MADRID — Spain’s principal arthouse distributors Alta Films and Golem Distribucion stepped cautiously up to the table at Cannes.

Alta, Spain’s biggest artpic distrib-exhib, picked up Spanish rights to Duncan Tucker’s comedy “Transamerica,” starring Felicity Huffman as a pre-op transsexual, James Marsh’s “The King,” and Michel Ocelot’s toon pic “Kirikou et les betes sauvages.”

Golem, a Pamplona-based boutique, inked at Cannes on Lars von Trier’s “Manderlay” and Michael Haneke’s “Hidden.”

Golem also bought another competish player, Carlos Reygadas’ “Battle in Heaven,” as well as Fatih Akin’s “Crossing the Bridge,” Deepa Mehta’s “Water” and “Iron Island” from Iran’s Mohammed Rasoulof.

The buys confirm a slow, tentative upswing in Spain’s arthouse sector.

It’s certainly a far cry from October 2002, when the country’s four leading specialty buyers — Alta, Golem, Wanda Vision and Vertigo Films — warned there was a real danger that they would go out of business.

Spanish pubcaster RTVE had only bought two small Euro artpic packages since Jose Maria Aznar’s Conservatives gained power in 1996 and pay TV sales had collapsed since satcaster Via Digital stopped buying artpics in October 2001, ADICINE members railed. Since then Spain’s artpic buyers have crawled back from the abyss.

Vertigo has sidestepped into crossover acquisitions. Wanda has focused on largely Latin American co-production.

Owning or operating 150-plus theaters in Spain, which guarantees cash-flow, Alta struck local pic distrib deals, most notably with Tesela in 2002. More recently, it’s scored heavily with a clutch of high-profile releases: “Fahrenheit 9/11” grossed E3.5 million ($4.4 million), “Les choristes” grossed $8.9 million, Spain’s “The Longest Penalty in the World” $6.3 million.

Alta was Spain’s fourth highest-grossing independent distribution house in 2004, taking an upbeat 2.3% market share for an artpic distrib.

Pay TV giant Sogecable bought several dozen contempo auteur films last fall, RTVE two dozen pics in early 2004 for a new film slot on cultural channel La 2. Distribs trust that RTVE, under a new public service committed management, will buy far more films.

But Spain’s slow artpic recovery falls short of a full-blooded rebound.

Before the collapse of TV sales, Alta Films used to buy 10-15 international artpics a year, its head of acquisitions, Enrique Gonzalez Kuhn, told Daily Variety. Now it picks up five to eight, he added.

This caution has an upside, of course, converting Spain’s arthouse sector into a buyers’ market. Prices have fallen accordingly. “They’re now more rational,” recognized Golem’s acquisition head Pedro Zaratiegui.

All the more reason to buy, if circumspectly.