'For the first time in 20 years, no-one wants to venture a guess about what will happen this year,' Universal Pictures International president David Kosse told Screen this week.

We do seem to be heading into a perfect storm somewhere in a Bermuda triangle, comprising an uncertain digital transition, a crash in finance and a distribution crisis for an oversupplied international independent sector. The established business seems to be crumbling faster than a new one can settle in.

No area of the industry is immune. The problems of independent films in an overcrowded market were a theme of last year but the supposed critic and recession-proof franchises are not going to have it easy.

Hidden among the tinsel of Christmas film stories was news that Disney had quietly quit the Narnia series. The Chronicles Of Narnia: Prince Caspian was not a disaster by any means, topping $400m worldwide, but it did make a lot less than the first film. Walden Media may well find a partner for the next movie and Disney no doubt has its own business motivations.

But franchises demand more respect than is given them. The trend towards remakes, sequels and adaptations may originally have seen some easy options but they have long since been exhausted.

Book adaptations are in some ways the most difficult to pull off. The 'much-loved' tag that goes with novels such as The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe brings with it a horrible weight of expectation.

Unlike Disney franchises such as Pirates Of The Caribbean or High School Musical, which are products created by and for the franchise generation, there was not enough outside of the big screen with Prince Caspian to create a monster hit.

And book adaptations cannot be critic proof - in fact they come with a built-in army of literary critics. Philip Pullman's The Golden Compass failed to create a film dynasty partly for that reason. When it works - as in The Lord Of The Rings - the adaptation can be a wonder, but carries risk in a world where there is little room for failure.

The search for a globally recognised brand that can be turned into a franchise is itself becoming tougher. We are surely close to the bottom of the franchise barrel. The comic book, for example, has been thoroughly mined.

The sheer cost of marketing a global product demands a degree of pre-existing recognition. Giving birth to a new franchise is a tough business but nurturing and sustaining it through the fragile early years is tougher still. That requires enormous investment that is looking less likely as time goes on.

The more fertile ground for 2009 seems to be in areas such as 3D - a format that may prove a sort of franchise all of its own. For a little while, people may go to see a film just because it's 3D, but that won't last.

The content, of course, remains king but the key is to develop audiences for products. There have quietly been big advances in audience development at the top end of the cinematic scale. Franchises, for example, are now systematically tailored to ensure maximum international reach. They are much less hit-and-hope than ever before.

The key for independents this year will be just as much about connecting high-quality product with customers. A recessionary industry will force down budgets and may well cull large numbers of films. Survival could depend on staying focused on distribution. The requisite business bullshit term here is 'right-sizing to maximise reach'.

This may be a difficult market to read but films with a business focus on an actual audience to match the film-makers' creative vision have the best chance of winning.