The pre-Mifed screenings in London this October look set to be a smaller affair than in previous years. Many film sellers, including some based in London, have decided to set up stall only once this autumn - in Milan.

The various London organisers are faced with what comes close to a boycott on the part of many of the biggest US sales companies. American outfits including Miramax International, Summit Entertainment, Intermedia, Focus, New Line, MDP, Lakeshore and Pandora have decided jointly not to exhibit product in London in a bid to cut the cost of attending both markets.

However, London market organisers say that they still have a role to play. "There will be screenings in London this year, next year and the year after - London started organically. There is a latent demand for them," says Jojo Dye, head of Fusion Events and organiser of one of the London strands London Premier Screenings. But like Dye, Elliot Grove, organiser of the Raindance festival and trade screenings in London, says "London is not down and out, but it may be smaller this year."

Elena Lloyd, managing director of Mifed, describes this autumn's market season as a "decisive year" in the relations between the competing markets. "Underlying economic conditions are very difficult, some companies have had a very hard year and now have to make choices."

Arguments about the relative cost of the two environments are clearly important - "we need to save our industry in these difficult times," said one seller - but they are not clear cut. "The hotels in London are pricey. Unfortunately that is true. But that does not make London a more expensive market. It does not have Mifed's mighty registration fee," says Alexis Bicat, boss of buyer's rep,

More to the point is the unwanted hassle and cost of attending two consecutive markets. Says Intermedia's Jere Hausfater: "It's a function of time and money. MIFED will run a full five days and everybody is on board to make that work."

French exporters under the ADEF umbrella decided some months ago not to attend London. "This is not a boycott. The London Screenings had grown from a small gathering to screen three or four films into an unavoidable detour before going to Mifed, but it means doubling the money and energy spent. European exporters have now chosen Mifed," says Dominique Orsini, ADEF general secretary.

Buyers such as Audrey Lee of Hong Kong major Edko have similar concerns. "Most of the Hong Kong buyers will stop in London on the way to Mifed as it is on the way. People don't mind going to London because most screenings are in cinemas and the facilities are much better. For the sake of saving costs it would be better if we just had one market. Mifed's facilities and screening rooms are limited. But London is very expensive, so it would be better to just have an upgraded Mifed."

With times universally hard for the independent sector, another decisive factor this year is the attitude of the British companies. "Even for us, with offices in the middle of London to invite people to, [attending both] still means duplicating our marketing efforts," says Nicole Mackey, head of sales at Signpost Films and head of the UK Film Exporters Group, a committee which advises the Film Council.

Other London sales companies which have indicated that they will not be screening films in their home town include Capitol, Pathe UK, Goldcrest, Vine International, Renaissance and Victor Films.

Their choice also appears to be between a London that has now outgrown its clubby, informal origins and a Mifed that is unloved, but practical and centralised.

"London will still be key for film financing. But the London Screenings, because they're not under one umbrella are more difficult to get buyers and sellers together. There are always complaints about the infrastructure at Milan - it is dark, the building is damp - but it is still the more practical place to get together," says Kevin Williams principal of Spanish seller KWA.

Mifed has moved to improve its appeal this year by opening a new pavilion and upgrading the sound systems and ventilation in some of the screening rooms, but it has not yet dealt a knock-out blow to London.

It had hoped to re-activate the Milan Premier Screenings, a two-day event that preceded Mifed, but which was dropped last year through lack of interest. "We had hoped to extend Mifed by two days, but it was not possible this year because of the Fiera's other shows," said Lloyd. "There will be a screening in the Fiera on Saturday (Nov 2) ahead of the official market (Nov 3-7) and maybe some downtown screenings in the morning, but afternoons are out because the theatrical season is then in full swing."

London's supporters continue to argue that the annual match against Milan has not already been lost for this year. Dye says: "We thought London would be quiet last year, but for us it turned out to be one of the busiest ever."

Grove says: "Three weeks before the date the buyers finally decide they are going to come," while Bicat asks: "Would a Miramax no show be a blow' No, more like a bad move on their part. It would also give the independents a chance, a bit like Italy being knocked out of the World Cup early."

Others are more sanguine. Bertrand Mouiller, head of film at UK producers' union PACT - which used to co-organise screenings in London, but stopped after 2000's event - says: "London should go back to its origins: premium product and teaser screenings and leave the big volume to Mifed. We simply don't have the infrastructure in London to hold a world scale film market."

And the Film Council - amid calls for the government or another central body to establish a unified venue, simplified organisation and even subsidise buyers - sees the London screenings as merely part of a larger international awareness strategy. But the messages it has received from within the UK have themselves been mixed.

Tina McFarling, spokeswoman for the Film Council, says: "We've been approached by different parties some of whom feel [London Screenings] is useful, while others tell us it is not necessary. We're trying to find a clear picture among these conflicting views."

Jennifer Green IN MADRID, Liz Shackleton IN HONG KONG and Francoise Meaux Saint Marc IN PARIS contributed to this report.