On the eve of this year's 61st Locarno International Film Festival (August 6-16), the organisers are in bullish mood. Festival director Frederic Maire is clearly delighted to secure Julian Jarrold's Evelyn Waugh adaptation Brideshead Revisited as the festival's opening film.

'It's a very strong film, which looks really classical but is also very modern,' says Maire of the film, which will receive its international premiere in the city's vast, open-air Piazza Grande.

Maire contends the industry now appreciates just what the festival has to offer. 'Producers, directors and world sales agents really understand what we're trying to do,' he says. 'They know Locarno is a discovery festival, which presents new directors and new ways of telling stories.'

For industry and public alike the Piazza Grande screenings, where Locarno's picturesque old-town square is transformed into a vast open-air cinema, are the main reason for attending the Swiss festival.

'For everybody, for actors and directors, it's a once-in-a-lifetime experience to have 10,000 people watching your movie,' enthuses Dirk Schuerhoff, managing director of German sales agent Beta Cinema, of the excitement generated by a screening in the Piazza.

Having enjoyed 'a very nice experience' with The Lives Of Others (which sold all round the world and won the foreign-language Oscar in the year following its 2006 Locarno premiere), Beta is this year presenting the epic mountaineering movie North Face in the Piazza.

'It's a historic festival of importance and it's an incredible place to show films, unrivalled in fact elsewhere,' says UK producer Jeremy Thomas, who is a firm champion of Locarno and whose sales outfit HanWay Films is handling Brideshead Revisited.

However, take the Piazza Grande out of the equation and what does Locarno offer to distributors and sales agents'

The challenge that has always faced Locarno is to generate the same excitement felt in the Piazza across the other parts of the programme.

The festival's competition is arthouse-oriented and tends to showcase films from new directors (however the jury features heavyweight directors, including Dani Levy, Goran Paskaljevic and Paolo Sorrentino this year). And not every Golden Leopard winner makes much impact in the international marketplace. Recent winners include Masahiro Kobayashi's The Rebirth last year and Andrea Staka's Fraeulein in 2006.

'It's true there are not as many buyers as in, say, Toronto, Cannes or Berlin, but there are still important buyers (in Locarno),' says Schuerhoff.

Locarno is a place where sales agents and distributors come in search of new projects that may have slipped under their rivals' radars. 'For us, (Locarno) is important because there are a lot of films that are world premieres. We can pick up films for world sales,' says Jeff Nuyts, of Italian sales outfit Intramovies which has picked up Mar Nero on the eve of the festival.

'OK, there are not that many buyers but there are some good buyers and some good contacts. If the film is hot, it sells,' he adds.

Maire notes the festival is continuing to grow. After several years in which Locarno's hotels were closing down and accommodation was at a premium, there are now new hotels being built. The festival runs on a budget of around $11m, of which 45% is public funding, 35% is private sponsors and the rest is generated through admissions - this compares to Edinburgh's annual budget of $3.8m (£1.9m) and Karlovy Vary's $8.6m (EUR5.5m).

'We definitely need more. It's not a huge figure in relation to other festivals and in terms of the number of visitors we have,' Maire says, adding that 25% of the budget is reserved for constructing and dismounting the many hi-tech temporary screening venues that spring up in the town during the event. The festival is also at the mercy of the elements. When a Piazza screening is rained off, Locarno is hit in the pocket.

A clear calendar

Nadia Dresti, who runs Locarno's industry office, suggests this year's festival has benefitted from the decision by the Edinburgh International Film Festival to move earlier into the summer, from August to June. More UK sellers, buyers and press than in previous years are now expected to attend Locarno and companies such as HanWay, The Works, Fandango Portobello and Artificial Eye will all attend.

However, Locarno remains an event with a strong European bias, dominated by buyers and sellers from the Swiss, Italian, French and German film industries.

Historically, US buyers have not been so evident. Nonetheless, Dresti points out that outfits such as IFC Films, The Weinstein Company and Eleven Arts are expected this year. Meanwhile, the Open Doors co-production forum will facilitate meetings between new Latin American film-makers and European producers while showcasing some of the best Latin American work.

Among the buyers due in town for the first time this year are Bac Films, Elle Driver and Roissy from France, Germany's Majestic, Italy's Delta, Cinemavault from Canada and Film Messenger from South Korea.

Dresti is expecting 180-200 international buyers. However, she points out Locarno (a resort town with limited hotels and screening capacity) simply does not lend itself to turning into a huge Cannes or Berlin-style market.

Maire is set to step down as artistic director after the 2010 edition to take up a new job as director of the Swiss Film Archive in November 2009. Inevitably, his decision to leave Locarno earlier than expected has prompted uncertainty as well as speculation as to who may succeed him.

Maire concedes the timing of the announcement was not perfect but he will be in charge of next year's festival (his fourth) and believes his slow exit will enable Locarno to ensure a smooth succession.

In the meantime, his focus is on this year's edition.

Prestigious guests already confirmed include US producer Christine Vachon, the recipient of the festival's Raimondo Rezzonico prize for best producer; Anjelica Huston, who will be picking up the Excellence Award; Nanni Moretti, who is the subject of a career retrospective; Israeli film-maker Amos Gitai, this year's Leopard of Honour winner; and French novelist Michel Houellebecq who will be in town to present his directorial debut, an adaptation of his novel The Possibility Of An Island, which is screening in the experimental Play Forward section.