The idea that there might be another big wave of funding around the corner remains one of the big hopes for the European film industry. Those dreams have until recently revolved around the idea of the discovery of a new tax loophole, which might allow a return to the sale-and-leaseback boom that has come to a halt over the last two years. It looks like an increasingly forlorn hope.
So there was an unmissable irony in the mixed reaction to a plan floated in Berlin by German bankers Dresdner Kleinwort to encourage a new private equity wave through a $100m-$130m slate-financing deal aimed at institutional investors.
Here seems to be a big idea that not only looks good on paper but has a track record - such money has been a $9bn boon to the US film business over the last two years.
Dresdner Kleinwort itself has handled more than $4bn of investment. This week's number one film at the US box office, Norbit, for example, was part of its $300m Melrose 2 film financing arrangement with Paramount.
Laura Fazio, Dresdner Kleinwort's New York-based media and entertainment chief, told Screen International's European Film Finance conference that European film was strongly placed for a share of the spoils. 'There's only so many major studios, and some independents in the US but as investors become educated about this market, they are looking for new opportunities,' she said.
In the US, the studios have offered a slate of films, ensuring that investors do not have to put all their eggs in one basket. The studios have also been willing to compromise, accepting that they need to give up some of their upside to create sustainable investment possibilities, rather than chase 'stupid money'.
A pool of European independents
Given that there are no entities on the Hollywood scale in Europe, the plan is to pool the bigger independent European projects to create a multi-company slate of 18-30 films. Fazio called it a pan-European 'fund of funds', which might generate the kind of film revenues that investors demand from their Hollywood clients in their quest for 15-25% returns.
It is of course just one among a number of financial initiatives, and slate-financing sits at the heart of many finance schemes. In some ways, the Dresdner Kleinwort idea is much less hands-on than many other schemes in the market. Fazio talks of herself modestly as a 'numbers geek'. She has no interest in seeing scripts, for example. But the demand for market data on which to base investment decisions, such as a true evaluation of costs and historical data, is a prerequisite.
'The investors we are talking about are data driven,' said Fazio. 'They don't want scripts but they want to understand all aspects of the risks involved. You need to prepare business strategies with institutional investment in mind.'
Those strategies are a challenge for a business that has made a virtue out of the motto, 'no one knows anything'.
But the money has been big enough to make the studios willing to show their hand. 'Over the last 18 months, we've seen a sea change in the risk strategies and objectives of the studios,' says Fazio. 'The studios have been willing to work with investors to develop a consistent stream.'
Two factors are working in favour of consistency - the studios are showing increasing signs of wanting to become the distribution partner of European film. And then there is the proliferation of new platforms that allow a greater exploitation of product.
The devil in the detail
Yet at Berlin, there was a cautious response. For some, it is a case of the devil being in the detail. How on earth can you convince rival companies to work together, knowing that one company's great film is stuck in the balance with someone else's flop' And then there is the knotty issue of what one is actually prepared to tell investors.
'Obviously there is a chance to minimise downside risk but how can you predict certain financial return'' asks Joni Sighvatsson, owner of Scanbox Entertainment.
And what commercial details would an independent be willing to share with a finance scheme that includes competitors, even given Fazio's assurance that such information from producers would be 'invisible' to other contributing producers.
One clear element of the arrangement will be assured distribution, which pretty much means studio distribution. The studios, of course, are happy to oblige.
Speaking at the summit, David Linde, co-chairman of Universal Studios, said there was huge optimism about the market, allowing them to leave behind the monolithic domestic policies of yesteryear. 'Audiences are hardly asking for more (movies) from America. Films are made everywhere, set everywhere and tell stories about people everywhere,' said Linde.
And Universal and its subsidiaries have built a business capable of exploiting that flowering of talent.
For others, however, the issues are deeper. To an extent it comes down to a feeling that this is an American imposition on the European landscape - how can something designed for studios possibly be scaled down to European independents'
Europe is also a complex mix of public and private funding with a strong subsidy element.
Fazio argues that Dresdner Kleinwort had already adapted this form of slate finance to American independents. But she is the first to accept the challenges. 'There are material differences, which means you could not simply replicate the US model but we can build a better mousetrap. It's tough but there has to be a methodology ... and we have a lot of tools in our bag.'
But for others it is about changing the rules of the game. Rather than helping projects find new finance, the fund will skew production to its own ends, suggested Heather Mansfield, founder of film financing company Mansfield Associates. 'It's not filling a gap, it's creating a false need and is therefore something of a chimera,' she said.
She makes an analogy with organic farming, which was all a matter of fine principles on an admittedly small scale until the big money from the supermarkets came along. Then the pressure was on for everyone to meet the demand for 'straight carrots'.
Given that slates would require between 18 and 30 titles, she fears it would become a dominating force. She also believes that there is an element of trying to fix something that is not broken. 'A good European film can find finance as it is but this would kill the sales agent,' she said.
Jens Meurer, partner at Egoli Tossell, was more welcoming, albeit with concerns: 'It's slightly complex but I think it's an opportunity.'
But he too believes that European film is making strong strides forward to attract private equity anyway. Any new deal would be just part of the mix. 'The performance of local film in their markets is a reflection of professionalisation in recent years.'
For Dresdner Kleinwort and other financiers, there is a bigger picture. The experience in the US is that there is more private equity washing around than opportunities to soak it up.
If European independents are not interested in a piece of the action then there are plenty of others around the world that will be. It is not just a question of missing out on money, it is about handing global competitors an advantage.
There is barely a film finance conference in the last two years that has not talked about investment as a 'tidal wave' or 'land grab' and it is impossible to avoid the impact.
The question of whether Europe is sufficiently entrepreneurial or culturally set up to take advantage is another matter. Scanbox's Joni Sighvatsson, called for the business to embrace new technology, look again at the cost of film-making and reduce bureaucracy.
But he also thinks it is important to recognise and build on the continent's strengths and not to throw away advantages. Speaking at the Berlinale, for example, he warned Europe not to let the film festival tradition be undermined by celebrity culture.
Sighvatsson quotes legendary movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn in saying that 'there's nothing wrong with the movie business that a good movie won't fix'. Of course, you still need the money to make the movie.