Like a Japanese ronin, independent film-producers are rarely able to settle down with a cosy financier for very long. Samurai warriors without a master, they are forced to roam the lonely planet in search of the ever-shifting treasure chests that will bankroll their good deeds.
The reason is simple: private finance is a gypsy, seeking new homes as risk changes, investment returns fluctuate or some clever whiz-kid gives new life to a creaking old investment vehicle.
National funding systems are also in constant flux as they respond - usually with a time-lag of years rather than months - to changing political currents, competition from other causes and occasionally the changing needs of the local film industry. Even well-oiled systems underpinning a proud and successful industry like that in France need to keep evolving or risk being overtaken by events. France's CNC recently commissioned a study on new financing mechanisms that could help alleviate the 'crisis' its independent production sector is suffering. And even Canada, which has traditionally welcomed large numbers of films from the US, is no longer the top dog in the 'runaway productions' show. "For the first time, production in Prague has surpassed production in Montreal," says Canadian producer Martin Katz.
While some of the other established sources of soft money, notably Australia, Luxembourg and the UK, are doubling their efforts to remain interesting, the newcomers include some unlikely locations. Romania, Belgium, Italy, China and the US are among the new hotspots on the soft-money map.
The country is one of only a few in Western Europe not to have much in the way of meaningful financial incentives that can attract footloose productions or make Italian production houses attractive partners. This may be about to change.
At last year's Venice film festival, producers, distributors and sellers met with the ministry of culture for the first time to discuss means to end Italy's woes. They appeared to favour a tax-credit system akin to Canada's. Since then, the mood has shifted towards something like the UK's sale-and-leaseback schemes, but with less vague regulation.
Optimists think Italy may now be only three months away from seeing some legislation and perhaps six months from a scheme producers can use to gain relief on their taxable income or be able to turn it into cash by selling that relief to other investors. One drawback is that there may be a negative impact on co-productions with the UK.
The European Investment Bank's (EIB) billions seem destined to find their first home in Italy. Although much trumpeted over the past two years by media commissioner Viviane Reding, the EIB has yet to become a major film financier. It has realised that it is not equipped to evaluate film-by-film project risk and appears now to prefer 'global loans' to banks that are closer to the industry. The first has been with Italy's dominant film lender, the Banca Nazionale del Lavoro (BNL), worth $98m (e100m). Last week the BNL made its first three EIB-backed loans to films in production. Smaller loans of $19.6m each have gone to France's Cofiloisirs and Coficine, while $29.5m has gone to Spain's Institut Catala de Finances.
After seeing neighbours The Netherlands and Luxembourg attract large numbers of foreign productions, Belgium is to become the latest European country attempting to use tax to boost film production. The government ratified a new tax shelter this summer which will allow film investors to set off $737,000 of corporation tax, provided that their total tax liability exceeds $1.48m.
The tax relief is available at 150% of initial investments, meaning that a $492,000 investment would trigger the maximum tax relief. Two key conditions are attached to the relief: a sum equivalent to 150% of the amount provided under the scheme must be spent in Belgium; and the amount provided tax free must not exceed more than 50% of the total budget. The only drawback is that Belgium has few locations or infrastructure to house major pictures.
Romania has attracted a number of high-profile films, including Constantin Costa-Gavras' Amen and Franco Zeffirelli's Callas Forever. Miramax's $80m Cold Mountain is the largest in current production and Volker Schloendorff's Pope Joan is also set to shoot in Romania.
The country has a number of qualities, including a good film infrastructure and a long-established auteur tradition. But its biggest asset is the low cost of labour and facilities. This advantage has grown as its immediate and higher-profile neighbours the Czech Republic and Hungary have suffered from the inflationary effects of popularity and approaching European Union membership.
But Romania suffers from a lack of any other form of soft money. There is no government subsidy, tax breaks or funds to attract foreign producers. And, says one producer, "as other funds are often percentage based, by cutting the overall budget these contributions will also go down too; Section 48, sale and leaseback, pre-sales and gaps are all percentage based, so you may still be as far away as ever".
Boasting an extraordinary range of locations, low labour rates and access to a quarter of the world's population, China could eventually be the hottest location on the planet. The Film Bureau subsidises a production by scouting locations and by helping foreigners find appropriate partners. The country's studios are not in the business of putting hard currency cash into foreign pictures, but will co-produce (necessary if a film is to have a meaningful Chinese release) and may take equity in return for providing facilities and equipment. The best known drawback is the need for script approval by the country's censors. But some experienced producers also warn that China is never quite as cheap as it seems.
Some 30 states now offer different forms of soft money. But Louisiana has become the most aggressive state to chase those pictures that are not tied to a specific location. In August, the state announced that qualifying productions will be eligible for tax credits (accessible through a new fund) equivalent to 15% of production expenditure in the state. That is topped off by a further 20% credit for resident payroll reduction and exemptions from state sales tax. Producers estimate they can combine them and, in some cases, cut total costs by 20%. With no upper limit on the credit, Louisiana hopes to attract an extra $100m of film expenditure.
New Mexico is offering a 15% tax credit for production expenditure in the state, and Paramount's Suspect Zero became the first film to take advantage of an interest-free loan programme, which is capped at $7.5m and gives the state an equity position. California is so worried by runaway productions that Governor Gray Davis proposed legislation in January that would return up to $230m to the production community between 2004 and 2006 through the state's first tax-credit scheme. Unfortunately the legislation failed at committee stage as the state senate struggled with a $24bn budget gap.