The Intl. Film Festival of Panama, whose third edition runs April 3-9, is amping up. Buildup to the event is going step by step in sync with a rapidly growing Panama film industry.

The fest bowed in 2012, just after the approval of a film law that boosted national movie production and created tax rebates, in part to lure international shoots.

Aimed as a Panamanian pic springboard, and to offer cinemagoers films distinct from U.S. majors’ movies, the event launched with solid institutional support, led by the Ministry of Commerce and Industry and the Panama Film Commission. “For many years, there was little interest in creating a local production sector, but a recent law and production fund, driven by a small group of committed film professionals, has given a boost to Panamanian filmmakers,” says IHS Screen Digest’s David Hancock.

“Before 2013, Panama used to produce about one film a year; in 2014, adding films and docu features, there are eight titles shooting,” says producer Arianne Benedetti, head of Panama’s Film Commission. “It is a big step-up for us.”

“The festival helps to highlight Central America, which, in film terms, has traditionally been a little bit caught between Mexico and Colombia,” says Madrid-based Simon de Santiago, producer of Javier Ruiz Caldera’s “Ghost Graduation,” winner of the Ibero-American film audience award last year. “It is interesting for discovering new talent there.”

“It is rapidly becoming a benchmark for Central America, not only for its great film programming but also the support of government agencies, which aids the talent that wants to travel to the region,” says Central American film distributor Cynthia Wiesner, at Puerto Rico-based Wiesner Distribution,

Directed by Panamanian filmmaker Pituka Ortega Heilbron and programmed by Diana Sanchez, Toronto Film Festival’s Ibero-American cinema programmer, the Panama fest tapped from the get-go into local auds’ fervor for movies worldwide.

Upcoming edition will see significantly larger industry heft, thanks to the Latin-American co-production market known as Meets, running April 7-9.

Meets will showcase five Panamanian feature projects and seven from the rest of Latin America, all fiction features in advanced development. A four-person industry jury will choose a $25,000 cash prize winner.

“What Meets brings to the table is an excellent line-up of attendees who have co-produced, distributed or sold Latin American films during the last year, ensuring these 12 projects will take some business home,” says Benedetti, also Meets director.

Growth plans for Panama’s film industry centerpiece are ambitious. In 2015, the forum will increase to 15 the number of selected projects, aimed at placing a bigger focus on Central American filmmakers. It will also create a film in progress section, and build still more until it has a full film market, Benedetti says.

“In the mid-term, our plan is to turn it into the most important market showing Latin-American film projects to the world,” she adds.

The forum is establishing strong links with other international film events in the region.

For example, Meets will select one film project from the upcoming 10th Ibero-American co-production meeting at Mexico’s Guadalajara Festival. As well, Meets’ selected projects will be announced at mid-March’s Miami Film Festival.

Parallel to the Panama Festival, the first Platino Ibero-American Film Awards will take place April 5 at Panama City’s Teatro Anayansi, bringing a platoon of high-profile Latino producers and creative talent to Panama.

Organized by Spanish rights collection society Egeda and Fipca, the Ibero-American Federation of Film and Audiovisual Producers, the Platino Awards will probably celebrate a second edition in Panama before travelling every year around the region, Benedetti says.

“Ibero-American cinema’s main challenge is its lack of a star system,” she adds. “The awards would start to create awareness of our filmmakers and boost our industry.”