By Robert Mitchell

LONDON Over the past 20 years, U.K.’s Raindance Film Festival has shown a knack for recognizing talent early. The fifth edition in 1997 opened with the first public screening outside of Scandinavia of Nicholas Winding Refn’s now cult-classic “Pusher.” Three years earlier, it had welcomed a film called “Alferd Packer: The Musical,” from a young, unknown filmmaker.

“The closing night party was a very humble affair back then; about 30 people came,” says festival founder Elliot Grove. Everyone wanted to buy “Alferd’s” creator a drink, Grove recalls. “We all felt he was going to be a big deal.”

That Raindance saw something special in Trey Parker’s first full-length feature (later retitled “Cannibal! The Musical”), shows the kind of independent-minded festival it has always been.

Raindance has hosted the U.K. preems of “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?,” “Pulp Fiction,” “Memento,” “The Blair Witch Project” and “Oldboy,” among others.

“A lot of great filmmakers who have had early work screen at Raindance have gone on to establish great reputations and careers,” says Ron Eyal, whose “Stranger Things,” written and directed with Eleanor Burke, won the fest’s U.K. feature prize last year. His latest film with Burke, “Bright as Day” was one of five projects chosen for this year’s Sundance Institute Creative Producing Feature Film Lab. “Ben Wheatley won the best U.K. feature award (at Raindance) two years before us,” Eyal says.

Wheatley saw his winning 2009 debut feature “Down Terrace” receive its world preem at Raindance. The U.K. filmmaker’s follow-up, “Kill List,” became a cult favorite in 2011, and this year, “Sightseers” saw its world preem at Cannes in May. Film4.0 recently announced it would produce his next project “A Field in England.”

Grove has always been a big believer in supporting the work of up-and-coming filmmakers. Six years after Raindance premiered, he started the British Independent Film Awards.

Hamish Moseley, senior vice president theatrical sales for Momentum Pictures, calls the BIFAs “a great help in sustaining the momentum on awards-season titles after the fall festivals, and ahead of the Golden Globes.”

Adds producer and former head of Tartan Films, Hamish McAlpine, “The BAFTAs have gone, quite rightly, more Hollywood, so the BIFAs were equally important as an alternative to focus on British and independent cinema.”

Raindance this year, however, has received Hollywood’s blessing. The 2012 edition of the fest marks the first time its short film winner will automatically qualify for consideration for the 2013 Oscar in that category.

“To get that seal of approval from the Academy helps us tremendously as a brand,” Grove says.

Such an association can’t hurt a festival that has, since its inception, seen funding as its biggest worry. “There is no corporate sponsorship,” says Oli Harbottle, head of distribution at U.K. specialty distributor Dogwoof. “They are not running a festival with help from distributors with a vested interest.”

This year, the fest will include a Latin American sidebar, with the opening night film Mexico’s “Here Comes the Devil.” The strand will feature seven films from Mexico and will be repeated next year. “It’s the first time Mexico has been the guest country in a U.K. film festival,” says David Martinez Flores who, alongside Mariela Velasco, is program director for the sidebar.

Raindance’s origins stem from an event organized by Grove in 1992, around a film school offered by American Dov Simens in London. Its popularity led Grove to start a training program (now operating in eight cities in six countries). “Then I realized there was no place to show these independent films,” says Grove, “so I decided to start a festival. I was so naive then; I just knew I wanted to do it.” Grove had observed the confluence of film industry executives in London ahead of the now-defunct Mifed film market in Milan, and elected to time his fest for the week prior.

There’s no doubt the festival has grown in importance among U.K. indie filmmakers. From modest beginnings that saw the fest garner 1,378 admissions in 1993, last year’s edition drew 16,500 admissions. This year’s 20th edition, which open Sept. 26 at London’s Apollo Cinema Piccadilly Circus, and runs through Oct. 7, will feature 105 features and approximately 140 shorts from 38 countries, and includes 20 world preems, 13 international preems and 64 U.K. preems.

“Elliot is kind of the godfather of independent filmmaking in the U.K.” says McAlpine. “The London Film Fest has changed over the years and as it went more mainstream, there needed to be an alternative platform for independent cinema.”

Adds Michael Mueller, whose “City Slacker” is in the competish for best U.K. feature: “People are always telling you why you shouldn’t make a film. Every week I get an e-mail from Raindance saying why you should.”