LONDON — The U.K.’s indie distribs are used to having the cards stacked against them, getting the raw end of the deal when it comes to theatrical rentals and TV sales.

2003 STATS
Top film: “Lord of the Rings: Return of the King” (Entertainment; $112 million plus)
Top indie: “Return of the King”
Total B.O.: $1.49 billion
Indie B.O.: $327 million
Total releases: 422
Indie releases: 283
“Ask the Dust” (Pathe)
“Brokeback Mountain” (Entertainment)
“Open Water” (Redbus)
“Perfume” (Momentum)
“Savage Grace” (Tartan)

But as 2004 unfolds, the sector is looking in surprisingly decent shape, buoyed by the DVD bonanza and some fine recent results at the box office, with more strong pics to come later in the year.

For once, market leader Entertainment Film Distributors, currently enjoying a hit with “Dawn of the Dead,” is not carrying the flag for the sector on its own.

Momentum Pictures is basking in the success of “Lost in Translation,” which has topped the £10 million mark ($18 million). After a barren couple of years, Icon scored modestly with “21 Grams” ($4.4 million) and then hit the jackpot with “The Passion of the Christ,” which even in secular Blighty should end up near $20 million.

Pathe had a healthy run to $6.4 million with “Girl With a Pearl Earring,” Metrodome managed a good opening with “Monster,” and Artificial Eye topped the million dollar mark with Japanese pic “Zatoichi.”

“Independent theatrical distribution is a beautiful thing, when it works,” says Metrodome topper Andrew Keyte wryly. “All you have to do is prove your taste is better than anyone else’s, over and over again.”

Competition to pick up the smaller arthouse/crossover titles is becoming intense. That’s fueled partly by the revenues flowing from distribs exploiting their libraries on DVD, and partly by P&A subsidies from the U.K. Film Council.

“The Film Council support means you can release on more prints and make these movies more visible,” says Laura De Casto, managing director of Tartan Films.

“On the acquistions front, it’s brutal,” adds Keyte. “There are seven or eight companies in our sector, all competing for the same film.”

Still, the market is certainly healthy enough to attract niche newcomers such as Verve and Swipe. Metrodome is ramping up again after stabilizing its finances, and Winchester may become a more active player following its merger with ContentFilm. Momentum and Tartan are planning on expansion into other territories.

At the top end, however, there are still only one or two companies capable of handling the biggest buys.