The Ecuadorian film biz is on the upswing, punctuated by recent triumphs on the festival circuit and a boost in production.

Spurring growth is the tripling of the national film fund from its original amount of $700,000 in 2007 to its current $2.4 million. When the fund grew to $1.1 million last year, 13 pics — narrative and documentaries — bowed on local screens. Some 17 to 20 pics, mainly fiction, are expected to be released this year.

“I’m so surprised at the high numbers; five years ago this would have been unthinkable,” says Juan Manuel Cueva, who heads the delegation of Ecuadorian producers to Cannes as director of the National Film Institute (CnCine).

Considering that when CnCine was created in 2006, Equador produced barely one film a year at best and one every four years prior to 1999, Manuel Cueva’s observation could be considered an understatement.

The newly fortified fund can be tapped for everything from script development and research to post production, distribution and marketing. Recently, local producers of TV movies and those with at least 30% minority participation in co-productions have also been allowed to apply. CnCine also has doubled the call for applications to twice a year. The first round this spring saw 172 submissions. The next window occurs in summer, between June 9 and July 14.

Thanks to a communications law passed some six months ago, local television networks are required to allot 10% of their annual programming to homegrown pics. National networks reaching at least 500,000 households are obliged to invest 5% of their annual income to local indie production.

While there have been more misses than hits, some potential gems are emerging. Tito Molina’s moving portrayal of an aging, deaf woman, “Silence in Dreamland” (Silencio en la tierra de los suenos), which he shot for just $200,000, won a special mention in the Guadalajara Intl. Film Festival’s Iberoamerican competition.

Docus — an established tradition in Ecuador perhaps because of its well-known nonfiction showcase, EDOC festival, now on its 13th edition, and the relative inexpensiveness of the format — have grown further in strength. Dario Aguirre’s autobiographical “El Grill de Cesar” and Lisandra Rivera and Manolo Sarmiento’s account of a traumatic event in Ecuador’s political history, “La muerte de Jaime Roldos,” garnered the best docu kudo at the Toulouse Latino fest.

Further testament to growth was Javier Andrade’s family saga “The Porcelain Horse” (Mejor no hablar de ciertas cosas), which became the first Ecuadorian entry for foreign-language consideration by the Oscars in nine years and only the third in the history of Ecuadorian cinema. It was sold by FiGa Films.

Private and public efforts to improve film education are also under way. In November, the third Festival de Cine La Orquidea, held in the mountain city of Cuenca, launched its inaugural screenwriting lab for the Andean region in conjunction with Carnaval Cine, founded last year by Ecuador’s best-known helmer Sebastian Cordero, producer Arturo Yepez and actor-director Andres Crespo, as well as Mexican producer Bertha Navarro.

“Our plans include the formation of a marketing and distribution workshop in August,” Yepez says.

Meanwhile, Ecuador President Rafael Correa announced plans in March to build a film school at the new Arts U. in Guayaquil.

With production levels up, the next challenges lie in sales, distribution, exhibition and the box office.

Since there are only three major exhibitors, dominated by Supercines, which has more than a 60% market share, many of Ecuador’s filmmakers have opted to self-distribute. However, an agreement encouraging the release of homegrown product among the producers association, led by Yepez, distributors and exhibitors may change that.

Entretenimiento del Pacifico, which releases Buena Vista/Disney films, will distribute Cordero’s upcoming “Sin muertos no hay carnaval,” which is in pre-production.

“We used to be the envy of our neighboring countries when the few films released would get an average of 80,000 admissions each; but now that we’re producing more options, that audience is fragmenting and our per-film average audience is 15,000 to 20,000 admissions,” says actor-director Anahi Hoeneisen.

Compounding matters is the fact that Ecuador has a mere 264 screens and only 21 of its 221 territories have cinemas, per Cueva. For the first time, Ecuadorian pics are not only competing with Hollywood fare but among themselves.