A Hollywood producer takes a shine to an up-and-coming European screenwriter. "I'm going to set you to work on the rewrite of my next film," the producer tells the writer. "Who wrote the first version'" the writer asks. "We haven't hired anyone yet," the producer replies.

This story may be apocryphal but it hints at the challenge that lies at the heart of the US studios' international move into local production. Many, in Europe in particular, cling to the idea of the auteur, building films around an individual vision. It is an approach at odds with Hollywood's 'production line' way of working.

"We (in the UK) tend to stick to one writer," says Film4 head of development Katherine Butler. "A lot of the writers we work with have very distinctive voices."

Historically, Hollywood has always sought to identify distinctive European talent and co-opt it. Now, rather than simply luring the best writers and directors to work in Los Angeles, the US studios are helping them set up movies in their own backyard.

However, if the studios are going to roll out their heavy artillery to market and distribute international films, it has to be worthwhile. They are not simply going to invest in esoteric local arthouse titles in the hope of generating goodwill and one or two positive reviews. They will want the films to have solid commercial potential.

"The studios realise that you've got to play the game in the individual territories as to how movies are made and not try to make them out of Los Angeles," says Allon Reich, head of film at the UK's DNA Films, which is a joint venture with Fox Searchlight. He suggests a dose of Hollywood-style rigour can only help screenwriters. "There's an expectation in America that you (as a screenwriter) have to work harder to get gigs."

Jenny Borgars, the former head of development at the UK Film Council and now the head of film at nascent outfit Left Bank, agrees: "There are elements that are useful to embrace." She praises the level of preparation and craftsmanship with which US writers embrace their profession.

David Thompson, the outgoing head of BBC Films, puts it more bluntly: "There is a danger we (in the UK) flog through things too much. They don't get better, they get worse."

But there is evidence UK writers, at least, are learning to collaborate. Prestigious projects including the Oscar-winning The Last King Of Scotland, and the upcoming Brideshead Revisited had more than one writer.

But while on US high-budget event movies it may make sense to throw money - writers - at a problem, international features rarely have the same resources, nor are the films made to the same timetable.

Nonetheless, they have different strengths. For example, Film4 is expert at nurturing new screenwriting talent from the theatre world. "We're in a lucky position at Film4 because we're there to take risks," suggests Butler.

If the company likes a book, it will often go ahead and option it - even without a package in place. One example is Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire, now shooting in Mumbai, based on Vikas Swarup's novel, Q&A. "We optioned it at manuscript stage. We didn't have anybody attached to it, no producer, no anything," says Butler.

Simon Beaufoy, whose credits include The Full Monty, was brought on to script. He is now at work for Film4 on an adaptation of Steven Hall's novel The Raw Shark Texts.

"I think the studios would be more cautious. They would want to put the package together and find the right talent before they would go out on a limb, whereas we (at Film4) have the ability to move very fast," says Butler.

On DNA's 28 Weeks Later, there are four writers credited, something Reich sees as strengthening the movie. However, when the company works with 'star' writers such as Patrick Marber, Alex Garland, Peter Morgan, Jeremy Brock or novelist Kazuo Ishiguro (whose Never Let Me Go Garland has adapted for DNA), Reich says the individual voices of the writers are always respected.

Allon suggests companies such as Searchlight and Focus are writer-friendly. He adds that with Fox's backing, DNA can give emerging European talent a double opportunity. "We can say to top talent emerging out of Europe, as we did with Juan Carlos Fresnadillo (28 Weeks Later's co-writer-director), 'Come and make a movie with us; make your first English-language film. You will be making it in Europe with a European sensibility but you'll get the whole might of the studio in distribution and support.'"