A few disillusioned buyers may have already left the AFM deal tables this weekend to try their luck at the slots in Las Vegas, but if the market corridors felt emptier this year, at least the remaining buyers were serious.

Indeed, many of those who resisted sin city's allure spent the weekend chasing Equinoxe Films' Mambo Italiano, the surprise hit of the market and proof that a hard-core of distributors will pursue strong enough films.

Quickly dubbed My Big Fat Gay Wedding, the coming-out comedy saw sales rep Lina Marrone and Equinoxe's Yves Dion camped out "Sundance-style" in hotel lobbies as, with only one film to sell, they did not even have office. "If you have a film like Mambo Italiano, it seems that every single territory is active," said Marrone.

While the market overall was quiet and any prices paid usually down, Japan and the UK provided crucial props. Japanese deals were concentrated around a few name buyers - Gaga, New Select, Nippon Herald - but sellers say that distributors' tastes are broadening.

Arclight Films closed a pre-buy with Gaga on Head In The Clouds, an epic 1930s-set drama starring Charlize Theron, Penelope Cruz and Stuart Townsend. "The Japanese market is diversifying," said Yarek Danielak, Armada Pictures International's vice president of international distribution. "A few years ago there were only a few companies looking for the big bang pictures, but now people are looking for something that's commercial and intelligent."

In the UK, Icon, Entertainment and Momentum pre-bought Country Of My Skull, Beyond The Sea and Eulogy respectively, while Helkon SK picked up House Of The Dead. "All the sales agents say that there are less people here but that the people here are the real buyers," said Fine Line's Alexandra Rossi. North America was quiet, but only after a welter of US deals in Berlin earlier this month. At press time, studio buyers were circling Intermedia/IS's If Only, which IS co-chief Patrick Wachsberger bills as "Ghost for teenagers".

An increasingly multiplexed Russia was picking up steam, while Hong Kong was surprisingly busy with Edko, Intercontinental and Golden Scene buying even if the rest of the territory was quiet.

The real sick man of the market was a near-comatose continental Europe, where the continuing pay-TV crisis crippled buyers.

Outside Japan, Asian markets were also cautious, with economically-battered Taiwan non-existent. "The Philippines and Thailand are off a bit," said David Lamping, president of Seven Arts Signature International. "Europe is suffering from the reduction in TV advertising and the uncertainty in France over Canal Plus and pay TV in Spain."

Some warned of a shakeout amongst buyers and sellers. With less buyers around to back fewer films, the industry seems trapped in a vicious circle. "There needs to be more films at Cannes, otherwise there will be a clear out amongst distributors," said Helkon SK co-founder Zygi Kamasa. "There are not enough films for the amount of distributors there are in the world."

But even Europe mustered a few deals. Head In The Clouds also went to Manga yesterday for Spain, arguably the toughest European market. Capitol Films was tying up deals on Robert Altman's The Company in Spain and even Germany, two of the most troublesome territories in terms of pre-sales. Pathe picked up French and Benelux rights to Mystics from newly-launched Irish outfit MR Film Sales International, committing to a 100-print release.

"In Europe, buyers are finding that they need theatrical films with real theatrical potential because TV is dead and DVD and video is now the cushion," said Gary Smith, CEO of Winchester Films.

Other deals included:
* Trust Film Sales sold comedy Kopps to Solo Filmverleih for Germany.
* Atlas Entertainment sold its newly picked-up genre picture Beyond The Limits to New Select for Japan, Audiovisual for Greece, Believen for Russia, Anchor Bay for UK and Laser Paradise for Germany and reports three bidders for US rights.
* Cineclick Asia sold its big horror title H to Gaga Communications for Japan and pre-sold The Tale Of Two Sisters to Golden Scene for Hong Kong. H was previously sold to Intercontinental for Hong Kong.