Is Chile the new Argentina? The tiny country of 15 million has seen its film output nearly triple in recent years. From an abysmal average of five pics a year between 1997 and 2003, Chilean production has been steaming ahead to an estimated 12 to 14 releases this year. This month alone sees three homegrown releases: “Fuga,” “La Sagrada Familia” and “Kiltro.”

Pics shot in Chile also are hitting theaters in the U.S., most recently Lionsgate’s pan-Latino “La Mujer de mi hermano,” written by Chilean Jaime Bayley. Romantic comedy opened April 14 to a robust $1,018,750 on more than 200 screens, making it the biggest opening and widest release of a Spanish-language pic ever. Lionsgate and its partner Panamax Films are eyeing another pic shot in Chile by a Chilean helmer.

Like Argentina, a new breed of filmmaker is emerging. “This new generation of Chilean cinema is marked by young and talented directors who are exploring new areas with varied shooting techniques, genres and storylines,” says Ursula Budnik of Horamagica Prods., producer of Sebastian Campos’ seriocomic “La Sagrada Familia” (Sacred Family). Pablo Larrain’s “Fuga” (Escape) is a surreal drama that delves into the dreams of an artist-psychopath. Ernesto Diaz Espinoza’s “Kiltro” is a karate action drama with the ominous tagline, “You touch her, you die.”

Chile’s first woman president, Michelle Bachelet, has made moves that can only bode well for the local film industry. She appointed well-known thesp Paulina Urrutia, who stars in “Fuga,” as the new minister of culture. Urrutia looks willing to continue and improve initiatives introduced by the previous government.

An audiovisual law passed just last year raised an existing film fund 40% to $3 million, which may seem paltry but is vital to a sector where a decent feature film can be made for $500,000-$1 million. Digital filmmaking is prevalent.

Filmmakers also can tap three other government entities for financing in all phases: from development and pre-production to promotion and support in festivals abroad.

Chilean films have become festival darlings in recent years, with several international fests devoting sidebars to them. Most recently, Havana, Toulouse and Cartagena (Colombia) have programmed Chilean retrospectives or showcased recent output.

In March, the Miami Film Fest kicked off an exchange program, MIFF Abroad, with pics from emerging Chilean directors. The fest in turn brought a group of industry advisers to Santiago, Chile, to confer with students and Chilean filmmakers.

The Palm Springs Festival featured six pics from Chile, including Matias Bize’s erotic romp “En la cama” (In Bed) and Francisca Schweitzer and Pablo Solis’ digitally shot romantic drama “Parentesis” (Time Off).

Chile also is home to Jorge Olguin, who is prepping his third horror-fantasy pic, “Caleuche: The Call of the Sea,” with Guillermo del Toro exec producing. With a budget of $2 million, this will be among the most expensive pics to come out of Chile. Set on Chile’s mythical island of Chiloe, pic will incorporate special effects, models and CGI, which is rare in local films.

Olguin’s second pic, “Sangre Eterna,” which tracks a group of high school kids who become obsessed with a vampire role-playing game, was one of the highest grossing Latin American horror pics and has become a cult hit.

To be shot in English and Spanish with U.S.-based Chilean thesps Leonor Varela (“Blade 2”) and Santiago Cabrera (of ABC miniseries “Empire”), “Caleuche” is bound to find a wider audience worldwide.