If you don't use soft money, you shouldn't be making an independent movie.' Ryan Kavanaugh, CEO of US financier Relativity Media, perfectly sums up the importance of tax breaks for film-making. 'It's free equity, literally. It's free money that doesn't generally require participation in a movie. And there's soft money all over the world.'

What is not available is the level of incentives once provided by German media funds and UK sale-and-leaseback initiatives, which made up the core finance of many Hollywood blockbusters.

Governments around the world are increasingly intolerant of funding mechanisms through which global investors shelter their tax liabilities at the expense of the public. The recent abrupt clampdown on so-called Gaap schemes in the UK demonstrates the point.

Rapid expansion
It is important, however, to make a clear distinction between such exploitation of tax loopholes that were never intended as primary sources of film finance and the growing numbers of official incentives.

Approved national and regional tax credits have expanded rapidly in recent years, becoming an integral part of the fabric of the global film business, often making up between 10% and 30% of many film budgets. It is a highly competitive market which has changed much of the thinking about film in the wider world.

The formal justification for many of the world's tax regimes is 'cultural diversity'. In 2005, the United Nations culture and education body Unesco ruled that the creative industries were exempt from the normal strictures of the World Trade Organisation's free trade rules.

The decision, which officially came into force this month, was opposed almost solely by the US. Dan Glickman, CEO of the Motion Picture Association of America, told Screen at the time: 'Our concern is that the convention, on the face of it, is more about trade than cultural diversity. Unesco should not regulate trade.'

Economic logic
The US film industry at the time was in turmoil at the loss of so-called runaway production. But the irony is that while Europe in particular agonises over cultural exception, US states have been driving ahead with a rapid expansion of tax incentives that have all but turned around the loss of production.

And far from culture, the driving force is hard economic logic. Sharon Pinkenson, director of the Greater Philadelphia Film Office, put the case nicely in arguing for a new state incentive this month: 'What we really need is a tax credit programme without an annual cap. Since we'd be gaining so much more in employment, taxes, hotels, revenue in every imaginable industry and prestige, it's crazy not to do so.'

The winner in such a business environment ought to be the producer, who can now strike a hard bargain. A good case study will be the next Bond film, with the UK and the Czech Republic the main battlegrounds. In terms of on-the-ground facilities, Pinewood, near London, has rebuilt its Bond stage, while Barrandov in Prague also hosted the hugely successful Casino Royale.

For the producers, the tax incentives might tip the balance one way or the other. The emphasis on tax incentives has changed over the last year - turning significantly towards the producer and away from so-called 'middle men'.

Given that tax incentives are based on public money, the idea of supporting film-makers is more politically acceptable to governments than helping investors.

The big squeeze
There remains, however, considerable concern in many territories about a squeeze. At one end, the US studios have been able to replace lost German and UK tax support with substantial private investment, attracting hedge funds and other institutional investment with attractive slate deals on transparent terms that investors understand.

At the other end of the scale, some emerging territories are offering very low production costs, with strong tax incentives.

In the middle are markets that have thrived on tax loopholes and which are struggling to see how official credits - however welcome they might be - can match the previous scale of support. In the UK, for example, estimates of Gaap funding for film this financial year have gone as high as $3.8bn.

As the UK Film Council chief executive John Woodward frankly told Screen last month: 'Things will get worse before they get better (for the UK industry).'

Shopping around
Those fears are repeated in many markets. The tax environment for film looks to be reaching a critical point. On the plus side, what is emerging is a global open market of relatively stable tax credits vying for a share of international production. For the territories offering them, those credits are now just a chip in the global movie game, with no territories able to dominate as the UK and Germany had done in previous years.

For the producer with a viable commercial product, this may be the perfect time to shop around.