The talk in the specialty and independent sector right now is all about the importance of discipline and modest scales of economy. The inflated budgets of previous high-profile awards contenders such as Cold Mountain and last year's There Will Be Blood may have raised eyebrows, but now the industry has been rocked by the global downturn, the cost of lower budget film-making - and indeed lower budget film-making in general - has become a matter of survival.

The financial crisis has sparked a major correction and, given the increasing scarcity of credit and the withdrawal of hedge-fund investors, the US majors have been increasingly forced to shift back the focus to their core business of tentpoles.

This year, Warner Bros left nobody in any doubt about its desire to exit the specialty game, closing Warner Independent Pictures and Picturehouse and turning New Line into a genre supplier. Universal Pictures is preparing to sell Rogue Pictures to Ryan Kavanaugh's Relativity Media, ThinkFilm, the bastion of daring independent cinema, was forced to close its doors and Paramount Vantage does not look far behind.

As a result, with money hard to find and the industry on tenterhooks after a fresh bout of redundancies at independent companies and major studios alike, the watchword for independent producers and specialty distributors is caution.

'Thrift is necessary; overspend is death,' says Mark Urman, the co-founder of ThinkFilm who now heads distribution at Senator US. 'The economy surrounding independent films has to be strictly enforced and maintained. In the specialty sector, way too much money was being thrown at these films and now we're seeing the specialty being put back in specialty.'

As Senator prepares to release the first of its 2009 slate, the company does not foresee employing more than 22 people at the height of its busiest time period.

In June, Mark Gill, the co-founder of The Film Department and former Warner Independent Pictures chief, predicted in a keynote speech that the sky was falling on the independent business. 'It's happened a lot faster than even I thought,' Gill says now, adding that there are opportunities for quality product partially financed by pre-sales.

'There's room for those top 50-75 independent films costing $20m-$50m,' he says. 'International buyers seem to want those larger commercially driven films, which is why it's worked out well for us as a company.'

Summit Entertainment co-founder Patrick Wachsberger, a veteran international sales agent, agrees. 'Internationally, independent buyers are looking at acquiring independent movies with stars at a reasonable price.'

Wachsberger and Summit recently scored a breakout hit with Twilight, a rare beacon in a bleak landscape that demonstrates a nimble company can take a genre film and turn it into a mainstream crossover.

'Unless you have cost subsidies, it's more difficult to make the movie happen,' Wachsberger says, citing inflated asking prices, the glut of films in the marketplace and an audience suffering from collective attention-deficit disorder distracted by other forms of entertainment, as some of the biggest threats to the lower-budget arena.

'Everything has got too big,' Urman says, looking at the pattern of specialty releases in the past several years. 'I never understood why you would go from a platform release where you're selling out to 800 prints and not selling out.

'You want your movie to open in the right level and expand slowly over time so it's still in play come the Oscars in late February. Movies should make a lot of money over a long time.'