Bulgarian studios are getting ready to profit from the increase in prices that is expected to accompany the accession of its neighbours to the European Union next year.

"We see the three years between 2004 and 2007 when Bulgaria is scheduled to join the EU as a window of opportunity," said Evgeny Michailov, general director of Boyana Studios, Bulgaria's largest production facility, "

Boyana's biggest competitors in the location services business are Prague's Barrandov Studios and to a lesser extent Budapest's Mafilm.

Prices for production services in Bulgaria are already 40% of those in the Czech Republic according to Michailov and the gap is expected to grow even wider after EU accession in June next year.

American production outfit Nu mage has already taken advantage of Bulgaria's low prices and built its own studios outside Sofia where it produces between seven and 10 low budget features a year. Wesley Snipes has just wrapped Nu Image's Nine Lives there.

Boyana, which is still state owned although it does not receive any state subsidy, has invested more than $2m in upgrading its production facilities and equipment over the past five years.

It also co-produces nearly all of the two or three domestic films that are produced in Bulgaria each year. But most its income comes from providing services for the 15 to 20 foreign productions plus a number of high end TV commercials that shoot there every year. More than 2,000 people now work in film production and while the average Bulgarian salary is only $250 a year technical specialists on film crews earn between $200 and $900 a week.

Boyana's sound stages are usually fully booked and most of the year there are five major feature films or TV series shooting there. Spartacus a $5m TV series for USA Entertainment is shooting at the studios until the end of August.

Boyana has constructed huge sets reproducing ancient Rome including the Coliseum. Michailov says he hopes to preserve the set and has already had inquiries from other productions that would like to use it after Spartacus departs.