It feels like it has got a bit out of control. It feels like there are a lot of useless festivals,' lamented a US sales agent recently. It is hard not to sympathise. On the face of it, the festival calendar seems wildly overloaded.

In early autumn, distributors, sales agents, producers, publicists and press travelled to Toronto. Several had already been to Venice. Some were going on to San Sebastian, New York, Pusan or Tokyo. Others would also be going to Rome or London. Then, at the end of October, the American Film Market in Los Angeles looms.

The nagging question was where to go and why, and how long to stay'

'There are too many festivals in the fall, that's for sure. I could be travelling from the end of August through November. If I had to pick one during this time, it would be Toronto,' says Alexandra Rossi, New Line Cinema's vice-president of European and Latin American acquisitions and co-productions.

Some were also asking just how easily acclaim at a festival can be turned into commercial success. Paul Webster, producer of both Atonement, which opened Venice, and David Cronenberg's Eastern Promises (which opens the London Film Festival following its premiere in Toronto) says the London slot is an excellent platform for the UK release, which follows 10 days later.

However, Webster strikes a note of caution. 'The response you get at a film festival has to be taken with a very large pinch of salt when you talk about a commercial release.'

Each festival makes a compelling argument about why it is an important industry stop. Funds are established, industry offices created and production markets set up. Rome, now in its second year, has both a co-production initiative, New Cinema Market (NCM) and a mini-market, The Business Street. As Rome's artistic director and the head of NCM Teresa Cavina points out, with the disappearance of the autumn market Mifed in Milan, there are no European markets between Cannes and Berlin. Rome is therefore filling a gap.

'Our reason to exist on the industry side is not to take the place of Mifed but to provide the industry with a meeting place where people can meet to discuss films,' she suggests.

London has set up its own Production Finance Market, to be held for the first time during this year's festival. Meanwhile, Pusan in South Korea has the Pusan Promotion Plan (PPP).

On Venice's Lido this year, there was the usual mass exodus at the end of the first week as industry delegates decamped to Canada. 'It is very hard to withstand the last four days of the (Venice) festival with a film,' says Pathe's managing director Francois Ivernel. 'That is a big problem. Venice should do something about it - or Toronto. It shouldn't overlap in the way it does. You don't want to have a new film in the last part of the (Venice) festival.'

There may be some limited 'wriggle room' in the calendar but as Focus' CEO James Schamus points out, if Toronto moved a few days later, it would begin to catch the heels of the New York Film Festival. Meanwhile, if Venice started much earlier, it would eat into the August holiday season and begin to collide with events such as Sarajevo and Locarno.

'And there is the opposite argument,' Schamus points out. 'Do I really want to spend an entire month at film festivals' I should get back to the day job.'

As Toronto's market profile has grown, those of rival festivals have dwindled. '(In Toronto) there is a terrific selection of films so there is great attendance from buyers,' notes New Line's Rossi. 'Toronto used to be a festival just for screenings but now it has become a huge market and also a good place to launch new projects.'

Back in Venice, one sales agent questioned how useful it was for him to be on the Lido, even with a film in official selection. 'You're having a great time but you are spending a lot of money and you are not accomplishing much work because there are too many distractions. You are doing great dinners, drinking great Bellinis, but what kind of business are you actually doing''

Meanwhile, many question whether there are enough films to sustain so many festivals. Venice and Toronto, like Cannes and Berlin, are magnets for the most important films. If a title surfaces first elsewhere, the immediate perception is that it must have been passed over by the bigger players.

Competition between events

As the competition intensifies, so does the acrimony between events. Last year, there were many reports accusing Rome of paying film-makers to attend. This is denied emphatically by the festival. 'There still is an urban legend about Rome paying talent. We don't,' insists Cavina. 'If you want to have Nicole Kidman and pay her to come to Rome, you could not afford it. She is too expensive. But she is a serious professional. If she has to attend an event because she has a film to promote, she does it because it is part of her job.'

Certain events brand themselves as 'festivals of discovery' and programme arthouse titles from new talent. Their problem is that distributors increasingly want crossover films with breakout, commercial potential. They are loath to take risks on esoteric arthouse titles, even when they are well reviewed and win prizes.

Then again, there are still gems to be discovered. 'A film like The Death Of Mr Lazarescu - I saw it and distributors (first) saw it in Rotterdam,' notes Pathe's Ivernel of the film that launched the new Romanian wave. 'It was very important to unearth that film. Without a festival, this kind of film would not exist internationally.'

Focus' Schamus agrees, pointing out that the so-called 'festivals of discovery' have a flexibility that Cannes, Venice and Berlin do not.

'Rotterdam is pretty much one of my favourite festivals, if not my favourite festival, for movies,' Schamus says. 'One of the reasons is that there is a cap on its potential to ever market itself for 'buyers', whoever those people are. And so they have a freedom to really craft what a vision of world cinema can be. They can pay attention to corners of accomplishment that the so-called bigger and better festivals cannot.'

There is also evidence a festival award can help propel a film into markets that would normally be closed to it. Jia Zhang-ke's 2006 Golden Lion winner Still Life is a case in point: on the back of its Venice success, it sold widely - or far more widely than low-key films about the Three Gorges dam project usually do.

Market activity at an event like Locarno in early August may be limited, but the US studios still find it useful to be there.

'It is a very important festival for us in terms of developing a European release strategy for our movies,' says Stephen Gilula, CEO at Fox Searchlight.

In recent years, Fox has given international premieres to such titles as Little Miss Sunshine and Waitress in Locarno's open-air Piazza Grande (which seats audiences of several thousand) while also putting certain indie titles, for example George Ratliff's Joshua, into the Locarno competition.

'A Piazza screening has great potential to generate excitement and word of mouth about a film,' says Gilula. 'You do get exhibitors from other parts of Europe, not just Switzerland, and it introduces the film with the audience here, which is a very sophisticated audience. It gives you a first indication of how well the films might be received.'

Gilula also suggests Locarno has 'a very valuable and important place' for films that come out of Sundance and are available early in the year. It may not be a festival where such films receive their world premieres but it is still an excellent showcase.

As for finding films to acquire in Locarno, that is more of a stretch. Gilula points out that non-English language titles struggle to make any kind of impact in the US marketplace. 'The market for foreign-language films in the United States is continuing to shrink,' he acknowledges. 'They have a hard time competing with the American independent films, which is such a dynamic marketplace.'

'The landscape between events is clearly divided between international festivals which have an appeal to significant numbers of countries around the world and local festivals that have an appeal locally and that can be used locally, with audiences, press and territory, to promote and launch a film,' says Ariel Veneziano, who recently left GreeneStreet Films International to head Icon Entertainment International.

'For people like me - sellers - we don't care so much about local festivals. Usually, we let whoever we sold the movie to, the distributor, take care of their own markets.'

As the festival calendar grows more crowded, so does the jostling for space and the tension between rival events. Last year, the Italian press relished stirring up the competition between Venice and Rome. In the UK, relations between the London Film Festival and the Edinburgh International Film Festival have occasionally shown signs of strain.

The dating dilemma

After 60 years, Edinburgh has taken the radical step of moving from its traditional August slot, slap-bang in the middle of the city-wide Edinburgh festival, to a post-Cannes space in June. The move was taken in consultation with the UK Film Council.

'The shift to June is intended to open it up to new audiences who are otherwise faced with a dizzying choice of clashing activities in August,' festival director Hannah McGill told UK newspaper The Guardian. 'It will also provide greater space for the kind of events (conferences, meetings, international delegations, etc) that will build up our significance within the industry.'

Inevitably, the switch has polarised opinion. 'The great thing about Edinburgh is that it allows you to cover both film and theatre for all the hot new writers,' says New Line's Rossi. 'If you split the festivals up, I'm not sure whether the attraction would be as great.'

By contrast, Pathe's Ivernel applauds the switch as 'a very good move. It will give them a lot more space before the fall festivals; to be able to exist before Venice, Toronto and now Rome starts. If some films are not ready for Cannes and don't go to Venice for some reason, they might go to Edinburgh.'

Leading industry figures may grumble about their autumn itineraries but most do not necessarily regard the log-jam of festivals as a problem.

'There are all different types of festival and they all fulfil a function,' says Ivernel. 'The fact is that worldwide, more films are being made, more films are being released. The festivals are some sort of filter for worldwide production; to bring to attention the best of what is made.'

James Schamus agrees, even if he suggests the calendar has precious little room for expansion. 'I think what you're seeing is two things - everybody gets all worked up because (the festivals) look as if they are trying to be the same thing. At the same time, the exact opposite is going on. Festivals are starting to differentiate. Within the industry, you do have very specific uses and benefits from different kinds of festivals.'

Right now, those in search of the best in Spanish and Latin American cinema are boarding planes to San Sebastian. In two weeks time, they may find time to head back, eat a home-cooked meal, and put in an appearance at the office before heading out to New York, Pusan and Tokyo. And then it is London and Rome and the AFM. And Dubai in December ...