In the next month or so, film festivals in Montreal, Venice and Toronto will debut hundreds of new films. Some will be world premieres; others will be the first screenings outside the country of origin; and still others will be a picture's North American or European premiere.

Many of these films will arrive with hefty promotional budgets either supplied by the producers or some cultural or industrial incentive or both.

The irony of sorts is that the majority of movies with a lot of money to spend on a splashy debut and wining and dining the press already have distribution in place.

In fact, films that have all their ducks in a row are unlikely to be playing the upcoming trio of events or Cannes or Berlin unless they were assured the considerable time, effort and money involved in such an undertaking had a potential and demonstrable upside.

Festival fantasy versus reality

The romantic notion of the film festival is one of a celebration of cinema, in which the heart of a little movie gem beats somewhere in the dark recess of the programming.

It's not dissimilar to the Busby Berkeley dictum, "You're going out a youngster, but you've got to come back a star," that's barked at the ingenue when the headliner breaks her leg on opening night.

It's not as easy as you may imagine to come up with examples of films that have genuinely been discovered at one of the high-profile festivals in the past two decades (there are secondary events specialising in new directors that do this better). But it does happen, despite an infrastructure that militates against such non-orchestrated surprises.

One has to appreciate both the considerable cost of film production on the one hand and the hefty budgets to put on an event like Cannes or Toronto on the other. The spotlight is blinding, the risks enormous and the need to stir up excitement vital to the very existence of both factions. It would be foolhardy to trust to providence that the films would speak for themselves.

The industry certainly understands the quandary that confronts festivals and goes to great lengths to ensure the creator and stars of a movie are present for their Kodak moment.

They will happily time the announcement of an acquisition with a premiere, or even better, wait to spring a deal that required weeks of negotiations to coincide with the thunderous applause, as if both were the result of happenstance.

This is after all an industry steeped in mythology and as another movie classic put it so well, it's better to "print the legend".

Without doing strict accounting, one has to understand that a successful festival launch is a sound financial investment. The cost of flying in talent and putting on a party is easily offset by the value of a few seconds of premiere footage or a front-page photo in the major media outlets. Being at an event attended by a healthy delegation of international press is a lot tidier than getting on the company jet and making a series of pit stops to get the word out.

As to that murmur of the heart, it will be found by the few, the diligent. But even these happy accidents have a predictable quality.

They occur by consensus and in recent years the most earnest cinematic miners can be found, nose buried in the festival catalogue in search of the next little nugget from South Korea or Romania.

One has to wonder what the government functionary in Mussolini's Italy had on his mind when he concocted the first cinema showcase and competition. And, what the government was thinking when it gave the thumbs up to proceed.

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