The Marrakech International Film Festival (Oct 3-8) will likely move to November in 2004 to occupy a less crowded space on the international film calendar, and to avoid a clash with the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

The festival, presided over this year by French actress Nathalie Baye, launched its third edition on Friday to a broadly positive reaction from delegates, complimentary about the festival's wide-ranging selection and organisation - although the late start of some screenings has been a problem.

The move to November will give the festival more breathing space - Pusan, Rio and Dinard all take place around the same time - and artistic director Christine Ravet hopes to attract more festival directors and selectors.

"In terms of business, we have to wait. The Moroccan producers need to do as they do in France, and ready their films for the festival."

The festival, which has a budget of $3.5m raised largely through sponsorship, opened in spectacular style with an open air screening of Faouzi Bensaidi's lauded Cannes title Mille Mois, in the Palais Badii, a candlelit ruined palace in the heart of Marrakech.

The feature competition section of twelve titles includes films from India (Goutam Ghose's In The Forest Again) Iran (Abolfazl Jalili's La Premiere Lettre) and the US (Tom McCarthy's The Station Agent). Other Moroccan features include Said Naciri's Les Bandits and Abdelkader Lagtaa's Face A Face, which are both screening out of competition, and Narjiss Nejjar's Directors' Fortnight title Les Yeux Secs. The festival closes with Tonie Marshall's comedy France Boutique.

All screenings are free for the Moroccan public, with an open-air screening of Indian film Saathyia in Marrakech's main Jemaa El Fna square reportedly attended by 10,000 people on Saturday night.

Ridley Scott, who starts shooting Kingdom Of Heaven in Morocco from January, was in town on Saturday to accept an award at a dinner in the king's palace - although Mohammed VI himself was apparently in Mexico.

"Morocco offers me a lot in terms of landscape, some architecture, and what is really a very educated film community," Scott said.

The director denied reports that Orlando Bloom had been cast in the film. "That's the press," he said. "No one has been decided on yet."

Spike Jonze was also in Marrakech, at the invitation of his Three Kings co-star Said Taghmaoui, to present a selection of his music videos and shorts. During a good natured Q&A, Jonze would not be drawn on details of his next feature, reportedly written by Charlie Kaufman and set up at Columbia. "It may or may not be a horror film," he said.

Possibly the best received star so far, however, is Indian legend Amitabh Bachchan, who was seen wandering through the souk with a trail of Moroccan fans shouting his name, and drew fans on his arrival at the opening night. The reception seemed to take the actor by surprise. "I was quite unaware of the love and affection the people of Morocco have for Hindi cinema," he said.

Security at screenings and events is relatively tight, but jury members denied any concerns about safety at the festival." This festival was born right after September 11, and it knew instant success because it is international," said Moroccan director and member of the feature jury Mohamed Abderrahman Tazi. "It's a bridge between the west, the east, and Africa."

"It has never occurred to me that somebody might want to blow me up," said Jeremy Irons, president of the short film jury. "I have enjoyed world travel even more since September 11 because less of us are travelling."

"This festival is gaining more visibility and gives film-makers an opportunity to see what Morocco has to offer," said Andre Azoulay, advisor to the king and deputy vice chairman of the Marrakech International Film Festival Foundation, who refuted suggestions that the balance of professional delegates was tipped largely towards the French industry. "The second priority is to use this festival as a platform to show people that Morocco is a friendly country, an open country, and a place where exchange of cultures and ideas is not a problem."

Nevertheless, some of those asked to attend from the US were reluctant. "They don't say it directly, but you invite them to attend and they say no," said Christine Ravet. "But you can tell why."