CANNES — The just-ended Cannes Film Festival marked the revenge of art over commerce.

Pics in the competition and its sidebars offered frequent evidence that, creatively, indie filmmaking worldwide is in a state of exceptional health; but the market served as a constant reminder that the outlook for dealmaking is spotty.

With the collapse of European TV values, the bottom has fallen out of the business of pre-selling pics with hot stars and high concepts.

Those distribs who had pre-bought the “Lord of the Rings” franchise were among the few on the Croisette with cash to spend.

At the 55th fest, it’s the smaller, personal films that have been attracting buyers, with their winning combination of high quality and low prices. In other words, distribs are looking for another “Amelie,” not another “Ali.”

Shockingly, in the current indie marketplace, films actually have to be good to sell. It’s about quality, not quantity — which may be culturally heartening, but isn’t necessarily a viable economic model. That’s a bit of a head-scratcher for a business historically built on creative accounting rather than creative talent.

The appointment of James Schamus to run Focus and the fast-rising power of Luc Besson’s EuropaCorp both hint at the new premium on creativity in the indie biz.

The sales buzz here revolved around films, however tiny, with a distinctive voice — Juan Carlos Fresnadillo’s “Intacto,” Juan Jose Campanella’s “The Son of the Bride,” Fernando Meirelles’ “City of God,” Kaurismaki’s “The Man Without a Past,” Emanuele Crialese’s “Respiro,” Cedric Klapisch’s “L’Auberge Espanole,” the Pang brothers’ “The Eye,” Peter Sollett’s “The Long Way Home” and Susanna Bier’s “Open Hearts.” There was a particular premium on Indian-flavored films, such as “Bend It Like Beckham,” “Bollywood Queen” and “Devdas.”

Distribs were also stocking up on classics (Jacques Tati, Charlie Chaplin), with an eye on the DVD boom.

Among the American pics that don’t necessarily fit into the small pic category but were appreciated for their original voices were P.T. Anderson’s “Punch-Drunk Love,” Alexander Payne’s “About Schmidt” and Woody Allen’s ‘Hollywood Ending.”

But the hottest items on the Croisette were, of all things, docs. United Artists paid $3 million for Michael Moore’s “Bowling for Columbine” and it nabbed another $2 million from other territories. “The Kid Stays in the Picture,” helmed by Brett Morgen and Nanette Burstein, got a wildly enthusiastic response from audiences and critics alike.

“This business is 100% driven by theatrical now,” says Jane Barclay of Capitol Films. The company’s slate of brand-name directors (David Cronenberg, Woody Allen et al) with their own clearly defined niche suits the current state of market caution.

Dutch distrib San Fu Maltha adds the buyer’s perspective: “You have to be able to release a film theatrically, of course, but then it also has to have value either on video or on TV.” For example, he picked up “Bend It Like Beckham,” which he believes will be a strong TV title, and “Intacto” and “The Eye,” both of which will earn their keep on video.

Jorge Tuca, head of acquisitions for Spain’s Filmax, says, “It’s not a question of product not being available. Both sellers and buyers are just being far tougher in bargaining terms, so deals are taking far longer to close.”

Instead of a few high-stakes gambles on expensive pics that will also demand a big P&A commitment, distribs are choosing to make a series of smaller bets.

This is not to imply that multiplexes around the world soon will be filled with low-budget, subtitled fare, or that such pics will prove the saviors of the film biz.

Lynne Ramsay’s “Morvern Callar,” for example, is beloved by the critics and will sell widely, but with its pure arthouse sensibility, it is unlikely to command prices high enough to deliver a profit for backer Alliance Atlantis.

That company’s entertainment group CEO Peter Sussman tells Variety that Alliance Atlantis is focusing on financing, producing and distributing pics in the $5 million-$10 million range — a reduction in budgets from the previous $20 million-$30 million films.

Alliance managed to strike a U.S. distrib deal for Neil Jordan’s $30 million “The Good Thief” with Fox Searchlight, but the fact that the Canuck outfit isn’t planning to revisit that budget range anytime soon shows how tough it was to make the numbers add up.

Even in the bleakest markets, there are pockets of positive news. The U.K., long a distribution blackspot, is now bubbling with sales.

Momentum Pictures is picking up “Confidence,” “Intacto,” “I Capture the Castle,” “The Long Walk Home” and “My House in Umbria” (marking the first deal for HBO Films’ big international push).

Helkon took “Bollywood Queen” for the U.K. and French-speaking territories, signaling its ambition to open a French distrib arm. Metrodome pre-bought Lukas Moodysson’s “Lilja 4-ever.” Mosaic with Optimum Releasing took HBO’s “Real Women Have Curves.”

Miramax bought Signpost’s “House of Sand and Fog,” and all English-speaking rights plus Italy to Brian Gilbert’s “The Gathering.” Paramount picked up “Curse of the Jade Scorpion” to stick it through its U.K. pay TV deal. Entertainment picked up “Timeline” — a rare example of an old-fashioned blockbuster — but also niche comedy “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.”

By contrast, Spain won the prize for the country with the sharpest distrib market downtown.

Filmax was the only Spanish distrib to dig deep into its pocket, closing on Carousel’s “George and the Dragon,” sold by MDP Worldwide, and the Kevin Costner “Open Range” from Cobalt. Prices were reportedly sturdy and sources say Filmax has not concluded its big-pic haul.

But the auteur theory has its limits. With a low-budget film, a distinctive filmmaking voice is great, but with big-budget films, it’s a huge risk. Investors have memories of “Baron Munchausen” and “Cutthroat Island.”

It paid off last year, when distribs saw a preview of Peter Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings,” which qualifies as the biggest indie franchise of all time. Despite the $270 million tab for the trio, it represents an example of an arthouse filmmaker hitting the big time.

Many are predicting Martin Scorsese’s Miramax film, “Gangs of New York,” as another winner in this category.

The pic, which began shooting almost two years ago and is still being edited, got a rapturous reception at a 20-minute preview here, and the filmmaker got a standing ovation filled with whoops and cheers.

Also here, Miramax unveiled a significant joint venture. The company is moving into France and other territories, and its pact with TF1 indicates a more direct link between indie financing and hard-ticket sales: Suppliers will be the end user as well as the middleman.

Thanks to the global economy and other factors, including the disappearance of TV funding (especially in Europe) as a cushion, not many sellers came here with high hopes. Everything in Cannes has been scaled back, from the parties (see story, page 47) to the expectations.

While one vet seller admits that the market was “really bad,” he philosophizes, “Business is cyclical and it will come back six to 12 months from now.”

French helmer Christophe Rossignon, who pacted here with Alain Goldman to do an English-language remake of Christian Carion’s “Une hirondelle a fait le printemps,” tells Variety, “There was cinema before pay TV, Wall Street, the Internet and globalization and there will be cinema afterwards.”

(Cathy Dunkley, Steven Gaydos, Timothy M. Gray, Dana Harris, John Hopewell, Ed Meza and Andrea R. Vaucher contributed to this story.)