It wasn't just the critics who were gloomy at Berlin this year. Most of those attending the European Film Market (EFM) were facing some hard realities: buyers and sellers were shaking their heads trying to figure out the numbers, which no longer seemed to make sense. The mood was set when top seller Focus Features International passed on taking its traditionally grand stand at the Martin Gropius Bau, arguing that its sales focus will be in Cannes.
Only a handful of new English-language, star-driven projects were announced and of them, only the slamdunks - a Mickey Rourke action thriller directed by Walter Hill being sold by IM Global, a Jennifer Aniston romcom at Mandate - were hot-ticket items. More risky material - GK Films' three-film package of London Boulevard, The Rum Diaries and Silence, for example - was met with prudent calm. A reported $16m for the trio was the asking price for the UK, and raised buyers' eyebrows.
Then again, will Cannes be any better' Equity financing is drying up for mid-budget English-language films - Bank of Ireland announced during Berlin it was closing its film-finance divisions - and sales companies cannot go to wary banks with anything but the most pessimistic sales estimates these days.
One major sales company is apparently looking at writing off some $60m in unhonoured contracts from buyers who have defaulted on payments, or from those who are going or have gone out of business.
Screen reported during the EFM that rival US sellers are developing a friendly system of checks on bad buyers, tipping each other off about who is unreliable and who cannot make their payments. A meeting of sellers and banks is being planned in Los Angeles in the next few weeks to consolidate the blacklist.
All of which leaves us with the well-capitalised local distributors who have always been the backbone of the independent film business. There are only a handful in each territory but they are the go-to companies for sellers. Who doesn't want to talk to Entertainment or Metropolitan or Concorde/TMG or Pathe' Some - Sammy, Nigel - just go by their first names.
These companies have money in the bank or powerful backers, and have years of experience, acquisitions clout and marketing expertise. They have enjoyed some of the biggest hits outside the studio system in the last decade.
And these distributors - the ones who pay their advances on time and deliver overages to the producer - could become even more significant, if we are to believe financier Ben Waisbren in his keynote speech at the Screen European Film Summit in Berlin. He said films should not be made 'without a distribution solution locked up. The gatekeeper is going to be the distributor and not the hedge fund saying, 'I want to be in the movie business.''
He has a good point. As we wait - perhaps a long time - for the next funding wave, it is a good moment to reflect on all the movies which were made but shouldn't have been: all the movies which failed to secure sales or an audience, despite robust budgets and well-known actors; movies which were rushed into production, often on the basis of over-enthusiastic sales estimates.
These films got made in the video boom, they got made in the German Neuer Markt period, and during the insurance funding craze and the Wall Street avalanche of the last few years. Now, while we wait for the next funding source to identify itself, perhaps the independent business can refocus on what an audience wants to see.
Sales agents and their key distributor clients can work closely to ensure only strong scripts and marketable packages are given the greenlight. Packaging agents whose agenda has been to get a film made - often regardless of quality - need to regroup and re-educate talent as to the exigencies of the non-studio business these days. Flexible, affordable deals need to be worked out to make a film happen.
It's no secret the independent business has to go back to basics this year. But that's not a bad thing. Can any territory sustain the volume of films that has been swilling around' How can any distributor thrive when 20 films are opening every weekend'
For audiences, at least, the future is bright - fewer but better films.