Even without the Luc Besson-produced “Taken,” the U.S. remained the biggest market for French cinema abroad — but also its greatest challenge — in 2010.

“There’s a continuing audience for arthouse cinema but it’s more difficult for films to stay on screens and build,” says Richard Lorber, prexy of Kino-Lorber, a leading indie distributor in the U.S.

The aging of arthouse auds and the increasing dominance of Hollywood tentpoles are among the top concerns shared by most French sales agents and indie distribs.

But as Regine Hatchondo, managing director for Unifrance, says, 52 French-language titles were theatrically released stateside in 2010 vs. 38 in 2009.

While only a few films registered more than niche results, Hatchondo says B.O. take was more evenly spread out than in 2009.

A string of sleeper hits, including the Alain Chabat-produced docu “Babies,” Radu Mihaileanu’s “The Concert,” Sandrine Kiberlain starrer “Mademoiselle Chambon” and Pascal Chaumeil “Heartbreaker” exceeded expectations at the U.S. box office.

Lorber, whose company released “Mademoiselle Chambon,” says he’s been “working closely with film festivals and universities across the country to find support for world cinema.”

Semi-theatrical venues, including film societies, also give foreign-language films visibility in smaller cities that no longer have an arthouse theater, per Lorber.

Over at Music Box Films, managing director Ed Arentz says he’s acquiring French films with a broader appeal, including period dramas with literary pedigree such as “Mozart’s Sister,” or pics by well-known directors like Francois Ozon’s “Potiche.” Both films are playing at the Unifrance Rendez-Vous in New York.

“The traditional audience for French films looks for contemporary dramas, with a sense of realism and classical storytelling, because they don’t get enough of these films from Hollywood,” Arentz says. “Films appealing to a younger demo tend to have a limited theatrical potential outside big markets like New York and Los Angeles, but they can find their audience on VOD or DVD.”

Indeed, French and American industryites across the board see VOD as a mean to lure younger auds to watch foreign-language cinema.

Results of Unifrance’s My French Film Festival, an online fest showcasing many youth-themed films, found the U.S. was the world’s top market for pay VOD.

IFC Films, a leading distributor of foreign-language pics, has even adopted the day-and-date model, rolling out pics simultaneously in theaters and on VOD.

But for better or worse, most U.S. distribs say they don’t acquire films unless they think they can perform theatrically. “Getting the film released in theaters not only provides you with the ability to market it but also provides the cable operator with a visible promotional platform,” says Harold Gronenthal, Senior Vice President and General Manager of Rainbow Media Global. Rainbow Media operates IFC Films and Rainbow Media Global.

Events like Unifrance’s Rendez- Vous in New York or COLCOA in Los Angeles not only help Gallic sales companies promote their films but also play an important part in providing distribs with a theatrical launchpad and attracting the nation’s key critics.

Still, for French sales outfits, the U.S. market remains difficult to break into. “Buyers have learned many lessons during the recession,” says Gregoire Melin, topper of Kinology, which has Claude Lelouch’s “Ces amours-la” playing at the New York Rendez-Vous. “Their markets have become tougher and their audience more selective, and they’re much more cautious. They now read everything and if possible watch footage before making a decision.”

“The U.S. sale usually comes in last because buyers want to see the finished product, read reviews, measure the buzz and wait for the films to be selected in festivals like Sundance, Tribeca, Telluride, Toronto and Seattle,” says Cecile Gaget, head of international sales at Gaumont.

As Lorber points out, “There’s more of a supply than a demand so if we miss out on a film, we are often fortunate to find another we love as much and our pursuit of quality never ends.”

More from New York Rendez-Vous with French Cinema:
Gaul pics fight pall with youth call | Films, helmers, execs converge on N.Y. | French thesps: The new generation