The 39th International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR) opened last night with the world premiere of South Korean director Park Chan-ok’s Paju.

The first Korean film to open the festival, Paju received a mixed response from the Rotterdam audience. A slow burning character drama with a complex narrative structure, it was not an obvious crowd pleaser although it was praised by some for its artistry. The director, a former Rotterdam Tiger winner, was on hand to introduce the film.

In his opening speech, festival director Rutger Wolfson again drew attention to the crisis facing arthouse distribution. “People often go to the cinema, but increasingly only to see a handful of popular titles,” Wolfson commented. “That means that films which have been screened at this and other festivals are released in the cinemas increasingly rarely. The present finance and distribution model for non-commercial film is increasingly under pressure.”

Wolfson’s remarks came as an early salvo in the increasingly heated debate about film festivals and their relationship with distributors and producers. Festivals such as Rotterdam are beginning to hatch their own production and distribution initiatives.

IFFR’s Cinema Reloaded is an attempt to raise financing for an initial slate of three short films from festivalgoers themselves, who are invited to buy “virtual coins”

worth $7.1 (€5) that will be used to produce these films. This year, Festival has also started its own “Break-Even Store,” a sort of “car boot sale” for auteurs, at which filmmakers are invited to present – and sell – their projects directly to consumers.

The local press reported that goods on sale will include coffee beans from auteur Tsai Ming-Liang (whose new film Visages plays in the festival) as well as sculptures, books and DVDs.

Some observers have questioned just how useful festivals are to conventional distributors. British producer Keith Griffiths, whose film Content will world premiere at IFFR’s Spectrum sidebar, said: “Festivals are an extremely important part of a film’s life but there are so many festivals and they have no economic return. I have never doubted that festivals have a very important part to play but I don’t see them as a replacement for finding many different homes for a film in the landscape we now live in.”

Festival organisers have reported brisk pre-sales for tickets. Rotterdam regularly posts in excess of 340,000 admissions. The paradox remains that the festivalgoers so keen to see the most adventurous examples of world cinema over the Rotterdam festival fortnight do not attend these movies over the rest of the year.

It is more than a decade since Christopher Nolan presented his low-budget debut feature Following (1998) in the Tiger competition. Since then, few of the festival’s Tiger winners have gone on to enjoy international distribution or to carve out reputations to match that of Nolan.

However, Rotterdam remains committed to showcasing adventurous new work that other festivals shy away from. “In Rotterdam, a film doesn’t need to be truly perfect,” commented Dutch director Martijn Maria Smits (whose debut feature C’est Déja L’été screens in this year’s Tiger Competition).“It is for new filmmakers, who are still experimenting, still searching.”