Buyers attending rights-trading bazaars since last year's AFM could have had their theoretical pick of the following multiple Oscar-nominees: Capitol Films' Gosford Park, Good Machine International's In The Bedroom, UGC's Amelie, Intermedia's Iris and, of course, New Line's The Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring, the biggest grossing film ever to be handled by independent distributors.

But that doesn't mean that those lucky buyers who did grab these titles, many of them now brimming with overages, will be opening their wallets indiscriminately at this year's AFM in the hope of sustaining their Oscar glory yet another year.

Far from it, according to numerous film agents and buyers interviewed for this article, as they predict a foreshortened market with the deal-making being wrapped up as early as the fourth or fifth day of AFM trading. Together, these executives paint a bleak picture of an independent sales business that has been deteriorating across the world even as the overall box office numbers keep climbing year-on-year largely on the back of studio competition.

Consolidation has already reduced the number of potent indie suppliers and now the rumoured threat of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer being folded into another studio could makes things even worse since MGM has been relied upon by sales agencies as a major source of studio-level pictures.

Other omens do not bode well. The indie video business is on a downward spiral worldwide; the infant DVD market is skewing towards old classics and recent Hollywood blockbusters rather than the low-budget cheapies that marked the birth of VHS; television networks are becoming more specific in their buying needs and now often produce for themselves, dragging marquee acting names away with them; and the world's multiplexes are being swamped by a combination of heavily marketed studio juggernauts and local-language giant-killers whose international prospects are for the most part limited once they travel beyond their own ethnic borders.

"The indie scene has always had a needle-in-the-haystack element," says Jeff Sackman, CEO of ThinkFilm, a new North American buyer at the AFM. "You're always looking for the break-through picture. Last year it was Memento; this year it's In The Bedroom. Everyone wants to pick the right one and apply their marketing magic. But making a business out of it is the difficult part."

The same predicament is shared by independents worldwide. So, rather than spend their recent good fortune, even that happy handful of international ring-leaders that did manage to get their hands on The Fellowship Of The Ring are just as likely to sit pretty on their cash and cherry pick between the few viable new titles that will be unveiled at the AFM. Should they return home empty-handed from Santa Monica they know they have more than enough capital reserves to maintain their operations for the immediate future. And there's still the promise of two more films in the Rings trilogy to come.

After years of false sunsets, the writing may finally be on the wall for the vast majority of traditional foreign sales outfits who make their living simply pre-selling other producers' quasi-theatrical projects to a global quilt-work of distribution outlets. Especially now that the German speculative bubble has deflated - and could burst completely should TV mogul Leo Kirch, the country's largest rights-holder, prove himself unable to bail out from under his $4.4bn debt load.

The film sales arena, according to those who inhabit this sphere, is cleaving into two tiers that threaten the livelihoods of those dangling in the yawning gulf between them. At the one end, below the news radar of even the film business media, is a scrappy stratum of bottom-feeders so lean they are able to survive catering to a small unexciting hodge-podge of international video and TV clients. At the other is a privileged group of sufficiently resourced talent magnets that operate almost as mini-studios able, if necessary, to orchestrate sophisticated financial packages for their projects as a hedge against dwindling pre-sales advances.

These highly evolved indies are able to originate their own theatrically-driven material and then exploit those titles through a tight network of distribution ties extending across all the major territories, including the absolutely critical US theatrical marketplace.

"Sources of real theatrical movies from legitimate producers are at a premium right now," agrees Good Machine International president David Linde, who is able to draw on outside suppliers such as Radar Pictures and El Deseo as well as an in-house production team that has a first-look deal with Miramax Films. His strategy, and one that he shares with his more successful counterparts, is to "focus on establishing long-term producer supplier relationships and combine that focus with forging on-going distribution relationships in every territory."

Easier said than done, of course. Look at what has happened to Alliance Atlantis since the last AFM. Canada's dominant media player last month effectively abandoned its big budget ambitions and shifted its international sales and production focus towards art-house fare and documentaries under managing director, international motion picture sales, Charlotte Mickie.

"It's fair to say we want to do prestige films, that is to say art films that can be commercial but get good reviews. And we'll be very supportive of Canadian films and do things at the budget level that makes more sense and where we have international partners," explains Mickie of the policy change.

Ted Riley, Alliance Atlantis' president of distribution, characterises this new emphasis as an effort to more "rigorous" in its film activities. "We'll be focused on a specific kind of film, if you look at what we're in right now we're all over the map, lots of different properties." He also confirmed that the company's former international president Mark Horowitz has now been engaged as an independent contractor to continue handling Neil Jordan's Cannes-hopeful Double Down. The $30m film has yet to secure a US distributor.

No longer willing to risk that same pickle is Myriad Pictures. "From now on, we will try and have domestic in place before we start a picture because without it, there are too many sleepless nights," says president Kirk D'Amico. "The difference these days is that you have to spend much more money and you have to have a domestic distribution component to survive."

But for D'Amico and anyone else trying to secure a US home for their projects, it's very much a buyers' market out there. " Unfortunately because of the volume of product trying to find domestic distribution, companies are now unloading it for a distribution fee, some companies are putting up P&A financing and all the domestic distributors are open to doing it on a fee basis. It cuts their risk. In that respect, we're becoming like insurance companies."

Sales companies often have no choice but to negotiate with a studio system that feels it can front an ever lower percentage of the budget in return for US rights. "I always tell domestic distributors you just can't get 55% or 65% out of foreign. You just can't," continues D'Amico. "Which means we need a soft money component these days to make up the shortfall, whether it's sale and leaseback deals, Canadian tax credits, European subsidies or co-production financing."

Capitol Films' managing director Jane Barclay puts it even more succinctly. "Relying on pre-sales alone to finance productions