French director Gaspar Noe will be in Berlin this week to explain to distributors the concept behind his film Enter The Void, which is being sold at the European Film Market (EFM) by Wild Bunch. The title of Noe's effects-driven new feature seems strangely apt given what many buyers and sellers are feeling as the market gets underway. After a slow Sundance and a Rotterdam where little real business was done despite the brisk CineMart meeting schedule, there is trepidation about prospects at the Berlinale. Attendees may really feel they are entering the void. After all, this is the first major European film market since the worldwide credit crunch really began to bite.

On the eve of the Berlinale, sales agents were predicting fewer "serious buyers" would be in attendance than in previous years. Many were questioning the costs of attending the EFM, with accreditation and screening charges all rising significantly. "The prices are insane compared to the sales situation," says one leading European sales agent about the cost of attending the market. "Each market, I see less distributors alive. Some are closing, some are not paying - just hiding behind the tree because they owe you money."

Attendees will be on an economy drive: expect fewer parties, less advertising, less hoopla. UK distributors have already been complaining about the weakness of the pound. "When you are translating (from euros) to pounds, we are not in the situation we were in the summer and that is the problem. You start your negotiations at one point and then the exchange rate catches up on you," says Mark Adams, director of cinema at ICA Films.

"We are not expecting a bumper Berlin," says Hilary Davis of London-based sales agent Bankside, which is introducing buyers to Colm McCarthy's new thriller, Outcast, starring James Nesbitt and Kate Dickie, which is set to shoot in the spring, and the completed Australian comedy Accidents Happen, starring Geena Davis. However, she points out that this is as much to do with where Bankside is in its "production cycle" as with the state of the market.

Films at script stage seem markedly less plentiful than at previous markets. "I don't think the agents have many films that are packaged or financed. That obviously makes a statement in terms of the financing - or lack of financing - that is out there," says Optimum Releasing's chief executive Will Clarke.

Buyers need product

It is easy, though, to overstate the gloom. Berlin's EFM remains an important and potentially lucrative staging post for most in the industry. The market's dates count in its favour. This is the start of the year; buyers need product. "There will be business because the solid distribution companies still need films," says Wild Bunch's Vincent Maraval.

"There is always a surprise or two (in the EFM)," says Clarke, who 'discovered' Hayao Miyazaki's Spirited Away in Berlin. "There is always something you can screen in the market ... people have to buy movies and release movies. That's what we do. If not, let's just close up shop and do something else."

Arthouse buyers, in particular, are drawn to Berlin. "Even though arthouse becomes more and more difficult, arthouse buyers know that if there is one market they should go to, it is Berlin," says Michael Werner, sales manager at Swedish sales agent NonStop Sales, which has just taken international rights to Oskar Jonasson's Reykjavik-Rotterdam starring Baltasar Kormakur.

Maraval suggests buyers and sellers need each other now more than ever and they will therefore collaborate in a far more pragmatic and constructive way than in past years. "For us, it is much more important to sell a movie to a company that we can rely on in terms of payment and in terms of royalty reports than just to have a bidding war," he says. "We are not in a time where we try to double the budget by sales. We are not organising bidding wars. What we want is to have solid partnerships and to have people who give the best chance to our films."

One market trend, welcome to many, may soon become evident - production costs will begin to go down.

"We will put more pressure on producers not to overpay talent like they were doing before, not to overpay themselves, not to spend money on lawyers and agents and that kind of thing," says Maraval. "Now, we need the money to go on the screen. We need the films to be cheaper and to cut parts in the budgets like talent, lawyers, fees."

At the same time, the films that sellers and buyers seemingly have most faith in are star and director-driven. Wouter Barendrecht, co-chairman of sales and production outfit Fortissimo Films, recently pointed out that the market is saturated.

"Europe, in general, is making far too many films," he says. "I think we made 1,200 films this year. There is no bloody space anywhere in the world for so many Dutch, German, French, Swedish or whatever films - so why do we keep on making them'"

Will prices come down' There are conflicting opinions. "The prices have come down for all films. There is a lot of choice. It is a buyers' market," says Hilary Davis.

Buzz or not, optimism survives

At the EFM, as at most recent markets, there will be only a handful of titles that distributors will really be swarming over. "I don't think it's a buyers' market because there is not much out there," says Clarke.

In Berlin, buzz titles are likely to include Peter Weir's The Way Back, starring Colin Farrell and Ed Harris (and being pre-sold by new powerhouse Exclusive), and for specialist distributors, Alexei Balabanov's Morphia (sold by Intercinema.)

The independent film business is used to being buffeted. As ever, there are plenty of optimists who see the present market turmoil as an opportunity to rethink.

"I am sure the industry will survive, one way or another," reflects Clarke. "We're just going through another transition. It happens every seven or eight years. It's partly the evolution of the film industry. I think it's exciting - new ways of getting movies out there and different ways of making movies."