FOR SALE - The world-renowned film water tanks
The internationally acclaimed water tanks in Malta, formerly managed by Mediterranean Film Studios, are up for sale. The property was taken over by the Maltese government 14 months ago following a dispute over unpaid ground rent which involved a lengthy court case.
The water film facility was built back in 1964 when a British special effects wizard Benjamin Hole experienced difficulties filming out at sea on the Spanish coast when a storm brewed. With another water-based film coming his way he managed to persuade Malta, then still under British rule, to subsidise a tank build along the island's coast. Jim was to create the world’s first special effects water tank. It also became unique for its natural horizon as it is built against the open skies and sea. This avoids the requirement of painted backgrounds or, in today’s age, green-screens.
What began as a facility with one large 300 x 400 foot tank was later to develop into a second massive tank built in 1979 for Raise the Titanic. Concave shaped and 36 feet deep, it is ideal for underwater filming. A third smaller tank was built in 1997 for the award-winning Levis commercial Mermaid. With its glassed camera room and filtration system, this smaller tank is mainly used for closer shots. Scores of world-renowned filmmakers have worked in these tanks including Ridley Scott (White Squall) and Dino De Laurentiis (U-571).
Before the massive Titanic tank was built in Mexico’s Baja, Scott publicly described the main tank as the “best water facility I know of”. He went on to describe it as almost perfect, if only the tank was facing more east so filmmakers maximise their control and use over the natural light. For some years the new Mexico-based tank robbed Malta from a spade of Hollywood productions such as Pirates of the Caribbean and Pearl Harbour. But the Maltese tanks were quick to regain some dominance over water SFX when the Mexican drug cartel's violence began to increase in Baja, compelling 20th Century Fox to sell its tank facility in 2007. Both filmmakers and insurance companies alike became extremely cautious of filming in the region. Over the last decades other tanks have sprung up around the world, most notably a recent one built in the Dominican Republic by the renowned Pinewood Studios Group.
Fortunately Malta’s facility managed to retain its edge because of its comprehensive special effects and versatile uses, and not least because of its labour's experience which spans over half a century in both tank effects and set building. The experience alone quickly instilled confidence among international filmmakers. Moreover, the island’s diverse looks often contributed towards the “pull factor” for those productions also seeking locations. Malta has easily doubled for several countries including the Middle East, Central Europe, Northern Africa, Italy and Mediterranean islands.
At Malta's water facility, filmmakers will not enjoy comfy seats in a viewing theatre that had once upon a time existed before being discarded two decades ago. Prop and equipment stores were also discarded back then as focus (and investment) was moved to the creation of a failed movie park. But one thing filmmakers could always be assured of was that of achieving top screen production value from the tanks and their effects. This asset, coupled with excellent set builds – most commonly ships, boats and scaled models - have kept filmmakers coming to Malta till this very day.
Today the world famous water facility looks its age, a mature one at that but also one that can do with an injection of investment, a solid business plan and professional management. Now called Malta Film Studios (and previously Mediterranean Film Studios), producers are often surprised to discover there are no studios or sound stages. Warehouses spread around the island are used as makeshift studios but not without limitations. Moreover, the specialised and unique craftsmanship for the rapid building of ship sets and scaled models is fast decreasing as skills are not being transferred fast enough. Tank SFX expertise has also decreased as many old-timers have reached retirement age. When last year government landed itself with this property the Malta Film Commission assumed a caretaker’s role, not an easy challenge when considering the commission itself was going through a vital and major overhaul and rebranding process after taking over from the previous commissioner. But there is no dispute that no film commission should be running a commercial enterprise.
The government has issued an Expression of Interest (EOI) calling for proposals for the running of the new facility. Rightly so it is not merely interested in simply the highest bidder. It wants to ensure a solid business plan is in place to preserve the tanks and the industry as a whole since the tanks directly and indirectly generate a minimum of 45-50% of the local film servicing business. In monetary terms they create a significant multiplier effect and substantial contribution to the country’s economy. So for this reason government prefers some form of “public-private partnership”.
The counter-argument is that the past five decades have demonstrated clearly that companies and businesses are better off being run privately than by government. This is especially the case with the Malta Film Studios (MFS) because of the very specialised and complex nature of the film industry. The tanks are far more than a simple piece of real estate.
However equally important are the terms and conditions by which government assets are handed over to the private sector, and progress with national assets must be monitored.
Potential hurdles and benefits
The EOI says the concession would be for ten years. This short term may deter investors with a serious business plan and who wish to take a long-term plunge. Maintaining a salty water-based facility with all its pumps and machinery, constructing a professional sound stage (a wise requisite of the call), building up a young workforce with proper training and implementing skill transfers from experts and old-timers, and turning around a facility into a sustainable and rewarding enterprise will take at least five to seven years before making a profit. With minimal optimism the government will be open to negotiation and be flexible on all levels of its call. Moreover a partnership with the government, if including subsidies in some form or manner, such as free ground rent and the like, can help soften the ride for serious investors. In the past the lack of subsidies in a volatile industry was a core reason cited by small businessmen for not investing in MFS.
The success of the world famous water tanks goes hand in hand with the growth of local resources and infrastructure in the film servicing industry. This in turn relies on smart policy making. Government hopes to formulate and implement Malta's first ever National Film Policy, announced last March. Such a policy can lead to a sustainable industry and a solid future for filmmakers and service providers.
Malcolm Scerri-Ferrante is the Managing Director/Production Executive of The Producer's Creative Partnership.
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