The 40th Karlovy Vary International Film Festival

The 40th Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, which ends on Saturday night, has featured a whopping 280 or so films, including 16 world premieres and 33 European or international premieres. But is it hard for Karlovy Vary to secure top quality movies, given the competition from other A certification festivals, like Cannes and Berlin? Here's Karlovy Vary programme director Julietta Zacharova.

Julietta ZacharovaJulietta Zacharova "We are in competition with other festivals but this is the situation all festivals are facing, because I think there are too many festivals and not enough good movies.

"So of course there is tough competition, but I believe that in recent years we have been able to secure films for our festival, and premieres for our festival, that we really wanted to have in the programme.

"I would like to say that we have the luck and the privilege of having our guests or people who have once been to the festival...that they really come back with their new films. So once they come here they really send us their new films and submit their new features to us."

Steven Gaydos is one of Variety magazine's senior correspondents in Europe. He says Karlovy Vary is unusual in that it welcomes thousands of paying fans - and the venue also adds a lot.

"You must understand that most major film festivals are not very local audience friendly, they're industry events. Cannes is very difficult for the local audience to access tickets. Venice is difficult for everyone.

"Berlin is a city festival but the difference is Berlin is a big city, where here you're in a vacation place. You're in a beautiful spa town and there's nothing else happening, you're here for film."

The festival's artistic director, Eva Zaoralova, says the smallness of the town is indeed a major factor in Karlovy Vary's success.

"It's the ambience of the small town. Everybody can meet everybody. It's not like in a big city, in a big city you have so many events that the festival does not have this concentration.

"Journalists for example in a big city have to continue to work, to return home, to work in their offices. And here they are completely free."

For all its concentration in one place, and beautiful location, Karlovy Vary was not always so popular. The Danish director Thomas Vinterberg was at this year's festival presenting his movie Dear Wendy; but it wasn't his first time here - that was in the early 1990s, during his student days.

"I was put up in a room in I think a military compound up on the hill, with four other people, including my wife. Very Spartan. Everything...didn't work, the curtains went on in the middle of the screenings.

"Everything was very, very different. It was three or four years after the revolution and you could feel that this country was in a sort of development."

Variety's Steven Gaydos also remembers the early 1990s, when Karlovy Vary was not the vibrant festival it is now.

"The theatres were empty. There were a few older folks wandering around sipping the local waters, and wandering into movie theatres and not knowing what they were watching. It was sort of depressing in 1994.

Ali MacGraw, photo: CTKAli MacGraw, photo: CTK "By the time I came back in 1997 I thought the whole world had changed! The theatres were packed, as they are now. It became like the film Woodstock - it's changed completely in 10 years."

In box office terms, Karlovy Vary festival sold around 35,000 tickets in 1994, while this year it is up to around 125,000, a figure which organisers say simply cannot increase further.

But how has the festival grown so much in a decade? One factor is its audience-friendly approach. Tickets are inexpensive, young people are welcome - and they show their appreciation. American actress Ali MacGraw is on this year's competition jury.

Matt Dillon, photo: CTKMatt Dillon, photo: CTK "My amazement is, for instance last night just because I like him I went to Matt Dillon's film. And when it started at 11:30 it was completely packed with wide awake passionate filmgoers, many of them young. And that's thrilling.

"I don't think I'd like to go to a festival that's loaded with sleazy Hollywood agents and deal makers. This feels to me like a town full of people that are crazy about movies."

Ali MacGraw's sentiments are shared by writer-director Michael Radford, the president of this year's grand jury.

"I think the thing about this festival that is the way in which it's supported by the public. Not just film buffs but people who really come to buy their ticket and are really interested in enjoying the movies.

Sharon Stone, photo: CTKSharon Stone, photo: CTK "Every viewing that I've been to has been absolutely packed out, every audience has been really generous towards the movie. They really enjoy it; they want to see the best about the movie.

"And that gives a tremendous sense...to people who work in cinema it's a great pleasure to see that, because it makes us feel that cinema is still important in some kind of way."

Steven Gaydos says many in the film industry, and the media, are beginning to share his opinion that film festivals don't come better than Karlovy Vary.

"I've said for years that Karlovy Vary's audiences are the best of any festival that I go to around the world. This doesn't seem to be a secret anymore, because now I'm reading this from other critics, and filmmakers - even in the London press I notice this. Karlovy Vary's audiences are young, they're open.

"So from a film makers point of view - if I had a film playing in the great hall with 1,200 kids from western and central Europe, this would be the place to be."

High praise indeed. Of course you couldn't have a top class film festival without some world famous stars, and this year's Karlovy Vary has had an especially glittering turnout. Among the stars: Matt Dillon, Robert Redford, Liv Ullmann, Sideways director Alexander Payne, Michael Madsen, upcoming Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal and Sharon Stone.

Among the big films: The Queen of Sheba's Pearls by Colin Nutley, a British director who lives in Sweden, the blockbuster Sin City by Roberto Rodriguez, and L'Enfant (The Child) by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, which won the Palme d'or at Cannes.

But I suppose the best person to ask for film recommendations is the person who put the programme together, Julietta Zacharova.

"I have several favourite films. I actually think that all the films we've selected are good and worth seeing. I have definitely a couple of very favourite films.

Broken FlowersBroken Flowers "One of them I should probably mention is a Canadian documentary, Midnight Movies. It was a midnight screening because it's Midnight Movies - it was packed and the atmosphere at the screening was great.

"I also very much liked the film by Jim Jarmusch we screened last night as well, Broken Flowers, which was this year's surprise film of the festival. These are definitely the films that should be seen."

The programme director is just one of hundreds of people who work to make the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival one of the most colourful events in the Czech Republic. But is it possible for the organisers to actually enjoy the festival, or is it just work?

"It is work but I enjoy and like my job very much. The festival is a great experience every year because it's different every year. We really work the whole year just to have these few days of the festival when you actually see the result of your one year's work.

"And its great to see all the filmmakers and producers, and especially the audience coming to see what we were doing the entire year."