commission is promoting and channelling work to a select list of service providers and individuals whilst arbitrarily excluding the majority.

A public Authority has absolutely no right to interfere in the private sector and, as a consequence, control and distort what should be a free and fair market. On the contrary, they have a positive obligation to ensure that this does not happen by their own hand or any other.

In light of the seriousness of the report, action needs to be taken immediately. The Malta Producers Association has called for the removal of Film Commissioner Johann Grech, but this is only the starting point. Evidently, there also needs to be an investigation into how and why certain companies are being promoted in this way and whether this is an isolated corrupt practice or whether it forms the tip of a far larger iceberg within the Film Commission.

In response to the association’s call for resignation, the Film Commission released a wordy statement. While we realise that this is being used to divert attention, we will still respond to all points raised.

Malta Film Commission: “Under the leadership of Johann Grech, the Malta Film Commission has embarked on an ambitious project to strengthen further the local film industry. We have succeeded in making Malta a player on the world stage. We have increased the cash rebate programme to 40% to increase our competitive edge globally. We have launched a masterplan for the Malta Film Studios, regenerating the whole area and have already started the process to build the first soundstages in Malta. This is the first investment by the government after 40 years.”

Malta Producers Association: There is no doubt that increasing the film incentives has sharpened Malta’s competitive edge and it is also something that MPA and its members have been lobbying for, both under this regime and previously, for many years. However, it is entirely irrelevant to the matter in hand.

The reason for its inclusion is unclear but our best guess is that the Film Commissioner feels that doing good work with the right hand justifies corruption with the left. Evidently we don’t agree. In fact, adopting a practice of selecting seven production service companies to promote to foreign producers, means that the benefits of the investment being made out of taxpayer money will effectively be to the benefit of those chosen few rather than the industry as a whole.

Malta Film Commission: “Since 2018, the Malta Film Commission has increased its outreach to studios and independent filmmakers to attract more productions to our islands. We have changed the industry from a seasonal one, to one guaranteeing back to back productions. In 2019, we had over 21 film and TV productions, meaning that a total of €40 million was injected into our economy. Our local crew has been working from project to project, since May 2018.”

Malta Producers Association: Refer to the above point – although we take exception to the last sentence. Under the circumstances, the use of “our local crew” takes on a rather more sinister note. The last couple of years has been very difficult for a number of local crew and service providers with many struggling to make ends meet. It simply means that the handful selected by Grech were handling these productions.  Moreover €40 million on the back of a 40% incentive is hardly a successful year for the industry. Compare this to 2015, when €100 million was injected in the economy on a rebate of just 25%.

Malta Film Commission: “With the launch of the programme ‘Opportunity for All’, we have started to create an industry for the many, not the few. ‘Opportunity for All’ is a programme aimed not only for local producers and service providers but for all crew members who work in the industry and for those who want to join the industry. Today, there are 363 companies registered and 700 individuals in ‘Opportunity for All’. We want a liberal market, eliminating the monopoly of the few.”

Malta Producers Association: This is, very simply, a lie. By providing a list of just seven companies to incoming requests instead of directing foreign producers to an online directory to make their own assessments, the Film Commission is creating a monopoly.

Previously, any individual or company had the opportunity to list themselves (and their respective credits/experience if applicable) on a public, online directory. This was arranged alphabetically and could be accessed by any producer or production company looking to film in Malta.

It was administered by the Malta Film Commission but there were, quite rightly, no restrictions as to who could list themselves. Anyone wishing to engage a person or company would be expected to then conduct their own due diligence on who would be the best fit for their needs. The system is used the world over to good effect and evidently cannot be bettered in terms of transparency and fairness.

The online directory was taken down and replaced by the ‘Opportunity for All’ programme which is, conversely, an opaque system that has never been clearly understood or explained. This is not available to anyone. Instead, it’s just that list of seven companies sent out to foreign producers.

With respect to this ‘Opportunity for All’ programme, individual crew members and suppliers are now expected to register in order for their remuneration to be considered an eligible expense for the rebate. We understand that a database has been created as a result but who has access to it and how it is arranged or disseminated has never been revealed as it is neither public nor online. Quite how this provides a better system than the previous one or indeed offers an ‘Opportunity for All’ remains a complete mystery.

In fact, we would go so far as to say that entirely contrary to the claim made by the Film Commissioner, the new ‘system’ has conversely created an illiberal market, eliminating the majority to ensure a monopoly is enjoyed by the few, as evidenced by the correspondence seen by the Malta Producers Association and according to industry sources and media reports.

Malta Film Commission: “Since 2018, more than 16 different local service providers have worked on more than 35 different productions. Under Grech’s administration, the majority of existing local service providers have all worked on these different projects. Therefore, it is completely false that the Malta Film Commission is providing opportunities only for the ‘chosen few’.”

Malta Producers Association: We have no reason to doubt the veracity of the first part of this paragraph but it does nothing to answer the fact that certain individuals and service providers are promoted over others. Not every production that comes to Malta uses the Film Commission as a ‘gateway’ so the fact that 16 service providers have worked on 35 difference productions may well be despite the Film Commission rather than because of it.

Malta Film Commission: “The Malta Film Commission, at any level, exercises no interference whatsoever when it comes to the choice of a foreign production choosing a local service provider. If and when asked for an opinion, the Malta Film Commission does discuss local service providers, however, it is always up to the foreign production to do their due diligence and choose freely and accordingly. Neither the Commissioner nor the Malta Film Commission decides who ultimately works on the foreign production. Therefore, allegations in this respect are false.”

Malta Producers Association: It would appear that here the Film Commission is admitting to the fact that it recommends certain service providers ‘when asked’. To this we would say that the correct response in this situation would be ‘as a public Authority, we are unable to recommend specific service providers but we can direct you to our ONLINE DIRECTORY where you can find a full listing of all relevant companies and crew with their respective credits and contact details’.

We would, however, dispute the claim that the Film Commission waits until it is asked for recommendations despite the fact that this would be abusive anyway. We know for a fact that when asked for a full list of service providers, only a select few are offered up.

The implicit assumption in the question from an unsuspecting foreign producer is that a full list is being requested and indeed provided. The fact that this needs to be pointed out is nothing short of bizarre.  To a foreign producer who may indeed realise that there are other production companies to consider, the implication of not being on that list is that a production would be considered favourably by the Film Commission if one of the selected production companies are chosen.

Malta Film Commission: “The decision to remove the previous directory needed to be taken in light of the then-upcoming implementation date for the General Data Protection Regulation (EU) 2016/679 (GDPR). Once the previous directory was removed, work started immediately on the new programme ‘Opportunity For All’, now being populated by more than 1,000 companies and individuals working in the local film industry.”

Malta Producers Association: This is just nonsense. There is nothing about a voluntary, public directory of crew and service providers that contravenes any aspect of GDPR.

Malta Film Commission: “The ‘Opportunity For All’ programme works in total compliance with GDPR. The current system operates as a consent-based data gathering application and we will be providing full access to studios, producers and filmmakers based on their enquiries. Nonetheless, the programme is already being used when foreign productions inquire crew data relating to different departments within the film industry.”

Malta Producers Association: It’s interesting that Grech chooses to mention this. The ‘Opportunity for All’ programme, as well as being unnecessary and opaque, was also firmly GDPR non-compliant for a long time. It is only thanks to the dogged persistence of one of the Malta Producers Association members and an intervention from the Data Commission that the Film Commission finally addressed the non-compliance issues and made the necessary changes to ensure that their system no longer violated GDPR rules.

Furthermore, claiming that the programme is ‘consent-based’ is utterly disingenuous. As it stands, while the programme isn’t explicitly mandatory, it is firmly tied to the cash rebate scheme which is the main film incentive administered by the Film Commission. What this means is that up to 40% of the company fees or crew wages of those that sign up to the ‘Opportunity for All’ system is rebated in cash to foreign producers should they be engaged on a qualifying production. If you don’t sign up, no rebate will be given. This can hardly be described as ‘consent-based’ and, in our opinion, such consent is vitiated.

Malta Film Commission: “Furthermore, Grech categorically denies statements published on certain media that he has, by some form or another, used his position as a platform for profit and pocketing of money or gifts of any kind, from any individual. Together with the government, the Film Commissioner will keep working in the best interest of the local film community, by ensuring that our industry keeps growing and our people keep working. The Commissioner’s ambition remains to make Malta a world-class film industry.”

Malta Producers Association: This remains to be seen but we respectfully suggest that given the seriousness of the media reports, the Film Commissioner is not best placed to confirm this. An independent investigation needs to be carried out following his removal to establish the nature and extent of the corruption reported.

                           
                               
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