The idea of a film 'industry' is a comforting thing. When Joe or Joanna pawn the car and sell the kids to the circus to produce an indie movie, they need to believe they have entered a recognisable business rather than slipped into mid-life madness. In reality, the ability to tell people you are in the movie business may be as good as it gets in a 'career'.

In Los Angeles, there is something one could unequivocally describe as an 'industry'. There's a relationship between finance and talent, a rather difficult one at present. When disputes happen, one can talk sensibly about negotiations between employers and employees - albeit in a rarified environment where successful 'workers' might have bigger mansions than their putative employers.

The blurring of those relationships has been a regular theme in Hollywood as the talent decides periodically to grab hold of their own destiny by setting up their own studios. Even then, there are employees and employers who necessarily collaborate creatively on projects but have different economic and industrial power. That fits the standard definition of an industry.

The second clear prerequisite is that there are customers on whom the fortunes, or otherwise, of productions depend. In Hollywood, that's clear enough. Despite the occasional influx of money from sale-and-leaseback schemes and hedge funds, which can distort the economic norms of product-consumer relationships, the studios are basically about making money. Right now, the emphasis has shifted decisively back towards profits, margins and returns on investment.

But what of the rest of the world' The question was thrown up at the launch of Directors UK, a group bringing together film and television directors. The initial objective of the body is simple enough - to lobby television about fees and creative control. When it comes to TV, even publicly funded broadcasters, the directors are dealing with an industry that's relatively easy to understand, albeit one undergoing profound change. There are commissioning companies on one side and directors on the other. Someone pays the fees and someone takes them.

When it comes to film, the aims become much more amorphous. Directors UK is not a trade union, points out the new group's president Paul Greengrass - and how could it be' The same issue arose with a screenwriters' manifesto a couple of years ago, making similar points about financial returns and recognition.

The difficulty in both cases is: from whom are such demands to be made' If the role of director needs championing, so does that of the writer. And more than both, surely the role of producer needs re-evaluation.

What all face is the reality of an industry that does not look much like an industry when considered from a number of perspectives. These change from country to country. Bollywood, for example, is more clearly an industry and the French organise their audiovisual businesses along fairly structured industrial lines. But most independent, international film production does not, and could not, make a profit under current economic conditions. What's more, a great deal of product will not and cannot be seen by more than a small percentage of its general audience because of the limitations of distribution.

The relationship between finance and profit for much of the film market - reliant as it is on soft money - can be a distant one. The UK government this year stopped film funding through a tax scheme (sideways loss relief) that had as its starting point an assumption that movies don't and won't make money and that investors deserve a break for supporting them.

There are, of course, recognisably industrial activities in the international film business: in acquisitions, sales, distribution and exhibition. For much of the business, however, the claims to industry status are more tendentious, but there is a winnable argument.

If lobbying groups can do anything, it is to show simply how investment in film brings quantifiable economic benefits. This week, the government of Western Australia invested $1m in tourism on the back of the expected influx following Baz Luhrmann's Australia. That's a clear return on investment.

But perhaps the industry label can also represent a collective sense of purpose and direction for the whole film value chain.

There may be little choice in a changing business that demands more business-like thinking. The focus will shift more to the needs of customers than on the demands of one part of a collaborative process on another.