NEW YORK — Toronto is a well-known hunting ground for domestic film acquisitions, but along with last year’s North American sales boom came a surprising boost in a new arena: international sales and presales.

Toronto doesn’t have an official market, yet more people are turning to TIFF as an international sales hub, potentially creating some serious competition for business with AFM, Berlin and Cannes.

Registered sales agents repping international rights jumped 17% over last year, from 363 in 2010 to 425, says TIFF Sales & Industry Office senior manager Justin Cutler.

Festival co-director Cameron Bailey says that much of the industry tends to focus on Toronto as a key buying market for U.S. films or for the U.S. market generally. “But we’ve got a much wider range of films and delegates than that,” he adds. “I can’t remember when (international sales activity) wasn’t happening here, but I think the scale of it has increased a lot in the last four or five years.”

While the spike is clearly inspired by this year’s economic rebound, it also reflects on TIFF’s growing appeal, plus several new initiatives overseen by Cutler and encouraged in the last few years by Bailey.

There’s no hotel filled with tradeshow posters along the beach, but Bailey cites expanded space in TIFF’s new partner hotel, the Hyatt Regency, and the fest’s move to a centralized location downtown as helping to facilitate new services and more business transactions.

The fest has also enacted new digital initiatives aimed to improve communication among buyers and sellers, much as the Bell Lightbox’s free WiFi has for all festgoers.

Program books are now readable on handheld devices and tablets, notes Cutler, and a new delegate guide download feature (similar to Cinando.com) allows for real-time updates for fest attendees. Electronic rights lists with available territories have new tags with more identifiable topics for each film.

TIFF is now working with two B2B programs, Cinando Screening Room and Festival Scope, allowing rights-holders to screen films online for buyers after their debuts, and even after the fest ends. “It’s kind of extending the breadth of those films under our curatorial banner,” Cutler says. Two of this year’s world premieres viewable on Festival Scope are Figa Films’ “The Last Christeros” and Visit Films’ “Fable of the Fish.”

The fest is helping foster the next generation of Canadian buyers and sellers with this year’s introduction of discount student industry passes, targeting the many new film biz programs cropping up in Canada.

TIFF is reaching out to new territories, many with outsized growth in film and entertainment such as China, Japan and Korea, with local-lingo outreach letters to better communicate with delegates. That’s part of what has helped the fest slowly but steadily increase the number of attending countries, says Cutler, from 63 in 2009 to 65 last year to a record 67 this year.

Japanese and Korean attendance figures have had particularly big spikes. “The Asian market is especially important for us,” says Bailey. “We feel like that’s an area where we can stand to grow a lot. I’m beginning to spend more time there — I was in Beijing twice this year — and plan to do as much as I can to keep travelling to that area. A lot of significant Asian films premiere here, and we feel the Asian buyers should be here in the same kind of numbers.”

Bailey knows that he has to walk a fine line between art and commerce when he promotes Toronto’s potential for film sales.

“We’re not like Cannes or Berlin in the sense that there is no official market here, so we really do focus on the films that are in official selection,” he explains. “But, of course, we’re aware that companies that have films in official selection are also bringing along their wares for the next season, and they’re showing some of that stuff off as well. Because the buyers are here, they can do quite well with that.”

Anecdotal evidence is everywhere. Last year, IM Global landed more than more than $30 million in foreign presales for DNA’s 3D comic adaptation “Dredd.”

Companies like Myriad Pictures are lining up big parties, and even more action is expected with the official Toronto debut of sales/production/finance shingle Sierra/Affinity, which reps titles from Sidney Kimmel Entertainment, OddLot, Bold, Sierra Pictures and its partner, Incentive Filmed Entertainment. They’re repping overseas rights to films screening in competition (Oren Moverman’s “Rampart”) and others still in production (the crime thrillers “Parker” and “The Place Beyond the Pines”)

“It’s growing as a presales market, (but) the thing that’s great about it is that it’s not a full-on market, and I don’t think buyers or sellers want to turn it into one” says Sierra/Affinity co-founder Nick Meyer. “It’s such a great venue for people to talk about and screen movies, and to see footage. International buyers (can) get a sense of what the fourth-quarter Oscar movies will be, what (next) year’s going to look like, and talk about movies in a less pure-market environment.” n