Film festivals have a key role in promoting art cinema, which is why Cannes is offering to screen on the web the first five minutes of all the films in its official selection.

On the occasion of the Cannes line-up announcement in Paris in April, festival president Gilles Jacob delivered an impassioned speech in defence of independent, auteur cinema. Insisting that an audience still exists for the kind of bravura cinema which Cannes champions, Jacob offered film-makers in official selection the chance to play the first five minutes of their film on the Cannes website at the time of their theatrical release. “Let’s hope that internet users everywhere might drop their games and be tempted to rush to their nearest theatre to find out what happens next,” he said.

“Classic cinema has rarely been in such dire need of exposure as it is today. I live and work in Los Angeles and am stunned by the lack of interest here in the great film-makers of old”

The offer is a clever and dramatic move by the festival to engage audiences beyond the Croisette on its much-visited website. By offering to show the first five minutes, Jacob is actively striving to stimulate the existing audience for highbrow cinema as well as the uninitiated.

Such perhaps is the role of the film festival these days. Cannes has always drawn attention to the world’s best film-makers but it is no secret that many of the films feted in the Palais des Festivals struggle to find an audience when they limp into the brutally competitive open market. Of the 22 films in Competition at Cannes last year, for example, Laurent Cantet’s The Class is the biggest grosser in the US so far with $3.7m through Sony Pictures Classics. That excludes Changeling, a Universal movie with Angelina Jolie which was always bound to have a wider release and grossed just over $35m.

The Class grossed more than the other 20 films in Competition in the US including Blindness; Che; Synecdoche, New York; Two Lovers and Waltz With Bashir. In contrast, the opening-day gross of X-Men Origins: Wolverine in the US was more than the total grosses of all the films combined.

Film festivals, not just the A-list events but also regional and public-skewed ones, are therefore assuming a greater role than ever before in keeping art cinema alive. Many films will now have their only theatrical life on the worldwide festival circuit; even films which regularly win audience awards at festivals struggle to find distribution deals, their producers told over and over again by distributors that they are just too hard to market.

And it’s not just new film-makers who festivals bear the responsibility of supporting. Classic cinema has rarely been in such dire need of exposure as it is today. I live and work in Los Angeles and am stunned by the lack of interest here in the great film-makers of old. Mean Streets seems to be the kicking off point for many in Hollywood, where even Ford and Hitchcock are sliding out of fashion, let alone Kurosawa or Fellini. Which is another reason why Cannes - with its dazzling selection of restored classics including The Red Shoes, Eyes Without A Face, Victim, L’Avventura, Accident and A Brighter Summer Day - remains a vital centre for the art.

Indeed festivals can still generate excitement on a local, sometimes national or global level, that distributors cannot. I was fortunate enough to be a jury member at the Istanbul International Film Festival last month and was impressed by the packed houses for virtually all of the films in international competition. Whether at 11am on a Tuesday or at 8pm on a Friday night, local audiences, young and old, flocked to these films, some even standing outside on the offchance they could buy a ticket to sold-out houses.

How long, then, before Cannes and other major festivals start expanding into even more aggressive marketing initiatives? Why not distribution? Sundance already has a sister TV channel. Why not a Cannes DVD imprimatur? A Berlinale-branded online platform? Festival programmers see as much if not more than buyers and curate their films in not dissimilar ways. In a world besieged by Wolverine, festivals might find themselves fulfilling new roles in connecting audiences with art cinema.