No matter which film walks home from Sunday's Oscar ceremony with the big prize, it will mark another victory for the US-centric studio apparatus otherwise known as Hollywood. Even at the more artistic fringes of the film-making spectrum, the big-six movie conglomerates still exert a gravitational pull on the marketplace that evidently sucks many of the most potent talents and scripts into their planetary distribution orbits.
Consider all the best-picture nominees this year. Two of them - There Will Be Blood and No Country For Old Men - are products of US studio-owned 'specialist' labels, in this case working in tandem and controlling global rights between them. The one truly international production, Atonement, came courtesy of a UK company whose output is financed and distributed in large part by Universal Pictures or its offshoots.
The final two nominees began life as privately financed projects but were quickly absorbed into the studio maw. Mandate sold Juno to Fox Searchlight for the world. Michael Clayton, financed by Steve Samuels and offered by Summit for pre-sales to foreign independents, was snapped up by Warner Bros the moment George Clooney stepped on board as collaborator.
By modern standards, all of these pseudo-independent films are modestly budgeted, ranging in estimated cost from Juno's $6.5m to Atonement's $40m. And yet, cheap as they might be, it is unlikely any of these dark-themed films would have made it intact to the big screen without a studio distribution guarantee behind them. Industry cheerleaders might see in such idiosyncratic films continued proof of Hollywood's creative daring; but those toiling in the independent trenches, particularly outside the US, will see further evidence of how far the odds are now stacked against them.
All of which explains why several international entrepreneurs, primarily Paris-based outfits such as Tarak Ben Ammar's Quinta, Wild Bunch and StudioCanal, are now trying to tilt the power equation more in the independents' favour. By buying control of Europe's top local distributors in key territories, they hope to create theatrical releasing networks that will enjoy the same in-built advantages of scale as their studio rivals. Releasing 20 or so films a year day-and-date across a large swathe of Western Europe would allow these alliances to save on marketing costs, stay ahead of the pirates and, above all, cross-collateralise their risk. Profitable territories would end up compensating for the inevitable loss-making ones.
In terms of films to acquire or co-finance, these Parisian collectives are targeting films that would otherwise land in the global pockets of the studio specialists. As well they might. Costing a combined $128m to produce, this year's best-picture crop has already reaped more than $470m at the global box office, even before opening in many major markets.
But the real question is from where these budding alliances will harvest their new slates. Consistent suppliers such as New Line and Summit seem obvious ports of call, except they too are tied into certain European distributors of their own choosing.
Moreover, New Line's legal battles over The Lord Of The Rings - the latest coming from the heirs of JRR Tolkien - highlight the accounting problems that can come with releasing the same film through different overseas distributors. On paper, the trilogy has taken $6bn worldwide. But the way New Line calculates payments based on those revenues is rather different to the global studios and their direct distribution offices. As a result, gross participations and overages become far more nettlesome to sort out.
For now, Ben Ammar and co's proposition is elegant in design, but problematic in execution. In this they should not be too surprised: as with any industrial prospectors, there will be blood aplenty before a new industrial model emerges. Indeed, New Line itself, long the exemplar of the indie mini-major, may well fall victim to media conglomeration. Time Warner chief Jeff Bewkes is looking at merging New Line with Warner Bros.
Colin Brown, editor-in-chief