This year’s Locarno Film Festival has a distinctly French flavour as the event stakes its claim to become the perfect stepping stone between Cannes and Venice.

“Locarno is the smallest of the big, or the biggest of the small, festivals,” says artistic director Olivier Pere of the Swiss event’s status in the festival calendar.

The festival, which hosts its 64th edition August 3-13, has long divided opinion about its role within the industry. Some distributors and sales agents enjoy the chance to prepare for the hurly burly of Toronto and the American Film Market in the informal atmosphere of Locarno. Others remain doubtful the arthouse cinema it champions has much traction beyond the festival circuit. US buyers are in short supply and there is no formal market.

What is clear from this year’s programme was — in his second year at the helm — Pere is now overseeing a mini Gallic invasion. French sales agents will be at the festival in bigger numbers than previously and there are plenty of French titles in official selection. Isabelle Huppert is the recipient of the festival’s Excellence Award and six of her films will be screened.

The decision to organise Industry Days (August 6-8), in which the industry screenings and the Open Doors co-production event — focusing this year on India — overlap, has been well received. And 2011 sees the launch of Carte Blanche, which turns the spotlight on films from a specific country — Colombia this year — in post-production.

Nadia Dresti, head of the Industry Office, reveals the budget for industry activities has been ramped up to around $70,250 (€50,000). The overall festival budget remains around $13.4m (€9.5m).

“It is impossible now for important festivals just to consider the artistic aspects of the films,” says Pere of the added emphasis on industry activities. He talks before the festival of making the event “more exciting, more appealing, more relevant for the people from the industry”.

Finding sales companies

Pere and his team have worked hard to help producers of films in official selection, many of which are first features, to find sales agents. In effect, as Pere puts it, Locarno is acting as a go-between.

Also apparent is that Pere is attracting plenty of world premieres — more than 30 — and to lure big-name guests in spite of the holiday dates of the festival. Leading US producer Mike Medavoy is expected in town to pick up the Raimondo Rezzonico prize, along with both Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig for the European premiere of Cowboys & Aliens — which guarantees coverage across the European press.

Sales agents in Locarno do not expect to close multiple deals. But all highlight how useful a screening in the festival’s open-air Piazza Grande in front of an audience of 7,000 or more can be. This year’s line-up includes Cannes favourites Drive, directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, and Aki Kaurismaki’s Le Havre, as well as the much-anticipated world premiere of Norwegian art-heist thriller Headhunters. US titles include Friends With Benefits from Disney and JJ Abrams’ Super 8 from Universal Pictures International, which opened the festival.

There are notable absences. In a robust programme dominated by French productions and film-makers, including the international premiere of Mia Hansen-Love’s Goodbye First Love, there is a dearth of UK films. Pere scouts for UK titles himself and while he admires contemporary British genre fare, he says it “was not so obvious” which UK titles he could have chosen for competition. Joe Cornish’s Attack The Block is screening in the Piazza Grande.

Ask Pere, who came to Locarno from Directors’ Fortnight in Cannes, how easy it is to impose his personality on the event and he suggests it all depends on the films from which he and his programming team have to choose.

“It is always a question of the richness and quality of world production,” he says. “We were able to consider a large number of films made by some of the finest film-makers and new auteurs.”