When Tartan Films Distribution went into administration in late June, the rest of the UK independent distribution sector shuddered. International sales agents also winced, especially those handling Asian fare.

Tartan's ground-breaking Asia Extreme label brought Japanese, South Korean and Hong Kong movies by directors such as Takashi Miike, Hideo Nakata and Kim Ki-duk to UK audiences.

'Other European distributors looked to what they bought because they were an established and respected company,' says Wouter Barendrecht of Fortissimo Film Sales of Tartan's influence on international buyers.

Other UK buyers, including Contender Films, Artificial Eye and Optimum Releasing, are still acquiring Asian fare, but not as voraciously as Tartan in its prime.

As Tartan's woes attest, these are challenging times for the UK's ever-increasing army of independent distributors. According to Mark Batey, managing director of the Film Distributors' Association, 73 companies released films in the UK in 2007. He estimates 63 of those companies accounted 'for at most 5% of the market'. More than 520 films were released theatrically. Many vanished almost without trace, barely making it past their opening weekend.

'The way the (independent) business runs is more and more on the American model. The American model is about opening weekends. It's about giving an audience something they feel terribly safe with,' says Clare Binns, the programming director at indie exhibitor City Screen, and a key figure in determining which films show in the UK's independent cinemas.

The specialised blockbuster

In today's market, a small independent movie is as reliant on a strong opening as a Hollywood summer tentpole. Even in the independent sector, the market is increasingly polarised.

Recent years have seen the rise of the 'specialised blockbuster', the arthouse movie that grosses more than $2m (£1m) and is as dominant in its sphere as the big studio movie is in the multiplexes.

Indeed, the top end of the market is thriving. Companies such as Optimum and Revolver Films have enjoyed significant successes with foreign-language titles such as Pan's Labyrinth ($5.6m) and Tell No One ($2.5m).

'We see a growing, vibrant interest in independent film and we're very confident about the future,' says Philip Knatchbull, CEO of Curzon Artificial Eye.

As well as vying with companies such as New Wave Films, the company set up by ex-Artificial Eye chiefs Robert Beeson and Andi Engel, for festival titles, the new-look Artificial Eye wants to expand from its arthouse base into slightly more commercial fare.

This confidence is shared by the Studio Canal-backed Optimum, which releases 300 DVDs a year as well as ever more ambitious theatrical titles including Son Of Rambow, The Orphanage, Cannes pick-up Che and the titles from its multi-picture deal with Joel Silver's Dark Castle.

It is also moving more actively into production with a planned remake of Graham Greene's Brighton Rock. 'We've had a really good year,' says Optimum's Will Clarke. Meanwhile, Revolver enjoyed a big hit last year with the French-language Tell No One and is confident about its present slate, which includes The Wackness, Savage Grace and Tyson.

The big gamble

In such a climate, smaller distributors tend to ramp up - to 'buy bigger'. However, this can be risky and expensive.

'(Tartan) were aspiring to the Momentum/Optimum place in the middle of the UK market,' notes one observer. 'Unless you have pictures that are going to gross north of that $2m (£1m) threshold and perhaps even to do more, if it doesn't happen, it is extremely difficult. All of the risk is on the distributor.'

Despite the risks, there are a growing number of indie distributors in the UK, with new competition from Delanic, Halcyon, Eureka, Diffusion, Network, Axiom, Odeon Sky Filmworks and Liberation.

'The market is over-saturated, supply is greater than demand from the exhibitors and I doubt if Tartan will be the only one to go,' notes Edward Fletcher, managing director of Soda Pictures, which recently released Irina Palm in the UK and is handling Duane Hopkins' Better Things.

'The UK market has changed considerably in the last few years, polarising in a way that there is still a good business at the higher end of the indie market with more foreign-language films taking over a million (pounds) than the previous year and also at the micro end if your overheads are low enough. It's in the middle where you can crash and burn with no decent DVD ship or TV deal to fall back on.'

The hopes held by smaller UK distributors that the Digital Screen Network (DSN), the $23.1m (£11.7m) UK Film Council initiative to install digital projectors in more than 200 cinemas in the UK, would usher in a golden era of flexible programming have not yet been fulfilled.

'The Film Council made the decision to put money into the Digital Screen Network,' notes Binns. 'They decided, I think correctly, that although we're in a very difficult transitional phase, if they put in digital screens they would get people to come in and show a wider, more diverse range of films. I don't think that has really happened.

'What it has thrown up is that what we need is for all the digital cinemas to have all digital screens. The other thing it has thrown up is that some distribution companies are better than others. Some are not prepared to be as flexible as cinemas now want to be. They demand their 21 or 28 shows a week. They don't want a screening taken out of The Chronicles Of Narnia in order to show a Duane Hopkins film.'

Dogwoof, the distributor of the first title shown on the DSN, Danish thriller King's Game, originally aimed to release all its films digitally. But not all cinemas are equipped for digital. 'We're still having to do releases that involve 35mm prints as well as digital. As soon as you're doing that, there is no real change in the business model,' says Dogwoof managing director Andy Whittaker.

He is behind new initiative TheMoviesClub.com, a 'consumer online movie distribution co-operative' consisting of up to 50,000 members of the UK public, all investing $30 (£15) each. 'The idea is that it is micro-finance but that it gives whatever movie is chosen big support. It comes with an in-built audience,' says Whittaker.

There is plenty of evidence UK indie distributors can still thrive if they are agile and resourceful. As Soda's Fletcher puts it, the same rules still apply: 'It's all about acquisitions as to who stays in the game; that and deep pockets.'