The relationship between Europe's film distributors and their local TV broadcasters is peculiarly vexed and complicated.

It mingles dependency and resentment. Tensions were exacerbated around a decade ago, as the market for TV pre-sales for film contracted in an alarming fashion.

The collapse of the Kirch media group in Germany, Vivendi's problems in France and changing market conditions all combined to drive down prices.

For years, European producers had used public broadcasters to underpin their movies and to prop up market prices. All of a sudden, television, the traditional safety net for distributors and producers alike, could be relied on no longer.

'Across the board, you saw a more realistic re-evaluation of film pricing,' says Ed Fletcher, managing director of UK distribution company, Soda Pictures. 'The knock-on effect was quite radical in terms of how films are made and whether films are made.'

Hilary Davis, co-managing director of London-based sales outfit Bankside Films, calculates that prices over the past decade plummeted by up to 60%. She says those prices are yet to recover.

Financing and production plans have had to be hastily revised. 'Unless the project is initiated by or is being produced in association with a broadcaster's film division, it's exceptionally difficult to get a TV pre-sale today,' says Douglas Cummins, managing director of London-based producer-distributor Axiom Films.

'I believe most experienced independent producers simply don't bother any longer factoring a UK TV pre-sale into their financing plans.' Selling completed films to TV is also far tougher than a decade ago.

There are examples of Cannes prize-winning movies, with $4m budgets, that have been sold to TV in the UK for as little as $3,500 (£2,000).

Broadcasters, for their part, ask whether film still works on free TV in a multi-channel era of fragmented audiences.

'There are so many platforms that films are available on before they come to terrestrial television,' says David Hollis, senior acquisition executive at UK broadcaster ITV. 'It's no great secret that the potency of so-called first-run films on terrestrial TV has diminished. The days of the 20 million (audience) for a Christmas film are gone.'

Across Europe, distributors are struggling to get their movies on to television. 'TV sales in France have become much harder, especially to premium pay-TV, ie, Canal Plus, and prices have come down a lot,' says James Velaise, president of Paris-based Pretty Pictures.

'Main reason - bad US films sold at high prices because of high-priced output deals, so less room and money for quality films.'

The one chink of light Velaise sees on the pay-TV front is the launch of Orange TV in France, which has introduced a new element of competition. However, for French distributors looking to sell to free TV, Franco-German broadcaster Arte remains 'basically the only place to go for high-end films', according to Velaise.

Andrea Occhipinti, president of Italian distributor Lucky Red, says the situation is bleak. '(Italian broadcasters) are programming fewer movies. They invest more money in the production of mini-series and reality TV,' he explains.

'We never pre-sell to TV because we are convinced that after the movie has been released, it will have more value. When we bought Bend It Like Beckham, if I had gone to TV and tried to pre-sell it, they wouldn't have bought it. But when the film came out and we did a big campaign, (Rai) bought it and aired it on prime time.

'This year, we have bought (among others) I Love You Phillip Morris, Slumdog Millionaire and Hachiko: A Dog's Story with Richard Gere. We will release them and then sell to TV. I know it's more risky but it has always been more interesting.'

The broadcasters' tastes have influenced Lucky Red's acquisitions policy. 'We have changed the films we distribute ourselves in Italy,' Occhipinti explains. 'Slowly, we have been going more mainstream.

We realised if you don't have movies like Rush Hour 3 or 1408, you can't sell to television any more. Rai 3 do more auteur and arthouse movies but the films are shown late at night. The money you get is very small.'

What is surprising is that business models have not changed that much. Distributors are still likely to strike all-rights deals with sales agents even if there is no guarantee the distributors will be able to sell on those rights to TV.

Sales agents respond by reducing their minimum guarantees (MG) to levels their buyers can afford. One innovation is the so-called 'TV bumper deal' whereby buyers will take only theatrical rights but if they subsequently sell to TV, they will renegotiate the MG.

Despite the suspicion sales agents and distributors feel for TV buyers, their dependence on them remains strong. One area that remains buoyant - and will lure sales outfits to Mipcom this week - is library sales.

'TV sales are becoming more important,' says Alessandro Raja, director of sales and acquisitions: library at Paris-based Celluloid Dreams. 'New forms of distribution, such as video on demand (VoD), are still in their development phase, and revenues coming from TV represent an increasing portion of the cake.'

There are some signs the TV pre-sales market is recovering. However, while new buyers can be found for some auteur-driven, independent movies, certain territories remain almost no-go zones.

'In major territories, such as Italy and Spain for example, broadcasters seem to be completely uninterested in quality cinema, and unless the film has a successful theatrical release, they will not buy it,' says Raja. 'In other countries, there is a growing appetite, driven by the launch of new thematic channels, and an audience that is becoming more attracted by films other than those coming from Hollywood. India is probably the best example.'

'I feel Spain still has to recover,' agrees Hilary Davis. 'Italy is still a very difficult territory.' Only in Germany can she see any real signs of recovery. 'But it is still not back to the pre turn-of-the-century level.'

Spanish free-to-air broadcaster Telecinco no longer buys any films. 'The efficiency of films on free-to-air TV in Spain has collapsed.

We now rely on other products, such as TV series,' says Ghislain Barrois, head of acquisitions at Telecinco.

'The irony is we produce and co-produce several films through Telecinco Cinema, including some major commercial products such as Steven Soderbergh's Che, Juan Antonio Bayona's The Orphanage and Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth.

But despite their success at the box office, they either fail to perform on television or there are not enough success stories to fill the required quota system in Spain (Spanish broadcasters are required to show at least 10 local films a year).

You need a minimum volume of films on the channel, which we can't do. As a result we almost never broadcast our own film productions.'

In the UK, the picture is contradictory. Pay-TV operator BSkyB is increasingly active in showcasing world cinema titles. Last year, it launched Sky Box Office (SBO) World, an on-demand service offering everything from festival hits to world cinema classics.

Earlier this year, BSkyB and Curzon Artificial Eye combined to release Fatih Akin's The Edge Of Heaven simultaneously in cinemas and on SBO's pay-per-view platform. Ian Lewis, director of Sky Movies and SBO, says the buy-rates 'exceeded' Sky's expectations. However, no precise details of viewing figures are available.

There may be multiple new TV outlets for films in the UK but some distributors question what they are worth. 'All these little TV channels are so tiny that for the amount of money they can offer, you're better off having a film showing in a cinema in Wales,' says Robert Beeson, managing director of New Wave Films. He says there are only three serious buyers for world cinema: the BBC, Channel 4 and Sky. All insist they are committed to film.

The BBC spends around $79m (£45m) a year on acquiring movies and has continually trumpeted its support for local production. 'Our appetite for films is as great as ever,' says Steve Jenkins, head of films at BBC Programme Acquisition. 'We are using as many films as we always have. We are still showing around 1,000 films a year across the four channels (BBC1, 2, 3 and 4).'

The BBC's emphasis remains on completed films but Jenkins is not averse to pre-buying. 'We've been quite active in that area,' he says, referring to the BBC's support of Liverpool's Digital Departures and of Film London's Microwave project to develop 10 micro-budget films.

When the BBC screened Finding Nemo on BBC1 last Christmas, it achieved an audience of 7.3 million. 'There's no substitute programming for a film like that,' Jenkins observes. He concedes the BBC is 'probably paying less for films that are going to play in late-night slots'.

Deals for completed films are still calculated on a percentage of UK box office. This means prices - at least for Hollywood movies - have remained reasonably stable.

The consensus among sales agents and distributors is that the situation with TV sales is bad but unlikely to become worse. 'The first time I heard someone say they had problems because television didn't buy any more was maybe 15 years ago,' says veteran producer and sales agent Philippe Bober of producer-sales outfit The Coproduction Office. 'The good news is we have probably reached the bottom.'