CANNES — The skies above the Croisette may have been cloudless, but indie film mavens arriving in Cannes last week were desperately searching for a ray of light to pierce the fog of uncertainty in their biz.

There are some glimmerings of hope.

While the retrenchment of Euro TV — which has fatally undermined the theatrical pre-sales biz in Germany, Spain, Italy and France — is showing little sign of easing soon, Cannes 2002 may be the moment when the long, slow upswing begins.

Sellers and buyers are beginning to adapt to the new realities.

The emergence of feisty distribs like Momentum Pictures and Helkon helped transform the U.K. from a pre-sales black spot into a competitive marketplace; similarly, new German players are now starting to scramble from the wreckage of the Neuer Markt and the collapse of the Kirch Group.

“There’s more than just a light at the end of the tunnel,” says Christian Halsey Solomon, managing director of Helkon Intl. Pictures. “It’s more like a flashlight in your face.”

Meanwhile, Japan and Korea have bounced back after a few difficult years, and Australia now accounts for up to 6% of a pic’s global B.O.

And in the U.S., upstarts like Focus stand to gain.

Under the leadership of co-presidents David Linde and James Schamus, this freshly minted indie with deep studio pockets stands as the hottest go-to shingle for a top-flight indie project.

In Spain, veterans such as Andres Vicente Gomez and Francisco Ramos are re-emerging as players in distribution and co-production, taking the place of companies wounded by the collapse of TV sales.

Many Euro distribs have also experienced success in the past year or so with their own low-budget pics, which are taking a growing share of national box office.

“It’s a prosperous time for independents,” says Christoph Ott, who launched his Berlin-based distrib Ottfilm last year. The German market, he argues, is “going back to its roots, before it was poisoned with high minimum guarantees and huge P&A budgets.”

Everyone at Cannes realizes that, for the moment, the market is a tough place: Territory prices have deflated, banks don’t want to gap finance, and buyers are skittish.

But then there’s always the “Lord of the Rings” factor. With key financing from international distribs, “Rings” is a useful reminder that, despite the dark clouds, global B.O. is booming.

Here are some other signs of hope from key territories.

  • Germany’s distribution market is undergoing tectonic shifts. And the shakeup is providing opportunities for newcomers as well as tough survivors who can adapt.

Peter Heinzemann, former head of distribution at defunct Kinowelt, just launched his Solo Film. The company is replacing Buena Vista Intl. as Helkon’s distributor. Helkon and BVI’s rocky two-year relationship came to an end earlier this month.

Meanwhile, the collapse of Kirch provided a juicy chance for Swiss license trader Highlight to pick up a 23% stake in top German distrib Constantin at a bargain price from the crippled media giant.

Swiss distrib Falcom, recently launched by former Highlight chief exec Andreas Fallscheer, is looking to release three to five acquisitions or co-productions per year. Like Ottfilm, the company is also investing in German film and has formed co-production pacts with local producers.

  • Cecchi Gori had been a voracious buying machine, and its retreat from that role has freed up 70 or more titles per year — and created competition among a number of aggressive distribs such as Medusa, Nexo, Eagle and 01 (the RAI Cinema-StudioCanal joint venture).

The new competish spills over into the arthouse market, which those mainstream players are increasingly targeting.

“There’s been extreme caution, but people have to keep buying or risk having no product to release,” says Lucky Red chief Andrea Occhipinti.

Meanwhile, release skeds are being cut back — and the concentration of marketing energy on fewer, more carefully chosen titles is seen as a positive change.

  • The slowdown in acquisitions from the Spanish networks may strain some current distrib deals between big indie suppliers and Spanish distributors. But it could simultaneously open up new opportunities for some companies.

Filmax prexy Julio Fernandez has declared that the distrib, which has handled mid-range pics to date, is interested in taking equity positions in $50-million plus projects.

Alquimia’s Francisco Ramos is co-producing Summit’s “Dot the i” in one of its first international co-productions.

Meanwhile, having focused on production for a year, Vicente Gomez’s Lolafilms is back to buying six pics a year. And sports rights company MediaPro says it will diversify into pic distribution.

Both MediaPro and Lola will target mid-range pics.

  • For several years, distributors in France have seen prices escalate, hitting highs of between $400,000 and $1 million for all-rights deals. They paid those inflated prices for one reason: They could pretty much guarantee the sale of pay TV rights to Canal Plus.

“Distributors knew Canal Plus would buy a movie at any price,” Philippe Bony, topper of Canal rival TPS, tells Variety.

Now that Canal Plus is part of the Vivendi Universal group, it has become more selective about what it buys.

Distributors are definitely feeling the Canal crunch. One of France’s leading distribs, Jean Labadie’s Bac Majestic, has just filed a profit warning that could force it to find refinancing solutions.

Prices for big-budget pics will inevitably drop, following rates for those in the mid-budget range, which have dipped over the past 18 months.

Studios like Sony and Warner Bros. may also reap benefits, having quietly made inroads in France and Germany in the local-language arena. It’s an old-fashioned strategy, one popular in the 1970s, but it makes sense in the currently conservative climate.

(Dana Harris, John Hopewell, Ed Meza, David Rooney and Andrea Vaucher contributed to this report.)