Malta Attracting Big-Budget Shoots With Aggressive Incentives and Adaptable Locations

Located in the Mediterranean Sea, 50 miles south of Sicily and 176 miles east of Tunisia, the island Republic of Malta has a long history as a filming location stretching back to the 1925 silent “Sons of the Sea.” Its picturesque ports and historic sites have made notable appearances in swashbucklers (1995’s “Cutthroat Island,” 2002’s “The Count of Monte Cristo”), sword and sandal epics (2000’s “Gladiator,” 2004’s “Troy”) and more recent titles like Apple TV+’s “Foundation” and last year’s “Jurassic World: Dominion,” shot in 2021, in which dinosaurs chase Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard through the streets of St. George’s Square in its capital city of Valletta.

In 2022, the country hosted 24 projects — including Ridley Scott’s historical epic “Napoleon,” starring Joaquin Phoenix — employing more than 900 Maltese and 1,000 foreigners, generating $94 million in economic activity, giving the production community its best year in a decade. It’s on track to do even better in 2023, with Scott returning yet again this summer to shoot “Gladiator 2,” starring Denzel Washington, which is expected to employ hundreds of local below-the-line workers.

As the number of visiting productions has increased, so has Malta’s crew base, growing from 400 registered local production workers in 2018 to more than 1,500 today. 

“[Production work] went from seasonal to back-to-back,” says Malta Film Commissioner Johann Grech. “Unemployment is very low” — 2.92% as of December 2022 — “so what we’re doing is generating interest from people who have been working in more traditional, conservative jobs to come to the film industry and be part of the success story.”

To that end, the film commission held workshops for 2,500 locals in March providing instruction in various production trades, from carpentry and welding to hair styling and makeup. It’s also promoting itself to the world at large with its inaugural Mediterrane Film Festival, set for June. In addition to a screening program highlighting films from Malta and other MED9 nations (Spain, Cyprus, France, Italy, Portugal, Greece, Croatia and Slovenia), it will feature a lineup of conferences, keynotes, workshops and visits to film sets.

Historically, Malta has been most-prized as a strategic base of naval operations. Over the centuries, the 122-square-mile archipelago passed through the hands of a succession of conquerors, including Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Greeks, Arabs, Normans, French and British. Most notable are the Knights of St. John, who during their 268-year reign (1530-1798) founded Valletta and used limestone quarried from the islands to build fortifications (including Fort Risacoli, which with the help of CGI, was transformed into ancient Rome for “Gladiator”), Baroque palaces, hospitals, churches and cathedrals that are a popular filming sites for visiting productions.

The upcoming Hallmark movie “The Dancing Detective: A Deadly Tango,” starring Lacey Chabert and Will Kemp, shot entirely on practical locations in Malta, using historical sites such as the Mediterranean Conference Centre (built as a hospital in 1574) and Fort Manoel (est. 1734) to stage dance sequences.

“Dancing Detective” executive producer Leif Bristow has shot a total of six films in Malta, starting with the 2014 biblical drama “Saul: The Journey to Damascus.”

“What was really fascinating about Malta, aside from the fact that most people don’t know where it is, is the beautiful light in the middle of the Mediterranean,” says Bristow. “There’s nothing more stunning than the light coming off of limestone when you’re doing a biblical picture.”

While Malta’s beauty, both natural and man-made, and its ability to stand in for a variety of Mediterranean, North African and the Middle Eastern locations throughout the ages, has been the chief draw for productions over the years, its current wave of success is best exemplified by an upcoming a crime drama set in present-day Boston, “The Silent Hour,” starring Mark Strong and Joel Kinnaman. It filmed at eight different locations in Malta, including Valletta’s port, and on interior sets constructed at WH21, a warehouse in the nearby town of Paola that has been converted into a convention and production space. It’s safe to say that there are many better stand-ins for Beantown, more conveniently located for its creative team. So what really makes Malta stand out in today’s ultra-competitive production landscape is its incentive program, which is one of the most generous in the world.

Malta introduced a 15%-20% cash rebate in 2005, the year Steven Spielberg came to the island to shoot “Munich,” in which it doubled for Israel, Cyprus, Lebanon, Greece, Italy, Palestine and Spain. Two years later, it raised the maximum rebate to 22% for most productions.

“When I became commissioner [in December 2017], Malta was in 13th place in terms of its cash rebate,” recalls Grech. “I said, we cannot strengthen our position at that level. So I campaigned with my government and we increased [it]” to 20%-25%, with a 2% bonus for productions featuring Malta and its culture.

In January 2019, Malta increased its rebate to a base of 30% for all eligible expenditures, with two potential 5% bumps, one for features set in Malta or local use of facilities and another for maximization of local resources, bringing the maximum payout to 40%. 

“You have to meet a certain local employment threshold to get the full 40%,” says producer Winston Azzopardi, head of Malta film and TV service provider Latina Pictures, whose credits include “Napoleon” and Universal’s upcoming Dracula movie “Last Voyage of the Demeter.”

To qualify for the incentive, projects must have an overall budget of more than €200,000 ($220,000), with €100,000 ($110,000) of it spent in Malta. The incentive has no annual or per-project caps, nor is there a cap on below-the-line spend. Unlike many territories, it now also offers a rebate on above-the-line expenditures, which is capped at €1 million ($1.1 million) for smaller projects or 30% of eligible spend on larger projects up to €5 million ($5.5 million).

But “it doesn’t really just come down to the rebates,” insists Alon Michael Hattingh, who worked as a line producer on “The Silent Hour” with Joshua Cassar Gaspar, his partner in the Malta-based production company Valletta Pictures. “Our crew are world-class and our rates are competitive with the rest
of Europe.”

It also doesn’t hurt that, unlike in most other nearby competing territories, virtually everyone speaks English, which is the official language along with Maltese.

Another draw is Malta Film Studios, which has three water tanks — a six-foot deep “horizon” tank built for 1965’s “The Bedford Incident,” a 36-foot-deep concave-shaped tank constructed for 1979’s “Raise the Titanic” and a small 12-foot-deep “insert” tank added in the mid ‘90s for a Levi’s commercial. In September 2022, plans were announced to build the country’s first major soundstage on a 4,000-meter site adjacent to the deep-water tank. It will include its own 2,000-square-meter tank overlooking the Mediterranean Sea.

No matter how big Malta’s production infrastructure gets, it will remain a tiny country, less than a fourth the size of Los Angeles. And that’s a good thing.

“You can get from one end to the other relatively easily,” says veteran location manager Joseph Formosa Randon, who’s currently working on “Gladiator 2.” “There’s no changing of hotels, no hour and a half transit to get anywhere. It makes it more feasible.” 

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