Much has changed at Cannes in the last three decades – especially the market, once a tiny and ill-organized appendage to the festival.

“Cannes has always been a great festival. But with the geographical layout and the distraction of the festival, it has never been a tremendous market,” says Wendy Palmer, a regular attendee for nine years, first with Handmade Films, now with Manifesto Film Sales, a co-venture linking Polygram, Propaganda Films of L.A., and Working Title Prods of Britain.

All major film markets, in fact, have been undermined by the plethora of output deals and other ties with suppliers; the increasing clout and appetite of the U.S. majors; rapid evolution of selling into a year-round business; and the disappearance or diminution of many indie distribs after the hectic video-driven pace of the 1980s.

And few would argue with the notion that the Riviera bazaar’s strength and pre-eminence have been sapped by the American Film Market, conceived originally by Yank sellers as the weapon that would destroy Cannes.

“I’m sure the AFM has had a serious effect on Cannes,” says Guy East of Majestic Films, the London-based sales agency that’s on a roll after “Dances With Wolves.”

Nonetheless, the global film community keeps coming to Cannes to do business.

“In the mid-1970s, people started to wake up to the business potential of Cannes,” says Michael Flint, a former Paramount exec and now chairman of international law firm Denton, Hall, Burgin & Warrens. “I think you can trace the success of the market directly to the emergence of the independent sales agents.”

Invasion of the suits

With them came the lawyers and bankers who were on tap to close and process deals on the spot. John Hogarth of Hobo Films, a longtime fixture among British distribs, remembers the days when it was a small sidebar at the back of the old Palais in the mid-1960s.

“There was no question of having to register; you just turned up,” says Hogarth. “In the mid-to-late 1970s and through the 80′s, the marche” became all dominant, with the rise of the sales agents. “In the last few years, it’s swung back the other way, partly because of the success of the AFM, which is doing a lot of the business the marche used to do.”

Yet despite the steep prices, haughty French waiters, teeming crowds, ever-present risk of being mugged or having your pockets picked, wear and tear on feet slogging the Croisette, and variable weather, Cannes remains addictive.

“If I wasn’t going I would be upset,” says Francesca Barra, senior v.p. international production and acquisition for 20th Century Fox, a veteran of 11 Cannes fests.

Barra is more interested in the people than the product assembled on the Croisette. “I’m looking for new European talent and material,” she says, “and I aim to meet with the producers and directors I’ve already seen in Rome, Paris and other places, and hopefully close a deal or two.”

And Hogarth, along with hundreds of other distribs from around the world, says he too will be back trawling the waters in Cannes for undiscovered pearls. “It’s as likely to happen there,” he notes, “as anywhere else.”

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