For its 60th anniversary edition, the Locarno International Film Festival (August 1-11) is underlining its strengths as an event of discovery. Geoffrey Macnab reports.

Now in its 60th year, the Locarno international film festival is one of the oldest and grandest festivals in the world.

Its open-air Piazza Grande screenings are justly celebrated, as are its retrospectives which last year included an exhaustive tribute to Aki Kaurismaki. The challenge Locarno faces is how to make itself relevant to the industry as well as to the cinephiles and tourists who fill the town during the first fortnight in August.

In his second year as festival director, former journalist and critic Frederic Maire is looking backwards to look forward. One of the highlights of this year's event will be the Back in Locarno sidebar, for which 15-20 major film-makers whose careers have been launched by the festival will be lured back to town.

Film-makers expected to attend include Mike Leigh (whose debut feature Bleak Moments premiered in 1971), Marco Bellocchio (whose Fists In The Pocket screened in Locarno in 1965), Chilean master Raoul Ruiz (Three Sad Tigers in 1969), Marco Tullio Giordana (To Love The Damned in 1980), Catherine Breillat (36 Fillette in 1988) and Claude Chabrol (Le Beau Serge in 1958).

By programming such movies, Maire is reminding distributors and sales agents they will have the chance to find the contemporary equivalents of such work in the main programme. 'We want to keep the idea that Locarno was, still is and will remain a festival of discovery,' Maire explains.

'Locarno does a very good job in uncovering titles,' says Ed Fletcher, managing director of UK distributor Soda Pictures. But while the company has in the past picked up such Locarno titles as Riviera Cocktail and Czech Dream, Fletcher cautions that few Golden Leopard winners of recent years have secured UK theatrical releases.

Cecile Gaget of Gaumont points out that Locarno can be an excellent place to road test a movie. If a film can hold an audience of thousands in the Piazza Grande, it is a fair bet it will work theatrically.

In the competition, Maire and his team try to strike a balance between unknown - and often edgy - titles and films which already have sales agents attached.

Last year's competition foregrounded such titles as Ryan Fleck's Half Nelson and Golden Leopard winner Das Fraulein; both titles subsequently sold widely. The event also scored a major coup last year by securing the international premiere of Florian Henckel Von Donnersmarck's The Lives Of Others.

This year, there is advance interest from buyers in some of the Asian titles, for example opening film Vexille by Fumihiko Sori, a Japanese CGI manga being sold internationally by Shochiku, and Kenneth Bi's The Drummer, a martial arts story set to the rhythm of Chinese Zen drumming.

Among the competition titles are Slipstream, an experimental drama from Anthony Hopkins, who is expected in town to introduce the film. Other competition titles generating buzz include George Ratliff's Omen-like thriller Joshua (sold by Fox Searchlight), Contre Toute Esperance, the new feature from Canadian director Bernard Emond, and The Rebirth from Japanese director Masahiro Kobayashi. There will also be films from Spain, among them Ladrones from the much-hyped young Spanish director Jaime Marques.

Maire acknowledges that in the past the festival sometimes struggled to convince producers and sales agents to bring their films to Locarno. There was uncertainty about the criteria for selection and the overall goals of the festival, hence his desire for clarity.

Under Maire, the festival is increasingly streamlined. In 2006, the number of films in the festival was reduced by 30% - 'a winning decision' in Maire's words.

He believes the industry now trusts the festival, making it easier to secure titles. 'People had the feeling they didn't know exactly where they were going. Last year the selection was very clear. I think all the sellers and producers know what Locarno is.'

Buyers and sellers looking for new projects will be directed to this year's Open Doors platform, at which film-makers from the Middle East will be presenting projects to potential European co-producers.

While wooing European sales agents and producers, Maire has also undertaken a charm offensive for US producers.

This year, there will be two Fox Searchlight titles in Locarno (Joshua in competition and Waitress on the Piazza Grande). The Bourne Ultimatum will have its international premiere, as will Hairspray. And Frank Oz will be in town for a screening of Death At A Funeral.

Outside the Piazza Grande screenings, there are three main sections: the competition, with films that 'have a real potential in the market'; Filmmakers of the Present (including experimental fare); and new sidebar Here And Elsewhere, featuring films that, says Maire, 'maybe don't have a very strong author point of view but which are very interesting in their social and political content'.

Unlike some of its rivals, Locarno, with a budget of around $8.3m (sfr10m), will not pay to lure Hollywood studio talent. 'We are a festival, not an event,' says Maire. 'If we have money to invest, we want to invest it in making the films the stars,' he insists.