Award-winning screenwriter’s advice to Malta’s film sector: ‘sell abroad’

John Yorke says Malta should look at countries like Ireland for inspiration

For BAFTA and Golden Globe award-winning screenwriter John Yorke, if Malta wants to get serious about its homegrown film industry, it should aim abroad.

“The question for any government looking to expand their film industry is how to finance telling their own stories,” he said.

“If you’re looking to tell stories about Malta, you’ve got to ask who you sell those stories to, and you’re going to be limited in budget unless you can reach a wider audience. So, you have to sell abroad.”

Encouraging Malta to turn its small size to its advantage, the award-winning writer and producer pointed to Ireland as a good example of how smaller countries can be successful in the film industry, noting its local cinema scene was now “regularly” winning Oscars.

“They’ve invested very heavily in production infrastructure and local voices and have stories that have both a specific local angle and travel well,” he explained. “It’s having the people who have the vision and foresight to see what those stories are.”

Yorke was speaking to Times of Malta from his home in London ahead of a visit to the country later this month, when he will address members of the Malta Producers’ Association (MPA).

During his stay in Malta, Yorke will give a keynote speech and run workshops as part of the association’s Future Visions event.

“Your locations and technical facilities are brilliant, but what I think they [the MPA] are expecting me to talk about is why Malta is telling other people’s stories at the moment,” he said of his upcoming visit.

But this won’t be Yorke’s first trip to Malta, having first visited the country in 1976 with his mother, who had struck up a friendship with the wife of the last Royal Navy captain to be stationed in Malta.

Describing the country as “fascinating”, Yorke thinks Malta’s complex history — one interwoven with the stories of other nations — presents both an opportunity and a challenge.

“I think that [relationship with other countries] does something to a place. But at the same time, when those powers go, a country has to find its own stories,” he said.

And telling stories is something Yorke is an expert in as former head of Channel4 Drama, controller of BBC Drama Production and managing director of Company Pictures, which produced hit series such as The White Queen and Shameless.

During his time at the BBC, he ran the corporation’s flagship television soap Eastenders, a project he described as one of his favourites and “like carrying a Ming vase across the floor” while trying not to drop it.

“There’s nothing quite like running a show that it feels like everyone in the country is watching… a shared culture is really important,” he said.

After years of making films, Yorke now focuses more on commissioning new works and educating the next generation of filmmakers and has been invited by the MPA to share his insights with the local scene.

So, what advice would he give to Malta’s filmmakers seeking to reach new audiences?

“Always start with finding out the stories you want to tell — what is there about your life you think is universal,” he said. “It boils down to who your audience is. And the vast majority of people tend to watch films featuring people like themselves.”

And this is an area Yorke thinks is ripe for growth in Malta, a country backed up by an “amazing film industry which services loads of other countries around the world.”

Malta’s good reputation 

Describing international opinion of Malta’s film sector as “very high,” the industry guru likened its appeal to that of Hollywood in the 1920s, blessed with year-round sunshine and versatile sites for filming.

Recalling how he used to regularly film in New Zealand, especially for shoots recreating the UK, Yorke explained how filmmakers look for places “that can offer different options, and Malta really seems to do that.”

But how much of Malta’s popularity as a filming location is down to its locations and facilities, and how much is down to the rebate — one characterised as extremely generous by industry insiders — it offers filmmakers?

Admitting that rebates are a “big part” of what attracts filmmakers to a country, Yorke explained it was normal for those in the industry to share knowledge about where to make films “most effectively and the most cheaply.”

And while stressing this was not particular just to Malta, with other countries such as Ireland and England also offering “really attractive terms” to filmmakers, he acknowledged the country’s rebate was well-known internationally.

But Yorke also thinks Malta’s popularity is in part due to a huge growth internationally in filming on location and in exotic locations, pointing to projects such as Game of Thrones for raising the island’s profile.

Learning the craft

Yorke honed his skills while working at the BBC — a position he landed after writing a letter to the corporation shortly after graduating from university telling it he would do any job should they give him a chance. 

But with competition for jobs now at record levels, Yorke recognises such opportunities are far more difficult to come by these days: “It’s mad how easy it was to get a job in those days.” 

So, what advice would he give young screenwriters looking to develop their skills?

“It might seem like a brutal way to think about it but ask yourself how you’re going to improve someone’s business in a way that will allow them to make more profit than before,” he said.

Stressing the importance of dedication to one’s career, Yorke said he always kept up to date with new theatre productions and spent hours studying television programmes to figure out what made the successful ones special — a process he would strongly recommend to younger writers.

“Just work harder than anyone else. You’ve got to be better than all the others and you need to have a critical appreciation of what works, and what sells,” he emphasised.

“Storytelling is the root of all power, and power comes from the ability to communicate effectively.”

John Yorke will appear at the MPA Future Visions event later this month. To register, click here.

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