Everything begins in Rotterdam. Or at least, that’s the motto of the Intl. Film Festival Rotterdam, and, on analysis, it’s not such a vast overstatement.

If it’s true that the buzz must begin before a film hits its first big market, then Rotterdam — cleverly positioned from Jan. 23 through Feb. 3, just before Berlin and therefore the first major Euro fest of the year — holds an ideal spot. It’s the old one-two punch, where pics lauded at Rotterdam drop into Berlin with their reputations already aglow.

“Perhaps it’s the sheer scale (of the fest) that encourages communication between filmmakers and industry,” suggests PR consultant and Rotterdam team member Lucius Barre, “not to mention the general tenor of the festival.”

Pinning down a definition of that “general tenor” — what is a “Rotterdam film”? — turns out to be easier than might be imagined.

“To me, a ‘Rotterdam film’ is either an original and creative film in cinema language or a film with a controversial or sensitive story,” offers Chinese producer Shan Dongbing. Or, as programmer Gerwin Tamsma puts it, “We look for the innovative, fresh, fun, idiosyncratic, beautiful, pivotal, brave, different.”

In other words, Rotterdam banks on a distinct profile, a profile that distinguishes it from the hundreds of other festivals out there that may have more money but offer little in terms of noticeable direction. Maintaining that profile at the start of new director Rutger Wolfson’s possibly stop-gap tenure (he’s on for a year only) may not be so difficult after all, since the structure of the festival remains the same, meaning programmers have a high latitude for indulging personal taste while the director acts as both conductor and editor.

Rotterdam’s uniqueness may be traced to the man who started it all, Hubert Bals. Bals set the tone, seeking films from the developing world while ferreting out cinematic trends with well-established industries.

So from the early years, he was scheduling John Cassavetes retrospectives alongside appreciations of Japanese “pink” films and the first works of emerging African talent.

The Hubert Bals Fund, set up after his death, continues his work while also keeping it tied to Rotterdam: As former director Simon Field says, the fund “puts genuine meat onto that idea of supporting filmmakers.”

Adding CineMart and the Hubert Bals Fund to the main fest, Rotterdam presented a revolutionary three-pronged approach, something that wooed industry and audiences alike with a celebration of the filmmaker apart from the usual red-carpet gloss.

Just because Rotterdam is formed by its past doesn’t mean it’s stuck there, however.

As programmer Gerwin Tamsma explains, “While the film industry and film art has changed considerably since the early days of the festival, the basic idea of the festival hasn’t: to be a haven for the filmmakers we think are doing work close to this ‘certain idea of cinema’ — a constantly changing certain idea of cinema.”

Fortunately , such a functional, multivaried approach also creates loyalty. Kelly Reichardt was particularly keen to have her film “Old Joy” screen at Rotterdam, not only because of its reputation as a filmmaker’s festival but also because she liked how her previous works were handled at the fest .

Following its glowing reception at 2006 Sundance, “Old Joy” became the first American film to win Rotterdam’s Tiger Award, which, as the pic’s producer Jay Van Hoy notes, “gave us an introduction to the rest of the world. It was huge for us that so many journalists and critics saw it there.”

Though Berlin market screenings were already lined up, the Tiger win helped lift the film above the general din. “They’re often ahead of their time,” adds Van Hoy. “The filmmakers you see at Rotterdam end up being heard from again and again.”

Talk to any filmmaker, or just attend the packed cinemas, and the popularity of the Rotterdam formula becomes obvious.

What’s surprising is that this is true across the board, from competition titles to a real cutting-edge section like “Exploding Cinema.”

“We know that our film will be very well received by the professionals even if it doesn’t do very well commercially,” says Unifrance’s Antoine Khalife, whose enthusiasm for the Rotterdam strategy is unreserved. Field helpfully dissects the approach: “There’s a necessary fetishization of distributable titles, but there is a whole level of cinema that works in different ways, and we tried to work on several different layers. It’s a sandwich formula — certain films that attract the press, attract the public, higher-profile independent features, and you use these as a Trojan horse to pull them into other parts of the festival.”

For Rafa Cortes, director of the Tiger winner “Me,” Rotterdam was a milestone for his film’s success. “When I was selected for the Tiger Awards, it was by itself a reason for a lot of people to approach me,” Cortes states. “Sales agents from several countries became interested in the film, and even producers started to contact me. Winning the prize was a multiplication of the effect.”

Malaysian helmer Ho Yuhang couldn’t agree more: “They program wild enough films that sometimes would never have gotten exposure elsewhere. I was lucky to have my whacked-out second film selected, and later I also had a project in CineMart, where I met with potential producers and distributors. It’s a rock ‘n’ roll fest.”

What: Intl. Film Festival Rotterdam
When: Jan. 23-Feb. 3
Where: Rotterdam, the Netherlands