When Colin Trevorrow took the stage to receive the Film Commissioner’s Award at the inaugural Malta Film Awards on Saturday night in Valletta, he joked that when his new film Jurassic World: Dominion premieres next June, “all around the world, there will be children that are going to believe that there are dinosaurs on this island.”
“Please, tell them it’s all true,” he added. “Let’s keep the magic of the movies and the magic of their imaginations alive, because that’s part of what we do.”
Jurassic is one of dozens of international films and series to shoot in Malta over the last several years. And, for the first time, Malta doesn’t double as another country – part of the story is set there, a point of great pride locally.
Trevorrow participated a day earlier in a Q&A, and he was one of several high-profile international talents who appeared on stage or by video Saturday at the slickly produced awards ceremony, hosted by British comedian David Walliams. Collectively, they represent the ambitions of the Malta Film Commission to convert the country, in commissioner Johann Grech’s words, into “a world class film industry.”
Those plans include a generous cash rebate, upgrading of existing studio facilities and new soundstages, a promise to train and invest more in local crews and, of course, promoting the islands through events like the Malta Film Awards, part of a week-long series of panels and presentations dubbed the Malta Film Week.
At the awards, Harvey Keitel won a best actor statue for his performance in 2021 Malta-US-Canada co-production Blood on the Crown, executive produced by Roland Joffe. The film also took best director for Davide Ferrario and additional nods for screenplay, score, hair and make-up, production design and post-production. The night’s other big winner was UK-Maltese co-production The Boat (2018), directed by well-known local line producer Winston Azzopardi, which won best film and best cinematography.
Films and series from the last 100 years of Maltese production were eligible for the awards, meaning this might not be an annual event – at least not in its current form – though Malta Film Week will be, Grech says.
The awards also weren’t without some early growing pains: some local producers, including the backers of Malta’s contender for the International Oscar, Sundance special jury award-winner Luzzu, launched a boycott over their high cost, according to the Times of Malta. “As beautiful as investing in these awards are tonight, I think investing in our indigenous films is more important,” Boat star and co-scripter/co-producer Joe Azzopardi declared at the awards.
Says Grech: “The Malta Film Week, including the Malta Film Awards, has created a nationwide debate about our industry, how we can grow further, how we can keep competitive, how we can create more jobs, how we can secure more funding – not just government, but government and business working together.”
The industry has drawn dozens of international shoots to the archipelago, contributing in the last three years more than $109 million (98 million euros) to the local economy and creating thousands of local jobs, according to Grech.
A key factor was the 2019 increase to Malta’s cash rebate program, which now offers an attractive 40 percent back on eligible local expenditure. The rebate, paid out after completion of filming, requires a minimum spend in Malta of $111,489 (100,000 euros) on films budgeted over $222,979 (200,000 euros), not exceeding 80% of the overall production budget.
“At one point in time last year, we had four productions working at the same time in Malta,” Grech says. In 2019 and 2021 each, 22 productions filmed in Malta, the majority international. That number was half in 2020 due to COVID closures.
One of those, in August 2020, was Jurassic, which shot on the streets of Valletta and involved more than a thousand crew members and extras. According to Winston Azzopardi, the film’s local line producer through his busy Latina Pictures outfit “It’s the first time we see dinosaurs in an urban environment. They’ve always been in forests and jungles. Now they’re in the streets with cars and shops and everything, which is going to make it quite unique.”
In addition to Trevorrow, other accolades on Saturday night included a Film Ambassador Award for Ridley Scott and a Film Industry Honorary Award for Russell Crowe. The two filmed 2000 epic Gladiator in Malta. On stage at the awards, Grech credited Scott with having “placed the Malta film industry on the global map.”
Scott will now bring Kitbag, his Napoleon project, to Malta for three weeks starting in May. In a video recording played during the Saturday ceremony, Scott fondly recalled the “place where Rome was not built in a day but in fact in just over seven months.”
Scott revealed that Malta’s 17th century Fort Ricasoli, voted by the public for the best location prize at the Malta Film Awards, will double as Toulon, the site of Napoleon’s first victory. The fort has previously been seen as a backdrop in Game of Thrones, Gladiator, Agora and Troy, among others.
Azzopardi, who will also serve as local line producer on Kitbag, adds that the film, now in pre-production, will make use of the same backlot as Gladiator as well as locations on the island doubling for the South of France, Elba and Saint Helena.
In fact, thanks to its own unique history and strategic location in the middle of the Mediterranean, Malta is known for its capacity to double for settings in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, and it is also home to backdrops evocative of a range of historical periods.
“Creatively, it works for a lot of places,” Azzopardi says. “Malta has doubled up for Jerusalem many times, for countries in Africa, India, the Middle East. It’s the architecture we have.”
Situated just south of Sicily and with a population of a little over half a million spread across three islands (Malta, Gozo and Comino), Malta’s tourism board claims 3,000 hours of sunshine per year, around 8.1 hours of daily light and an average yearly daytime temperature of around 73 Fahrenheit. This allows for long and comfortable working days, and a Mediterranean light that has been praised for its cinematic sharpness.
Malta is also convenient: less than three hours by plane from most capital cities in continental Europe, and English is one of its two official languages.
Malta specializes in marine filming, and most international productions come to the island for the Malta Film Studios’ massive water SFX facility, which houses three tanks, billed as among the largest in the world. The two outdoor tanks end at the sea and offer a natural horizon, and the facility also sports wave machines, tip tanks, wind machines, rain towers, water shoots and smoke machines.
AppleTV series Foundation, which shot for four weeks in Malta last year, filmed in the water tanks for around 10 days then used other locations on the island, according to line producer Azzopardi. Grech says the production spent $11 million (10 million euros) on the island, creating more than 1,000 jobs for crew members and extras.
Malta’s versatility is apparent in the long list of other productions to have made their way to the islands in recent years, like the Sky One series Das Boot (three seasons), Murder on the Orient Express (2017), 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi (2016), Assassin’s Creed (2016), World War Z (2013), Captain Phillips (2013) and The Da Vinci Code (2006), among others.
In an on-set interview for the Film Commission, John Krasinski said of shooting 13 Hours in Malta: “Being a movie where we’re doubling Malta for another place, there’s so much set decoration and building that needs to be done, and we were able to do it so well here.” He praised the “huge spectrum of locations” on the island and crew accommodations in “beautifully quiet, old, historic” Valletta.
What Malta currently lacks are soundstages. “I think once we have soundstages,” Azzopardi says, “the work will increase, although it’s quite busy here.”
Minister for Tourism Clayton Bartolo last year announced a $39 million (35 million euros) investment in modernizing the Malta Film Studios. The upgrades – already underway – include Malta’s first three soundstages, workshops, production offices, and new equipment and technology.
Construction on the first soundstage, which will house a fourth water tank with a natural horizon, could begin by year’s end.
“The film industry is considered a strong motor in our economy,” Grech says. “By investing more in our domestic film industry, we keep sharpening our skills and our talent to keep servicing more international productions. One goes with the other: servicing and domestic production work hand in hand.”
“We are not just building structures,” Grech insists. “We are building an industry.”