Film producers in the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia are reaching out to their neighbours in western Europe, ahead of formally joining the European Union in 2004.

Latvia, along with Poland, became the first country in eastern Europe to join the Media Plus programme in July, as well as the first in the Baltics to join Eurimages at the beginning of January. Both Estonia and Lithuania are set to join Eurimages early next year, raising the hopes of film producers whose combined feature output is about six or seven films a year.

'With Media Plus one of the main things you get is training sessions,' said Guntis Trekteris, who heads the Riga based Kaupo Film, one of the most active production outfits in the region producing one or two features a year as well as documentaries. Trekteris, who says he has already benefited from several training programmes, has also become the first to apply to Media Plus for development funding for a new feature project titled, Golden Horses.

Kaupo Film scored a modest success earlier this year with Leaving By The Way, a debut by talented young Riga theatre director Viesturs Kairiss which was selected for competition in Karlovy Vary. Kapuo plans to develop another project The Dark Deer with the same director possibly also with the backing of Media Plus. It is also working on two more Latvian projects.

Trekteris is enthusiastic about the added co-productions Eurimages is likely to attract, 'Latvia is a small country. This year the total government money for film was about Euros1.5 m. Leaving By The Way had a budget of about Euros400,000 - 80% of which came from government funding and the rest from private sponsors.' It had 7,000 admissions at the box office - not bad for a Latvian film, where 15,000 to 20,000 is an seen as an outstanding figure for a Latvian film. By comparison, Titanic scored 100,000 admissions in Latvia.

Obviously foreign sales and co-productions are very important for us and Eurimages should make us more attractive to potential partners.' But joining the EU may be even more important than joining European funding bodies as Trekteris points out. 'Being in the EU is like being a member of a club. It will make it easier to solve problems that we experience now with things like customs and taxes. All practical things will get easier.'

Lithuania, the largest of the three countries with a population of 3.7 million has lagged behind its neighbours in promoting its film production industry. It still lacks an official film promotion body with only a single person in the Ministry of Culture assigned to look after the whole of the struggling industry.

But that looks set to change as it joins Eurimages early next year giving film producers greater access to international coproductions. The government has also passed a new cinema law earlier which filmmakers have been waiting for more than 10 years. This should pave the way to increased funding, with a percentage of money from the box office going to domestic film production.'

The law is a step in the right direction,' said Uljana Kim, who heads Vilnius production outfit Studio Uljana Kim which produced Venice Upstream competitor The Lease this year. 'The government support for cinema in 2002 was little more than Euros500,000. With the budget for an average feature at about Euros500,000 that's enough for one film. A full length feature is possible only if it's a co-production.' The Lease was co-produced together with Sharunas Bartas' Studio Kinema, the oldest and most successful studio in Lithuania.

Estonia, which joined Media Plus in September, is the smallest of the three Baltic states with a population of about 1.4 m. But due to the very active and well organized Estonian Film Foundation it is a leader in film production.

The foundation managed to secure an increase in government film funding for 2002 of 77 percent over 2001 to a total of Euros2.25m. Last year three Estonian films were released: Good Hands directed by Peeter Simm and Heart of the Bear directed by Arvo Iho, both of which went straight to number one at the box office while animated feature Ladybird Christmas was a seasonal hit.

This year two Estonian films were released: Names Engraved in Marble, produced by Taska Productions, and Agent Wild Duck, produced by Sugar Film and Exitfilm of Estonia together with Zentropa of Denmark. Names Engraved In Marble was a coproduction with neighbouring Finland and the Helsinki based MRP Matila Rohr Productions.

Finland looms large in Estonian film sharing common linguistic and cultural roots as well as being a 45 minutes shuttle flight by helicopter from Tallinn to Helsinki. The Finnkino also opened an 11 screen multiplex in Tallinn last year, the first multiplex in the former Soviet Union and doubling the number of screens in Estonia.

With the countdown to EU enlargement already underway the hopes of filmmakers from new member countries are riding high although it remains to be seen if their high expectations will be fulfilled.