MADRID — Back in March, on the first night of Mexico’s Guadalajara fest, one figure towered at the bar of its central Fiesta Americana Hotel: six-foot-plus Peter Danner, from Paris sales company Funny Balloons.

But Danner wasn’t taking Gallic films to Guadalajara.

Before Berlin, he’d picked up Fernando Eimbcke’s “Lake Tahoe,” arguably this year’s standout Mexican movie. “Tahoe” took helming plaudits at Guadalajara; Danner’s now sold it to 20-plus territories.

At any on-the-rise fest — Buenos Aires’ Bafici, Colombia’s Cartagena, Korea’s Jeonju — you’ll catch a drove of French sales agents talent-trawling.

“Wherever I go there are French sellers taking up all the best seats,” jokes a rival sales agent.

That’s a huge sea change from just a few years back.

Through the ’90s, Gallic export companies largely sold French fare. Now many agents tap films from most anywhere.

There’s another wrinkle in their makeover as well. From pure-play sellers, export companies are increasingly producing and packaging pics.

In net effect, Paris is becoming one of the great trading posts for the international movie biz.

What could be labeled agents sans frontieres, French companies at Toronto will sell films from Hong Kong (Celluloid Dreams’ “Plastic City”) to Chile (Funny Balloon’s “Tony Manero”) to Britain (Pathe’s Keira Knightley starrer “The Duchess”) to Brazil (“City” and “Linha de passe,” Pathe again) to Japan (Elle Driver’s “The Sky Crawlers”) and the U.S. (Spike Lee’s “Miracle at St. Anna,” on TF1’s slate, and Darren Aronofsky’s “The Wrestler,” from Wild Bunch).

Of French agents’ 35 films screening at Toronto, only 14 — 40% — are from Gallic helmers.

Recent moves underscore this thrust. Films Distribution has just announced five new pickups for Toronto: Margarethe von Trotta’s Hannah Arendt portrait, “The Controversy”; prison riot thriller “Cell 211” from Spain’s Daniel Monzon; “Il grande sogno,” from Italy’s Michele Placido (“Romanzo criminale”); and Belgian Micha Wald’s “Simon Konianski.”

Only “Loins des balle” has a French director, Denis Dercourt (“The Page Turner”).

Gallic globalization was goosed by burgeoning local production.

“Until around 2000, French cinema led non-Hollywood cinema in many countries. When local cinema grew, French cinema suffered,” says Patrick Lamassoure, Film France managing director.

That made French producers even keener to work with top foreign talent and touch Gallic agents for minimum guarantees, then rolled into production deals.

French films’ B.O. abroad, a broad bellwether of sales potential, broadly bear Lamassoure out.

In 2001, Gallic movies hit a modern high of 73.5 million admissions outside France. They’ve only surpassed that once since.

Meanwhile, production levels in other parts of the world have more than doubled: Latin America’s 95 in 1997 has risen to 308, Asia’s has grown from 968 in 1997 to 1,923, and Eastern Europe’s output has risen from 145 films in 1997 to 388 in 2007.

Going global makes broad business sense.

“Focusing on one country is closing doors. Most independent films are talent-driven. Acquiring the world over gives you a better chance of striking gold,” says Adeline Fontan Tessaur, Elle Driver co-founder.

Also, she says, “It’s simply more exciting.”

French sales agents do tap export aid.

Unifrance organizes a Paris Rendez-Vous Gallic film showcase, French film festivals abroad — at Yokohama and Seoul, for instance — and takes joint stands at Berlin and AFM. It flies out talent to support releases.

Sales companies deploy Fonds Sud and Fonds Eco coin. Fonds Sud offers up to E152,000 ($225,000) to emerging-markets movies, largely for French post-production.

But that’s not enough to explain the ongoing rise of French sales agents.

Diving into foreign talent pools, exporters are backed by France’s large domestic market and potent industry.

In 2007, total French film investment stood at $1.8 billion, sizably above Britain ($1.4 billion) and Germany ($952.7 million).

Admissions were higher –178.1 million in France — as was French films’ domestic market share (36.5%).

As production-distribution-sales combos, many sellers (StudioCanal, Wild Bunch, MK2, Rezo, Memento) tap directly into France’s domestic might.

“France’s subsidy system is open to foreign productions. Distributors and TV stations are bigger buyers of foreign movies than any other market,” says Nathanael Karmitz, MK2 managing director.

“When you have a strong market, there’s industrial tissue. It’s a marginal cost to get extra movies from other countries without the same industrial base,” argues Nicolas Brigaud-Robert, a Films Distribution partner.

A strong, capitalized industry attracts top talent. And a new generation of sales agents, often schooled at StudioCanal, UGC and Lumiere, has brought decidedly cosmopolitan stances to business.

Originally, “French co-producers brought (French government program) CNC money and other subsidies to the food basket, and they’d say: ‘You know what: I’ll bring a minimum guarantee from an international sales company,'” Brigaud-Robert remembers.

That was then. After years working markets, sales companies can go straight to the source, striking deals with foreign producers.

Those deals, like the market at large, have become more complicated: France’s smartest sales agents are moving from just handling foreign films to packaging co-productions.

“They’ve got the expertise, about France and international, and know projects from script stage,” Lamassoure says.

“Co-productions can be far more complex these days. Film financing is now far more patchwork. Sometimes, the only way you can get a film made is to branch out further and further,” says Gordon Spragg, Celluloid Dreams’ publicity and marketing manager.

So, on von Trotta’s “Controversy,” Brigaud-Robert isn’t just selling: He’s looking to packaging its production, as he did on Wim Wenders’ “Miso Soup,” working with producer Philippe Carcassonne, inking with SSD Korea and a bevy of European producers.

Gaul’s global drive has sometimes hit paydirt: from Wild Bunch, Juan Antonio Bayona’s “The Orphanage” chalked up $3.2 million in sales at Berlin 2007.

But challenges do remain. Over the last decade, the international sales market has become far tougher, and uncertain. That, however, has its upside.

“We’re going through drastic changes in distribution, revaluating business models,” says Sebastien Chesneau, Rezo’s international sales head.

“Most independent films will soon find new ways of distribution. It’s actually an exciting opportunity for us all.”