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Not a gangster film — it just looks like one

Is there a single sector in Malta that isn’t rotten with corruption?

Film Commissioner Johann Grech is the latest former Labour Party employee to be exposed for using his position to benefit friends of friends at the expense of everyone else.

Before he took over as Film Commissioner, Grech was Head of Government Marketing within the Office of the Prime Minister. It won’t surprise you to learn that he was appointed by Konrad Mizzi. Isn’t it odd how every corruption scandal somehow leads back to the OPM?

The film industry is big business in Malta. Some major Hollywood films have been shot here, and Maltese filmmakers benefitted because foreign companies are required to work with local service providers.

But how do they know who to hire? The Malta Film Commission is there to help.

Local film production companies used to be listed in a directory that could be found on the MFC website — but that changed under the current government.

These days, the MFC sends a list to foreign film companies so they can choose who to do business with.

In 2018, 22 production companies were included on that list, arranged in alphabetical order. But fast forward to 2020, and that list is made up of just seven companies.

The other companies didn’t stop operating — they just got deleted from the list foreign companies got during the tenure of Johann Grech. And according to film industry contacts I spoke to, the companies being excluded are some of Malta’s best.

The list isn’t presented in alphabetical order anymore, either. Halo Pictures Ltd, owned by former Film Commissioner Engelbert Grech, is now in the top slot, and not because someone rearranged the alphabet.

Why does any of this matter?

Dig a little deeper and you’ll see ol’ Johann is attempting a rather clumsy sleight of hand. You need a little more information on the film industry to see what he’s up to, but don’t worry, it isn’t very sophisticated.

A big budget Hollywood producer will consider shooting a film in Malta for several reasons.

Malta’s urban landscape might be a good substitute for cities where filming is unsafe or otherwise undesirable. Malta was a stand-in for war-torn Libya in 13 Days, and for a Turkish prison in Midnight Express, the Alan Parker film that couldn’t possibly have been filmed in Turkey due to political sensitivities.

Great weather also makes it possible to shoot outdoors without delays. And those big water tanks at the Mediterranean Film Studios have attracted films like Troy and the German series Das Boot to capture nautical scenes.

But the biggest draw for film producers — apart from the availability of skilled local crews — is the financial rebate offered by the government.

That’s right. Those big budget Hollywood films are underwritten by Maltese taxpayers. The government offers major cash rebates on eligible costs, as well as tax incentives to foreign companies who make their films in Malta.

The top tier is 40% cash back on eligible costs, which includes accommodation, air travel to Malta, local labour costs, location fees and more.

But there’s a catch…

According to MFC guidelines, explained in a public document called Financial Incentives for the Audiovisual Industry: Cash Rebate Guidelines, “Labour costs relating to local crew and trainees will only be eligible if the qualifying company ensures that the recruitment of crew members and trainees in Malta is conducted from the MFC’s official directory.”

Rental companies have to be chosen from that MFC Directory, too. Same for services, recruitment of personnel, crew members, and more. Otherwise, no cash back on those costs.

So where can foreign production companies find this helpful directory?

It isn’t publicly available on the MFC website. It used to be, but that changed under this administration.

Foreign film makers who contact the MFC to ask for the directory are instead being sent the list we discussed earlier.

The MFC is deliberately implying that the foreign producer should choose from this list of seven local companies if they want to be eligible for the cash rebate.

Sure, foreign film makers can still do business with companies that aren’t on the list — assuming they know those companies exist. But if you’re one of Grech’s Selected Seven, you’ll reap the lion’s share of foreign business.

Now do you see why this is such a scandal and why Maltese film producers are furious?

Like the man who appointed him to that position, Grech is denying his actions in the face of evidence. Labour Party’s One TV made sure that’s the version government supporters got.

The fact remains, you’re getting screwed again, and the person appointed to run yet another government entity is screwing you to benefit his connected friends.

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Johann Grech Malta Film Commissioner.

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