Selling non-English-language films into overseas markets is never easy these days, especially now that DVD is on the wane. But a Screen-sponsored panel at Filmart in Hong Kong last month offered a more optimistic look at new business models for world cinema that are emerging in some territories and platforms.

Ostensibly addressing the sales of Asian cinema into the US and international markets, but effectively encompassing all indigenous product, the panel showed that the appetite for world cinema is still strong, but that the means of delivering it to audiences is changing.

In North America, for example, the simultaneous theatrical and video-on-demand (VoD) release programmes pioneered by IFC Entertainment and Magnolia/HDNet have made them both key buyers for any seller. IFC’s vice-president of acquisition and co-production, Arianna Bocco, spearheads the acquisition of about 25 films a year for the theatrical/VoD initiative which is available in some 50 million US homes. VoD can attract upscale audiences who don’t traditionally go to theatres or who aren’t served in their town by an arthouse cinema, and the theatrical release fuels reviews and publicity which draws viewers to both platforms.

IFC also buys another 75 films a year for straight-to-VoD release and Bocco said that the company is working on new publicity initiatives to attract viewers without the benefits derived from theatrical exposure.

Regent Releasing is another US distributor which has entered the world-cinema niche aggressively in the last year with pickups such as Departures, Tokyo Sonata and The Song Of Sparrows. Regent is part of TV company here! which specialises in on-demand programming, and there are plans in the works to brand the international films as part of a pay-TV service.

Branding is the key in all of these examples. Like The Film Movement which releases films in theatres but has built up a loyal membership base with access to its films on DVD, the idea is to become a “club” for good world cinema. The consumer is being trained to identify with the distributor as a home for films which suit them.

Indeed, while traditional companies such as Sony Pictures Classics in the US continue to cherry pick foreign-language titles and focus on theatrical release, the new distributors are looking at a greater volume of titles and offering the specialised-film fan a wide selection of good subtitled films in theatre and in home.

Specialised distributors have always, of course, been curators of taste. While they can’t afford to be as experimental as festival programmers, they sift through hundreds of titles to bring to their country the best of the bunch. The only difference now is that the theatrical platform might not be pre-eminent any more, especially in the US where column inches devoted to these films and meaningful criticism are being dramatically downsized.

Also on the panel was Adam Dornbusch, acquisitions chief for online distribution service, which again is trying to foster a community of film lovers while offering thousands of new and library titles from around the world. The films might not be efficiently marketed on a per-title basis, but the site makes effective use of sponsorship and advertising sales, and user numbers are growing. Sales agents and producers are starting to see revenue streams from Jaman and other sites like it such as The Auteurs.

For film-makers who still scoff at the notion of their precious artistic visions going straight to VoD, computer screen or, God forbid, an iPod (with very small subtitles indeed!), the message is simple: distribution and audience patterns are changing fast and the theatrical option might not be available to you outside your home country. For most foreign films, the festival circuit itself is becoming their main avenue of global theatrical exposure and it’s no wonder that sales agents regularly charge fees to dispatch prints to festivals around the world.

Don’t get me wrong. I am a purist too, and relish the chance to see a film on the big screen as it was intended, but in the new reality of world cinema, the first run could well be on the small screen.