The one that got away is a favourite subject at every film festival. Selectors put their necks on the line at each event, picking their favourites for competition and it's only human to reward their efforts with invective about the ones they missed.

One of the joys of the season for Screen is to take calls about those spurned by festivals. There's normally a theory about the reason for being overlooked: personal animosity, prejudice, narrow nationalism. And when a reject goes on to glory at other festivals, international awards or, best of all, the box office, the schadenfreude reaches Cecil B DeMille proportions.

The argument that the selectors are not being objective is hard to dispute. A festival is a peculiar, esoteric and often downright weird event inhabiting some ethereal space between the film industry and the world of politics. And thank God for that.

Screen has long argued for a more coherent and transparent independent industry that will allow it to reach its potential as a global business. But the festivals - and more specifically the competitions - make a unique contribution to the industry that should be celebrated.

Festival selections are not the pop charts, they are not judged by how many of their picks make it at the box office or win Oscars. They are utterly subjective, and so they should be.

There's a kind of alchemy to the film business in its search for the film recipe that will always succeed. The current trend for remakes, adaptations and sequels is part of that search for a magic formula. Festivals serve to do the opposite - they are panning for gold. Festivals are not about value for money, they do not fall for lucre's sordid charm - they are about cinema as something with which you fall in love.

What that means is that the selectors have a huge amount of personal power that is utterly fallible. They may have impeccable good taste but they are prone to the same mood swings as the rest of us. That subjective response is the lifeblood of film. Its ability to elicit a powerful emotional reaction is what sets it apart from other media.

The festival can argue that its imperative goes beyond commerce. A rejected film that goes on to make a packet is not necessarily a failure of the festival. That's what the market is for.

But the increasing commercial importance of the festival is the reason the temperature has been rising so dramatically over the inclusion or exclusion of a film. Festivals have acquired a make-or-break role in an expanding international film market. Just mentioning that a film has been rejected can have an impact on its prospects.

Screening on the festival circuit itself represents an entire lifespan for a certain kind of film - a form of distribution to a sizeable niche. But more importantly it offers a route to market that would otherwise have been all but impossible. Distribution beyond one's home borders, particularly for non-English language film, often requires a lift that can only be provided by a festival.

It's not foolproof, of course. There's almost a badge of honour in having been rejected by selectors for a certain kind of film. Like Decca turning away The Beatles, there are films we can all cite (even if occasionally incorrectly) as the rejects that made good.

Over the next few years, there may be effective ways of reaching customers without the dubious pleasure of flying to markets. Until then, the festival selection will be feverishly pored over by film-makers and sales companies. And the selectors will acquire enormous power as eminences grises whose genius and fallibility will be there for us all to debate for years to come.