It's not that my film deserves an audience, but its audience deserves to see it.' The frustration of Samm Haillay, a producer on Duane Hopkins' Better Things, encapsulates the critical issue for film.

It is unrealistic to expect films like Hopkins' bleakly beautiful tale of growing up in the UK, to find a mass market. Indeed it would be a depressing film business if smaller movies attempted to tailor their messages as if they were items on supermarket shelves.

The trick, however, is to aggregate those audiences who would love the film into a customer base. And it must be done if the independent industry is to survive and prosper in financially tight and highly competitive times.

The tools to aggregate audiences are increasingly available, notably online. It is exciting to think that film is at an early stage in the ability to mobilise niches into commercially attractive audience groups: the marriage of this trend with the plentiful talent and ideas that the medium can boast is reason for optimism. It must keep its eyes on this mission, however, because there are plenty of dead-end alternatives, the biggest of which is the attempt to gear everything to a mythical public taste.

A lot of nonsense is written about cinema as the escapist refuge in these troubled economic times. On the plus side, the theatre has a unique appeal - the number of places where one can forget the hurly-burly of life in an immersive experience are thin on the ground. Even with a disappointing film, cinemas represent an escape from the home at a relatively low cost and surveys show consistently that for the teen audience, what is actually showing can be secondary to just going out with friends to 'the flicks'.

But the term 'escapism' is often used to express a universal audience trend. The idea that we're already at the stage where significant parts of the world's population are acting like latter-day Okeys in the dustbowl, with the theatre as the only escape from financial misery, seems a little far-fetched - at least for now. But even if that were true, cinema's capacity to exploit it is severely limited.

The films that are cited as beneficiaries of the escapist wave were made in boom times when the notion that the credit and housing bubbles might burst was just nagging away in the subconscious. Mamma Mia! The Movie was there on the back of the amazing success of the stage musical, and High School Musical 3: Senior Year was the sequel to a long-established franchise.

Timing a movie to ride the zeitgeist is all but impossible given the length of time it takes to make a film. The collection of anti-Iraq War films that have disappointed at the box office were probably just a year too late to catch the mood. The observation is important because right now there will be a clamour to climb aboard the escapist bandwagon. It is interesting how, at many meetings and events, the word 'gritty' has been written off as the currency of fools, while the assumption has grown that the public wants fluffy, funny and fantastical.

At the theatre, understanding the primacy of fun is no bad thing. There are rarely enough good comedies around and, with 3D screens growing in number, there's always demand for the cinema of spectacle.

But the truth remains for film that if you can see the bandwagon, it's already too late to climb aboard. There may be regional and demographic variations but the public in its many demographic and social niches have boredom thresholds that don't fit the production cycle.

Which brings us back to the Duane Hopkins dilemma. Cinema is in the business of creating trends - it's just too slow to ride them.

So what we need to focus on is films that have their sense of place and purpose, and clarity about their market. The gap between script and screening in any format is a long one but it can be filled effectively by using new tools to tantalise and involve target audiences.

The potential to reach those that want to see a film is much greater now given the proliferation of new tools but there are two tragedies that threaten the future of film: the exodus of talent fed up with critical acclaim and no viewers, and the loss of future cinema-goers because we see them as a single passive audience instead of how they define themselves.