In the wake of a slow Sundance and a very difficult American Film Market (AFM), distributors turned up in Berlin in expectation.

They were cautious - given the economic situation they could hardly be otherwise - but most needed to refresh their slates and were looking to the Berlinale to bolster their confidence. By the end of the festival, the mood had become muted and it was evident business had been mixed. Nor was there much sense of the competition driving the market.

‘The competition was very poor,’ says Dutch distributor Pim Hermeling of Wild Bunch Benelux. ‘It was also (poor) in the market. There were no films that leapt out. There was no surprise… I came back from Sundance hoping that Berlin would make the difference - and it didn’t. We (buyers) are not afraid to spend because we need new films, but we’re cautious and we’re not buying everything that early or for the prices we used to pay for it.’

Hermeling, who pre-bought Lars von Trier’s Antichristduring Berlin, adds that the US sales agents ‘didn’t bring us any new projects’.

Recent Berlin competitions have generally yielded at least a few titles which have excited the buyers or stoked up controversy. For example, the surprise 2008 Golden Bear winner Elite Squad(which had been pre-bought by The Weinstein Company) provoked fierce debate, with some accusing it of glamorising police brutality and others asking how such a film could win a competition that also included such heavyweight titles as There Will Be Blood and Happy-Go-Lucky. Buyers also remember discovering Hayao Miyazaki in the competition in Berlin or stumbling across titles such as Wolfgang Becker’s Good Bye Lenin!.

This year, there were no major US deals or accounts of bidding wars on titles in official selection. Critics, too, were lukewarm in their responses to many competition titles. As they equivocated over titles such as Lukas Moodysson’s Mammoth and Francois Ozon’s Ricky, many asked why the programmers had not found space for titles such as Lee Daniels’ Sundance hit Push: Based On The Novel By Sapphire, or Russian director Alexey Balabanov’s Morphia (which instead played in Rotterdam to enthusiastic audiences).

‘The Hyatt was half empty on Saturday and Sunday. It felt like there were less people around,’ notes one US buyer, who admitted bypassing many of the competition titles. ‘You’d have people going to the first screenings and coming back, saying the films were very bad.’

For their part, one sales agent with two of the more sought-after films in official selection, points to the lack of US buyers in festival screenings and says these same buyers are now asking for screeners.

The excitement in Berlin seemed to be less over titles in official selection than over genre films in the market. For example, London-based AV Pictures’ Lesbian Vampire Killersgenerated far more buzz among buyers than most of the fare in competition. It was telling that, even before the festival was over, buyers were turning their eyes toward Cannes in anticipation of the many films from big-name directors set to be unveiled there in May.

However, smaller arthouse buyers were more upbeat about the Berlin competition. Robert Beeson of UK outfit New Wave acknowledges ‘there was nothing everyone was slavering over’ in official selection, but he adds: ‘There wasn’t anything really terrible. I wouldn’t say it was an especially bad year.’ New Wave says it hopes to acquire at least one film from the official selection.

Fellow UK buyer Ed Fletcher, of Soda Pictures, agreed that Berlin’s competition was much the same as ever. ‘There was good, there was bad. (The selection) was less depressing than in the previous year.’ As for the lack of deals, Fletcher argues it ‘says more about the market than the films’.

Berlin’s European Film Market (EFM) has grown strongly since the AFM switched dates to November. US sales agents and distributors have been lured in increasing numbers; the question now is whether they can be kept. The festival continues to programme high-quality arthouse fare, but the big specialty distributors are looking for titles with crossover potential. Speaking informally, some US companies are suggesting they will not go back to Berlin next year. This raises the possibility that the EFM may return to what it used to be - an important meeting place for European and Asian companies but not a major market.

Certain titles in competition did grab buyers’ attention. French outfit Memento closed a raft of deals on Peter Strickland’s debut feature Katalin Vargato the UK (Artificial Eye) and Benelux (Lumiere/Filmmuseum) among other territories, and on its Panorama-opening title North, which went to France (Bodega), Italy (Sacher), Benelux (Amstelfilm/CNC) and several other smaller territories.

Pathe did steady business on Stephen Frears’ Cheri, announcing deals with Lumiere for Benelux, Nordisk for Scandinavia and Alta for Spain. Miramax arrived in Berlin with North American rights sewn up.

Les Films Du Losange took on French rights (and world sales) on Andrzej Wajda’s Sweet Rush, while The Match Factory says it is poised to sign a US deal for Adrian Biniez’s Gigante. Deals were done during the festival on the Uruguayan competition title to Germany (Neue Visionen), France (Ocean), Spain (Golem) and South Korea (Sejong) and a host of smaller territories. The Match Factory also sold the Peruvian Golden Bear winner The Milk Of Sorrow around the world with deals to Germany, Italy and France reportedly pending.

Paris-based Elle Driver reported strong interest from both press and buyers in Rachid Bouchareb’s London River, set against the backcloth of the July 2005 terrorist bombings in London. Elle Driver’s Adeline Fontan Tessaur suggests the film’s treatment of peace and reconciliation in the wake of violence is something that will strike a chord with audiences in the post-Bush era.

During Berlin, Elle Driver closed deals on London Riverwith Italy (Bim), Scandinavia (NonStop) and various other smaller territories. The sales agent is also in ‘serious’ discussions about the film with US buyers. ‘It was perfect timing for us to have the film in competition,’ says an upbeat Fontan Tessaur.

Complementing its success with London Riverin competition, Elle Driver also did brisk business on its market titles, the Anna Wintour/Vogue documentary The September Issueand the Norwegian zombie film, Dead Snow, both of which arrived in Berlin on the back of well-received Sundance screenings.

Even so, Fontan Tessaur struck a note of caution about the mood among distributors: ‘If they really want the film, they will try to buy it but they will buy at lower prices than in the past. Pre-sales are almost impossible now for difficult territories.’

Early signs are that there will be rich pickings in official selection at this year’s Cannes festival. Buyers who left Berlin empty-handed will be hoping so. As Pim Hermeling puts it: ‘All the big directors have a new film coming up - we are all waiting for those projects.’