U.S. independent film companies love, not to mention rely on, the Berlin Intl. Film Festival.

“American independents need all the exposure they can get,” says Linda Hansen, director of American Independents and Features Abroad, the umbrella organization for U.S. indies at the Berlin fest. “Berlin is paramount for American independents because of the concentration of buyers and press. And just as important as the sales opportunities are the contacts filmmakers can make.”

AIFA’s two screening rooms dedicated to American independents worked well last year, according to Hansen, giving marketgoers increased access to American films. Filmmakers new to Berlin can orient themselves to the sometimes overwhelming festival by attending AIFA’s orientation seminars held in New York and Los Angeles and during the festival, featuring acquisitions executives from top domestic and foreign distributors.

Facing more than 12,000 independent film fans and buyers can be daunting for new filmmakers. “I’m really wet behind the ears when it comes to all these companies,” says Matthew Harrison, director of “Rhythm Thief,” showing in the Panorama section. “I’m hoping that having the film at Berlin and Sundance will cut through a lot of that – separate the wheat from the chaff – so I can find out who’s for real.” Harrison’s first goal is to find someone to finance a 35 mm blowup of the ultra-low-budget black-and-white New York City street story – and hopefully make some European theatrical sales.

During the festival, Harrison also will work on finding additional financing for “Kicked in the Head,” his next “downwardly mobile New York City, urban-white-guy story.” “Berlin is the place where you create the image and the prestige for the film’s European launch,” says Jan Rofekamp of Films Transit, Montreal-based sales agents for “Crumb ” the documentary about comic book artist R. Crumb showing in the Forum section. Also chosen for the Sundance documentary competition, “Crumb” got its domestic send-off from Sony Pictures Classics in Park City, while Films Transit will use Berlin to raise awareness about the film overseas.

Berlin veteran Nina Rosenblum, whose “Lockup: Prisoners of Riker’s Island” was selected for Panorama, values the festival’s support for documentaries, as well as the chance to connect with foreign co-production partners. “I’ve done all my foreign co-production deals there in the past,” she says. “Cannes is the commercial market, but in Berlin, it’s the meaning of the work. There’s not the kind of conventional hierarchy where a documentary is below a feature film. The content of what we do as documentarians is so respected.”

Rosenblum will work with HBO on foreign sales for the prison docu, and start talks with potential co-producers for her next project, “Slave Ship: The Testimony of the Henrietta Marie.”

James Schamus, producer of “Roy Cohn/Jack Smith,” in the Forum, agrees that Berlin is the right place to sell offbeat films.

“In Berlin, you have a serious audience for art films,” he says. ‘They’re not pissed off when movies ask them to do a little more work than usual. Anyone who’s programming any kind of adventurous television will be at Berlin.”

The market for dramatic feature titles in Europe is strong but highly competitive, according to most sellers. “There’s a little shift in interest,” thinks Rofekamp. “Five years ago, art film distributors would buy 15 or 20 films a year, and now they will spend more money per film to acquire fewer, but more attractive films, because it’s hard to get audiences in the theaters.”

“The public television stations who used to dominated the art-film market in Europe are much weaker now, because they’re looking more like PBS and there’s more competition from gameshows and talkshows,” says Schamus.

Despite competition from Sundance and Rotterdam, Berlin remains a must for independents looking to meet European distributors and production partners, as well as those shopping for a domestic distribution deal.

“We’re always happy to see a film get on-the-spot sales,” says Hansen. “But even if it doesn’t sell in Berlin, the opportunities for festival invitations are tremendous. As long as one important person sees the film, that’s what matters.”