Back in 1992, Canadian distributor Jim Murphy was on the prowl, as ever, for new, unheralded movies to acquire. On the opening day of the Cannes film festival, he trudged off to the Olympia Cinema for the first market screening of the day. It was a debut effort by an Australian film-maker that was still wet from the lab. When the lights went up, he made a bee-line for the sales agent and cemented a deal for all rights in Canada.

The little gem Murphy found (it would prove to be the apex of that Cannes) was Strictly Ballroom. It quickly became the market favourite that year, and he was lucky to get in quickly before word got around. Miramax was chagrined that Canada was snapped up, but nonetheless moved forward to launch the movie officially at the Toronto film festival later that year.

Getting the message across

For most movies produced outside of the so-called mainstream, it is virtually impossible to think of a theatrical life beyond one's borders without film festivals. Ken Loach, no stranger to the circuit, benefited from the Cannes berth that led to last year's Palme d'Or for The Wind That Shakes The Barley. The spotlight was a tremendous asset in making sales and translated into a box office of close to $20m.

We all know that movie-goers tend to view the medium as escapist entertainment. They go to laugh or be scared or to thrill at the spectacle. The presence of a movie star or the appearance of a sequel is meant to offer a signal that going to the multiplex will be a pleasurable experience. Most films have to struggle in the absence of those key elements. They do not have the wherewithal to spend millions on advertising, to wage a campaign assuring potential viewers that their movie is time well spent. So festivals and awards are a slightly less expensive way of getting the message across.

The celluloid seal of approval

On the surface a film about the reigning British monarch confronting politics and decorum head on would hardly be thought of as an audience magnet. Yet The Queen is a classic example of an entertaining, quality film that set the ball rolling by playing the Venice film festival last year. That initial attention sparked sufficient interest to draw a crowd, which spawned more interest and awards, and eventually more than $100m in movie theatres.

Babel also played Venice, Pan's Labyrinth premiered at Cannes and Little Miss Sunshine was a Sundance audience and jury favourite. Of course, there are dozens of other films that have premiered at the same events and failed to make either a popular or critical transition. Nonetheless, they were exposed, potential buyers sampled them in the equivalent of pristine lab conditions, and critics and interviewers provided them with attention and consideration.

The process might be considered the best or worst of a celluloid Darwinian process. But if film festivals did not exist we would most certainly have to create them. They are the closest thing the film industry has to a seal of approval.