The best was saved for last at the 65th Venice film festival. Darren Aronofsky's Golden Lion-winner The Wrestler was the final film to screen while artistic director Marco Mueller snagged the headlines with the revelation he intends to push back the start of future Venices - to potentially overlap with the Toronto International Film Festival (Tiff).

Mueller confirms next year's event will open later, on September 2. More significantly, he says the shift to the first Wednesday in September will be a permanent one.

That means that, while the next two years will not see a significant change from previous years in the Venice and Toronto axis, the festivals could effectively overlap in 2011, with Venice starting on Wednesday September 7, 2011, and Toronto on Thursday, September 8, 2011. The next year, 2012, will be similar with start dates of September 5 and 6 respectively.

It is a statement of intent from Mueller. Venice is typically victim of an industry exodus to Toronto after the first few days.

This year, Mueller attempted to stem the tide and surprise festival-goers by backloading the line-up with the three big US titles in competition: Jonathan Demme's Rachel Getting Married and Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker as well as The Wrestler.

'We have to prove we can exist - face down the competition in the most relaxed way, knowing the (international marketplace) understands the importance of a Venice world premiere,' Muller explains.

There were some notable industry absentees in Venice this year. Harvey Weinstein did not attend: he was on set for an upcoming film and couldn't make it, according to a representative of The Weinstein Company. Sales agent Fortissimo was not in attendance either, in spite of a programme rich in the kind of titles the company has traditionally handled.

Leading PR company DDA likewise bypassed the Lido. 'All our films are in Toronto,' a company spokesman said, explaining its absence in a year when the programme was shorter than usual on star-driven English-language titles.

Next year, financing will be available to invite more North American buyers to the Lido. Muller says he is already in negotiation with Venice's 'natural' partners on the 2009 programme.

The case for attending

Familiar grumbles were heard about the expense of being on the Lido, the lack of a formal market, and the relative paucity of business that is done. However, many of those who did travel to Venice were able to make a compelling case for being there.

'The Coen brothers are much loved filmmakers. Being in Venice (with Burn After Reading), having the opening night slot, is all about celebrating them,' says Alison Thompson, president, international sales and distribution at Focus Features International which is handling the film. She points out Venice is an excellent platform for launching a film that is shortly to be released in the US and will be rolled out internationally in the near future.

'It is a great opportunity to present the film for the first time in Europe with most of the talent there... and to promote the film for our European distributors.'

The value of Venice as a showcase is also emphasised by Wild Bunch's Vincent Maraval. Wild Bunch arrived on the Lido with half a dozen films in official selection, among them Hayao Miyazaki's Ponyo On The Cliff By The Sea, Fabrice Du Welz's Vinyan and The Wrestler.

'Every time we have a film in Venice, we do some business,' says Maraval. On the eve of the festival, Wild Bunch closed an Italian deal with Lucky Red for Ponyo. Venice's competition, says Maraval, has a stature its rivals can't match. 'For me, Venice has never been a major market. We don't sell future projects but we sell what we screen.'

Promotion, not deal-making

For titles such as The Wrestler which are sold almost everywhere, Maraval suggests, a slot in Venice's competition is a badge of quality. (Maraval went on to seal the US deal for The Wrestler with Fox Searchlight at Toronto.)

'If you tell a Japanese or German distributor a film is going to Toronto, he doesn't give a shit,' Maraval claims. 'That is not any help for the promotion of the film, whereas Venice is covered by the press all over Europe and Asia. It is important for the film to have that kind of quality label. It's not only to sell - it's about the promotion of the film.'

Maraval is a firm champion of Muller's programming policies, which he compares favourably to those of other A-list festivals.

'Marco always defended our cinema with our point of view,' he says. 'He is one of the festival directors who talks the most with international sales agents and distributors. When you compare it to Berlin, Venice has a very good level.'

Recent Venice festivals have seen the launch of future Oscar nominees and winners including Good Night, And Good Luck and Brokeback Mountain.

Some were therefore a little perplexed by Mueller's low-key programming policy this year and suggested Venice was beginning to seem more and more like Locarno or Rotterdam - festivals that discover new arthouse talents but don't necessarily highlight movies that can travel widely in the international market.

On the other hand, films such as Guillermo Arriaga's The Burning Plain - for which Charlize Theron attended the festival in the first weekend - garnered a huge amount of attention because there were so few other big movies around.

The distributors who were on the Lido over the last fortnight were in phlegmatic mood about what Venice had to offer. Dutch buyer Pim Hermeling (who is going into business with Wild Bunch in Benelux) pointed out that buyers who come to Venice have an advantage over those who stay away - they get to see the films first.

'On the market side, it's quiet,' he says. 'I'm not here to buy because I knew upfront that it would be not as strong a market as it used to be. But what I like here is that you can see all the movies.

'The buyers that are here - and there are not many buyers - are all here to see the movies. The sales agents want to wait until Toronto (to close deals) and so you can't do any business. Although Venice is rather expensive, it is a great place to be.'

Pick of the arthouse fare

Indeed, Venice may have been leaner than usual on high-profile star-driven films but there were some pickings for smaller distributors in search of arthouse fare. Among the best-liked films in Venice were such titles as Barmak Akram's Kabuli Kid (sold by Wild Bunch), Claire Denis' 35 Rhums (sold by Elle Driver), Marco Bechis' Birdwatchers and Matt Tyrnauer's Valentino - The Last Emperor (both sold by Celluloid Dreams.)

In one of the few deals actually closed during the Mostra, voracious new UK distributor New Wave Films picked up 35 Rhums. 'Some years, Venice can be totally useless for us,' says New Wave's Robert Beeson. 'This year, because there wasn't so much high-profile stuff, in theory it was a better festival for us. In practice, there were a lot of disappointing films but in the end we got the movie we thought was the best of all the ones we saw.'

Additional reporting by Fionnuala Halligan