Between last September and December, studios and independents unleashed 42 prestige English-language films on domestic audiences. On paper it was a bumper Oscar-qualification season which featured titles from Tim Burton, David Cronenberg, Sidney Lumet, the Coen brothers, Paul Thomas Anderson, Ridley Scott, Robert Redford and Mike Nichols.

But 2008 is a less crowded affair. In the same period, only 32 awards-qualifying pictures are scheduled to open and, although there are some heavyweight directors in play, pickings are decidedly slimmer, with many of the films, such as Phoebe In Wonderland, Battle In Seattle, What Just Happened', Blindness and Towelhead, having already receiving a mixed response at festivals.

The writers' strike earlier this year can certainly be held responsible for stalling some production, and indeed early 2009 sees titles from Peter Jackson, Steven Soderbergh, Kevin Macdonald and Tony Gilroy which could have made the 2008 cut had it not been for the dispute.

Perhaps more relevant is that the so-called specialised business last year reached a dangerous peak of excess and is in the process of consolidation. Winning a heap of awards and thereby generating extra box office may not be enough any more. Paramount Vantage and Miramax Films shared the cost of last year's biggest award winners No Country For Old Men and There Will Be Blood, yet both were dark, ambiguous films which, even loaded with Oscars, failed to set the box office alight in the same way crossover movies such as The English Patient or Shakespeare In Love did a decade ago.

With studios backing these films, costs were not contained as they would have been with genuine independents, meaning profit margins were low and getting lower. According to the Motion Picture Association of America (Mpaa), the average cost of producing and marketing a film by an Mpaa affiliate (ie Vantage, Miramax, Focus, Fox Searchlight et al) was a stunning $74.8m in 2007.

This year, the studio 'affiliates' are quieter and the main studio divisions are back in the awards driving seat, delivering weighty new films from Ron Howard, Joe Wright, Baz Luhrmann, David Fincher, Ridley Scott and two from Clint Eastwood. If 2007 was a year of challenging visions from the specialised divisions, 2008 should be dominated by star-driven studio epics which, while still risky, have been tailored to make maximum impact at the box office.

While the awards season traditionally starts rolling at Venice and Toronto in the next fortnight, none of the above-mentioned studio titles will be unveiled there. Instead, they will be rolled out at the end of the year with all the marketing finesse the distributors can muster in their own domestic arena and avoiding a potentially damaging reception at a foreign film festival.

Demme, Winger, Ritchie return

Nevertheless, a first wave of smaller titles will face audiences - and critics - at Venice and Toronto, including the Coen brothers' latest offering, Burn After Reading, a frothy comedy antidote to the melancholy world of Cormac McCarthy that they brought to the screen in No Country. Perennial japesters Brad Pitt and George Clooney star with Frances McDormand, John Malkovich and Richard Jenkins.

Both festivals will also play Jonathan Demme's latest, Rachel Getting Married, a tart black comedy ensemble starring Anne Hathaway as a rehab-prone woman returning home for her sister's wedding. It also sees Debra Winger back on the big screen for the first time in four years.

Toronto will also serve as the North American or world premiere launch pad for several more classy films with distributors behind them, including Saul Dibb's The Duchess, a costume melodrama starring Keira Knightley and Ralph Fiennes which Paramount Vantage will distribute domestically, and New Line's western Appaloosa, which marks Ed Harris' return to the director's chair for the first time since his 2000 Oscar winner Pollock. He also stars, with Viggo Mortensen, Renee Zellweger and Jeremy Irons.

Spike Lee's Second World War drama Miracle At St Anna has its world premiere in Toronto. John Turturro, James Gandolfini, Derek Luke, Kerry Washington, Laz Alonso and Joseph Gordon-Levitt star in the story of four black US soldiers who are trapped in a Tuscan village in the war.

Guy Ritchie is hoping to restore lustre to his directing reputation with RocknRolla, his latest gangster saga with a tasty cast led by Gerard Butler, Tom Wilkinson, Thandie Newton and Jeremy Piven. The Joel Silver production is distributed worldwide by Warner Bros.

Also in Toronto is Fox Searchlight's eagerly awaited The Secret Life Of Bees, already touted as a key awards player. Searchlight's only awards serious contender this year, Gina Prince-Bythewood's film of Sue Monk Kidd's novel, stars Dakota Fanning as a 14-year-old girl swept into the strange world of three sisters. A rich cast includes Queen Latifah, Alicia Keys and Sophie Okonedo as the sisters, plus Paul Bettany and Jennifer Hudson.

Other Toronto premieres include Summit Entertainment's first awards contender, The Brothers Bloom, from Brick director Rian Johnson and with a cast including Oscar winners Adrien Brody and Rachel Weisz, and Danny Boyle's India-set romantic comedy Slumdog Millionaire featuring Irfan Khan and Anil Kapoor. Warner Bros/Warner Independent Pictures has domestic rights.

Three films at Venice and Toronto have yet to score domestic distribution and, should they be acquired, could be year-end players - Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler, Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker and Guillermo Arriaga's The Burning Plain. At Toronto and New York is Steven Soderbergh's two part Che, which screened as a work in progress at Cannes and won Benicio Del Toro the best actor prize. That, too, still needs a domestic distributor.

Stars in their aisles

As the rest of the year unfurls, the star wattage escalates. Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe team for Ridley Scott's Body Of Lies (Warner Bros) about a CIA operative and a former journalist trying to track down a terrorist in Jordan. DiCaprio also reunites with Kate Winslet in Revolutionary Road (Paramount Vantage/DreamWorks), Sam Mendes' film of Richard Yates' novel about a couple battling with life in 1950s Connecticut.

Josh Brolin heads a formidable cast in Oliver Stone's seriocomic portrait of George Bush, W (Lionsgate), which should be one of the year's biggest publicity magnets.

Angelina Jolie has a real shot at a second Oscar with her emotional and contained performance as a mother searching for her missing son in Clint Eastwood's wrenching Changeling (Universal) while Eastwood himself should garner attention for playing a racist old man who finds unexpected friendship with an Asian youth in Gran Torino (Warner Bros).

Nicole Kidman is back in Fox's epic Australia from Baz Luhrmann, his first film since Moulin Rouge in 2001. Kidman plays an English aristocrat driving herds of cattle across the continent with the help of Hugh Jackman.

Viggo Mortensen, Charlize Theron and Robert Duvall team for John Hillcoat's film of Cormac McCarthy's bleak post-apocalyptic epic The Road (Dimension/MGM).

Joe Wright's first two films - Pride & Prejudice and Atonement - bagged multiple Oscar nominations and his third, The Soloist, is primed for more with its high-pedigree backing (Working Title, DreamWorks/Paramount, Universal) and top-drawer cast led by Jamie Foxx as a homeless musical prodigy and Robert Downey Jr as the reporter who befriends him.

Sean Penn is back in front of the camera, teaming for the first time with Gus Van Sant on Milk (Focus), the story of San Francisco supervisor Harvey Milk, an openly gay official who was assassinated in 1978. Penn can also be seen with Harrison Ford in Wayne Kramer's Crossing Over (TWC/MGM), an ensemble about immigrants trying to secure legal status in the US.

Frank Langella and Michael Sheen reprise their stage roles as Frost/Nixon (Universal) in Ron Howard's film of the West End and Broadway hit about the confrontation between Richard Nixon and David Frost.

Daniel Craig, Jamie Bell and Liev Schreiber team for Ed Zwick's Defiance (Paramount Vantage), a Second World War drama already generating buzz, about three Jewish brothers who escape from Nazi-occupied Poland and join the Russian resistance.

Meryl Streep has her annual shot at awards glory in John Patrick Shanley's film of his own hit play Doubt (Miramax) in which Streep plays a nun who confronts a priest she suspects of abusing a black student in 1964. Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams co-star.

Cruise finally docks

Will Smith is back with director Gabriele Muccino, who steered him to a second Oscar nomination in The Pursuit Of Happyness, for Seven Pounds, about an IRS agent who sets out to change the lives of seven strangers.

And Tom Cruise will finally be seen as Claus Von Stauffenberg, the German aristocrat who led a plot to kill Hitler in 1944 in Bryan Singer's Valkyrie, the much-discussed and long-delayed epic from Cruise's own United Artists which has been slotted for a December 26 release.

Perhaps the most intriguing prospect of all is David Fincher's wildly ambitious The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button (Paramount), about a man who ages backwards. Brad Pitt's performance could finally win him a best actor nomination, while five-time Oscar nominee Cate Blanchett plays the woman with whom he falls in love.