While blockbuster movies may be proving recession-proof, the independent sector is feeling the chill and will emerge from the downturn looking very different.

The perception among many people outside of the film industry is that the business is showing signs of being bullet-proof when it comes to the ongoing global recession.

“There is no question that globally, the independent film-making industry will emerge from this economic downturn looking very different”

They point to the record box-office figures, the packed cinemas during the summer and the rise of the 3D experience helping to drive audiences to new movies such as Up and breath life into older fare such as Toy Story. We have James Cameron’s much-hyped Avatar still to come and there is certainly a strong appetite for film as people turn away from the economic gloom outside the theatre, towards a brighter world onscreen.

But that is only part of the story and tells a very selective tale. A world away from the big studio hits of the summer is the independent film sector which is struggling to raise cash and interest for the movies it wants to make - and finding both investment and audiences ever more difficult to attract.

At the recent Toronto International Film Festival, the market itself was sluggish and the days of buyers hustling directors and producers out of the theatre and into taxis to keep them away from rival buyers seems to be long over. A more cautious eye is being applied to all films and the buying frenzy of the markets, that the Weinsteins themselves did more than anyone to create, has been replaced by a wait-and-see attitude as strong reviews and word of mouth are no longer enough to see films snapped up.

Buyers now want the security of seeing the films succeed in other markets before they do a deal - and the prices they are paying are falling with every festival.
The Weinstein Company bought Tom Ford’s much-lauded A Single Man at Tiff but picked up North American rights for less than $2m. Even Harvey is thinking hard before pulling out his chequebook for a film he thinks has Oscar potential.

So if Tiff was tough, then the AFM in Santa Monica in November will be the real test of the market. Sources in Toronto were suggesting the volume of independent films in the pipeline in North America and other markets had fallen by between 50% and 70% this year, compared to last year. The market has been expecting a correction in the volume of films being produced - but a reduction on this scale would take independent film production levels back to the kind of numbers seen in the mid-1990s - with something closer to 250 being made compared to 450 in 2008. It will mean a significant restructuring of the industry itself to reflect the reduction in volume and it will no doubt mean further rationalisation within the industry.

So there is no question that globally, the independent film-making industry will emerge from this economic downturn looking very different - as a result of pressures on funding, new platforms for distribution and the struggle to find new audiences and ways of getting films made. Bill Mechanic, the former Fox chief, speaking at the Independent Film & Television Alliance production conference in Santa Monica this week spelled out the challenge for the indie sector.

Independents, he said, needed fresh and unique films that were different to the studio-fare - not more of the same but on smaller budgets. Originality and creativity are the key to survival and success. In some respects it was ever so.

Mechanic also predicted the studios themselves would be credit-crunched, with around two of the majors sold or consolidated within the next five or six years. It may be sooner than that. So whatever the box-office figures are telling us at the moment, the international film business isn’t bullet-proof and we can expect to see the impact of that over the next few years at both festivals and markets.