For the first time in its 17-year history, the Montreal World Film Festival kicked off with a Quebec feature as its opening-night film. Gender-bender drama “Le Sexe des Etoiles” had its world preem Thursday at Place des Arts and C/FP Distribution, which is releasing the pic in Montreal and Toronto next month, is hoping the resulting media buzz translates into healthy B.O. action here.

“It will help the film,” said C/FP veepee Christian Larouche. “It’s a difficult movie. Also, it’s good for the festival to open with a Quebecois movie.”

Industry and media reaction to the film was mixed, and festival vets were equally ambivalent about the opening-night party, held at the cavernous Metropolis disco.

Jury member Ben Kingsley officially opened the festival, and images of the Oscar-winning British actor arm-in-arm with Quebec Culture Minister Liza Frulla were all over the local media Friday.

Fest prexy Serge Losique has decided to pay tribute to Quebec helmer Francis Mankiewicz, who recently died of cancer, and there will be a special screening Tuesday of Mankiewicz’s best-known film, “Les Bon Debarras.”

Notwithstanding the high-profile Canadian presence on opening night, the Americans will be in force at the Montreal Intl. Film, Television & Video Market , which is part of the film festival.

Market topper Mario Fortin figures the healthy U.S. presence is one more sign of a renewed American interest in the potential of independent film.

“In the last year, we saw the independent films taking a bigger place in the U.S.,” Fortin said. “There’s more of an interest in independent film. They’ve discovered there’s some money to be made there.” U.S. companies set to attend the Montreal market include Miramax Films, Fine Line Features, HBO, Vision Intl. , Sony Pictures Classics, New Line Cinema and Orion. On the eve of the market opening, more than 500 representatives from 300 companies had signed up, roughly the same as last year’s attendance.

The Montreal market is popular because it isn’t as fast-paced as other markets, opined Fortin.

“Montreal is a market where you have time to sit and talk with the other people here,” he said.

The market is headquartered in the Grand Salon of the Meridien Hotel and market screenings take place at the Complexe Desjardins Cinema.

The Montreal festival continues through Sept. 6. The market runs through Sept. 4.

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