If Berlin's European Film Market was anything to go by, one thing is clear: the overall climate for buying and selling films is probably getting no worse.

Indeed, the two recurring adjectives used to describe the state of the film sales business were "firmer" and "livelier" - particularly in comparison with a ravaged independent sector in 2002, that was reputedly near impossible for pre-sales.

All in all, Berlin should provide modest encouragement as buyers and sellers prepare themselves for next week's AFM.

"I get the feeling from buyers and sellers that this has been a good market," said EFM chief Beki Probst. "A number of festival films moved into the market quite quickly and worked well."

The 2003 edition of the EFM certainly felt busy for longer than last year, when business had dried up by Tuesday or Wednesday. Several competition titles - notably Goodbye, Lenin! and Blind Shaft - added multiple extra screenings at the end. That firmness came despite an exodus of French attendees who returned to Paris in order to attend Saturday's funeral of Unifrance boss Daniel Toscan Du Plantier.

Florence Stern of MK2 was one of many to allude to new working practices. "We have done fewer meeting than before, because the buyers are doing more screenings before they come in to talk." The oft-repeated mantra of increased buyer caution has meant that buyers' antennae are ever more attuned to press and festival audience reactions. "With TV buying so uncertain, distributors have to be very, very sure of theatrical potential," said one seller.

The European pay-TV crisis, which almost amounts to a buying strike, continued to damage buyer's ability to offset risk, particularly in France, Germany and Spain.

Many sellers added Italy to that list, but one, Francois Yon of Films Distribution said: "Italian TV is now waking up the market again and some distributors have got themselves deals with RAI and Telepiu."

DVD may also be providing some relief. MK2's Stern said: "Perhaps half of my business is coming from DVD rights as distributors seek out new opportunities." The most serious players from Spain and Italy were seeking out library titles for DVD release, even if they were not actively chasing the newest theatrical titles.

Overall prices and deal terms have not shown major change since this time last year or since Mifed. But they are still miles from their peak. One French buyer said he paid Euros 150,000 for a European cross-over film, compared to Euros 600,000 for an equivalent kind of title at Berlin four years ago. The relative strengths of some buying territories continues to shift, generally with former-Communist countries perkier than 'old Europe.'

"Germany and France are traditionally the biggest European buyers of Asian films. Any improvement there makes a big difference to us. The UK and Scandinavia are getting better now. China is strengthening all the time and paying real money - but Taiwan has quite simply disappeared," said Carrie Wong, principal of Hong Kong's Golden Network. "Russia has got a lot of money. In some cases they are paying as much today as Germany. They are feeling strong again and once again taking rights in adjacent territories, the Baltics and East Europe," said Yon.

The EFM was, however, a polarised European and art-house affair. American buyers were out in reasonable numbers, but after weekend deals had been struck for Capitol Films' I'm Not Afraid (Miramax for North America and some additional territories), El Deseo's My Life Without Me, Pathe International's Broken Wings (both to Sony Pictures Classics), Fortissimo's Yossi And Jagger (to Strand) and Films Distribution's Lucas Belvaux trilogy (to Magnolia) the trail went cold until The Coproduction Office signed Palm Pictures up for Noi Albinoi late on Wednesday.

One seller said he had counted only five Spanish buyers in Berlin, others pointed to a near total absence of Asian and Latin American distributors , with both groups expected to be out in greater force in Santa Monica next week. "I've never seen a Berlin with so few Asian buyers," said Wong. "There were a few Japanese buyers, one from Hong Kong that I can remember and none from Korea," said Thorsten Schaumann, of Bavaria Film, which, with popular competition title Goodbye Lenin and foreign-language Oscar nominee Nowhere In Africa, was one of the busiest sellers. "We need to work on giving the EFM a broader base of buyers."

"One of our top priorities at the AFM is to sell the Quay brothers The Piano Tuner Of Earthquakes to Japan. We have strong interest from ten companies, but they are not all here in Berlin," said Pierre Menaheim, of Celluloid Dreams.

Asian selllers also found the EFM patchy. "Japanese art-house films are out of fashion. European buyers want Chinese films at the moment," said Kiyo Joo of Japan's Gold View. "More commercial Japanese commercial films work well on DVD and my colleagues at Shochiku are therefore looking forward to a strong AFM."