No-one would argue with New Line's worldwide distribution chief Rolf Mittweg when he says the demise of New Line's international sales operation 'leaves a major void in the international marketplace'.

Not only was the operation, in the words of Mittweg, the executive who built it up during the late 1980s and 1990s, 'a constant supplier of product, some of it great, some of it not so great', it also meant distributors 'could always count on at least six to eight movies from us a year. We had great working relationships with our overseas partners and we grew together.'

Many sales executives, in fact, go further and suggest that by boosting the fortunes of the distributor partners with which it had ongoing output or package deals - companies including the UK's Entertainment, France's Metropolitan, Australia's Village Roadshow and Spain's Tri Pictures - New Line effectively elevated the independent international industry as a whole.

Other sellers benefited, for example, when the New Line distributors reinvested profits from The Lord Of The Rings and Rush Hour movies - or from last Christmas' The Golden Compass - in the acquisition of non-New Line films.

No wonder, then, the decision by parent Warner Bros to turn New Line into a stripped-down genre label whose films will (once current deals expire) be distributed worldwide by the studio is having such an impact in the independent arena. Filling the New Line void has suddenly become a pressing need, or an enticing opportunity, for all sorts of independent players.

In the run-up to Cannes, competition among theatrical buyers for the kind of Hollywood-scale projects that New Line supplied is heating up. Sellers report interest has been particularly strong from the handful of territories in which New Line had ongoing deals and for projects aimed at the second half of 2009, after the last titles on the present New Line slate are delivered.

'We're certainly seeing an uptick in interest from distributors who previously didn't need as much product because they were secure in having the New Line output,' says Lisa Wilson, president of Hyde Park International. 'They've been making more of an effort than usual to meet us before Cannes.'

Challenge for New Line partners

Mittweg is confident the 'top-of-the-line distributors' that were New Line's partners will have no trouble finding alternative sources of product to fill their release schedules.

But the companies will face real competition in the open marketplace - from Hollywood studios that have lately been retaining or buying more international rights, from rival independents that have cultivated close relationships with other suppliers during the New Line era, and from the multi-territory independent buyer groups that have recently emerged.

Whether the New Line partner companies seek out new ongoing deals or cherry-pick projects from a number of suppliers remains to be seen. Some sales company executives say they are already discussing output deals with product-hungry buyers.

Others suggest the New Line partners may have been put off the very idea of output deals by their struggles to make a profit on some of the titles from New Line's inconsistent recent slates.

US sellers are not gloating over New Line's withdrawal from the international sales business. As sales veteran Steve Bickel, president of international at The Film Department, puts it: 'The loss of any independent or independent-spirited company (New Line has, after all, been owned by Warner Bros for the past 12 years) is a loss to the industry. New Line provided a great service to all of us because they helped make strong companies that we're now able to sell to.'

But the sellers also see opportunities to sell more films to a wider range of buyers and, for a few of the bigger suppliers, to expand and fill part or all of the gap that New Line's withdrawal has left.

Leading the field of remaining big picture suppliers are Summit Entertainment and the combination of Lionsgate and Mandate formed when the former acquired the latter last September. Crucially, like New Line, each group now has its own North American theatrical distribution operation, giving international buyers assurance that films will get a domestic theatrical launch and allowing the co-ordination of domestic and international release dates.

Summit is new to the domestic distribution business. But it is a company with vast international experience that plans to handle 10-12 films in the $15m-$45m budget range a year. Its Cannes slate includes Terrence Malick's drama Tree Of Life, starring Brad Pitt, and it already has output deals for its own productions in France, Germany, UK and Scandinavia.

In Lionsgate, Mandate has a well-proven domestic distribution outlet that last year scored three $50m-plus box-office hits and this year has a bigger market share than any independent or studio specialty division.

As the combination's international arm, Mandate - which will be in Cannes with titles including Whip It! featuring rising star Ellen Page, and family animation Alpha And Omega - handles around half of Lionsgate's domestic slate plus titles from third-party producers.

New Line's withdrawal, says Helen Lee Kim, president of Mandate International, 'just puts us in a better situation, because you can count on one hand the independent companies able to bring studio-level product to the marketplace'.

Studio sales

Studio-owned sales operations Paramount Vantage International and Focus Films International will be another alternative source for buyers. At Berlin, Vantage sold select non-PPI territories on Martin Scorsese's thriller Shutter Island for big prices, and also represents the original productions from new domestic distributor Overture Films.

The studio operations, however, are likely to be only supplemental suppliers, since each also feeds some titles to the international distribution arm of its parent studio. Having the option to go the independent or studio route allows Vantage to 'tailor the distribution', says Alex Walton, senior vice-president of international sales at Vantage.

Then there are the independent production and sales outfits that do not have their own domestic distribution operations but will still be able to supply buyers with some studio-distributed pictures.

Included in this group are established companies such as Nu Image/Millennium, Lakeshore (offering its Fame remake at Cannes) and Hyde Park (with its game adaptation Street Fighter); new players such as The Weinstein Company and The Film Department (offering Catherine Zeta-Jones romantic comedy The Rebound and thriller Law Abiding Citizen); and fast-rising sellers such as IM Global, Essential, QED and Odd Lot (with family adventure The Great Ghost Rescue).

'New Line dropping out didn't change our plans,' says Brian O'Shea, Odd Lot's executive vice-president of worldwide distribution. 'It just augmented the strategy we already have, which is to go after bigger pictures.'

New players

The New Line restructure may also draw the attention of producers and production companies that began in the independent business but now also work in the studio world.

Producers such as Oscar-winner Graham King, who last year launched Warner Bros-based GK Films but who still heads production and sales outfit Initial Entertainment, could now be tempted to consider strategies that keep them active in both arenas. Like Paramount Vantage, such producers could seek to retain rights for some territories on some projects and thereby exploit the new demand from independent buyers for studio-level projects.

The level of that demand was illustrated two weeks ago when GK Films announced plans to make the thriller Edge Of Darkness with Mel Gibson starring and Martin Campbell directing. Though GK did not reveal whether the project would be distributed independently or through a studio in the international marketplace, the announcement apparently elicited immediate offers from some international buyers.

Perhaps most significantly, the New Line strategy shift could lure entirely new players into the independent international business. US sales executives are already contemplating the possibility of fresh competition from such companies as financier-producers Relativity Media and Media Rights Capital (MRC).

MRC, the company launched by former Endeavor agent and Summit executive Modi Wiczyk and his partner Asif Satchu, has so far fed international rights to projects such as Sacha Baron Cohen's untitled Bruno comedy, Cameron Diaz thriller The Box and Ricky Gervais' This Side Of The Truth to studios or outside sales companies. But some sources believe MRC is preparing to enter the international sales business itself.

Relativity, the hedge fund-backed finance and production operation that under managing principal Ryan Kavanaugh has become one of the biggest backers of studio slates, is expected to make its debut on the international sales scene at Cannes.

The company, whose rapidly growing list of production credits includes Atonement, Evan Almighty, Baby Mama and this summer's Pineapple Express, was believed at press time to be finalising deals on a slate of projects to be distributed in the US by a studio and in selected international territories by independent partners.

On its own, Relativity probably will not fill the gap created by the disappearance of New Line from the business that A Nightmare On Elm Street, The Mask and The Lord Of The Rings helped build.

And neither will any of the other sales companies or producers now eyeing the fresh demand for upscale product from international buyers. But between them, the new entrants, growing boutiques and established players will be trying to fill the New Line-shaped void appearing on the international sales landscape.