The cinema smorgasbord of the Toronto International Film Festival has something for all tastes, a place where zombies, demons and vampires share screen time with art films, Hollywood awards contenders and studio crowd-pleasers.
One of the world's biggest and most diverse movie showcases, the festival opens Thursday with the Charles Darwin film biography "Creation," starring real-life couple Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connelly. It closes Sept. 19 with another 19th-century biopic, "The Young Victoria," featuring Emily Blunt as the British monarch in her early years.
In between, the festival will accommodate nearly half a million admissions as industry types and regular film fans share some time in darkened theaters for a total of 273 feature-length productions and 63 short films from 64 countries.
The Toronto festival is a pivotal place for Academy Awards contenders and other fall films angling for attention among the hundreds of critics and entertainment reporters.
"If you're going to bring a movie out around this time, there's no better game in town," said Matt Damon, who reteams with "Ocean's Eleven" director Steven Soderbergh for his Toronto entry, the whistle-blower saga "The Informant!"
"Ocean's Eleven" co-star and Toronto regular George Clooney has two films at the festival, Jason Reitman's comic drama "Up in the Air" and Grant Heslov's military satire "The Men Who Stare at Goats."
Reitman's previous films, 2005's "Thank You for Smoking" and 2007's "Juno," premiered at Toronto, the latter a $100 million hit whose four Oscar nominations included best picture and director.
"When I think about starting a movie, I think about shooting by January, editing by April or May, cutting through the summer and having it in time for Toronto," Reitman said. "It's my mecca every two years. I'm too superstitious not to play there at this point."
The lineup includes Drew Barrymore's directing debut "Whip It," a roller-derby romp in which she co-stars with Ellen Page and Juliette Lewis; Ricky Gervais and Jennifer Garner's comedy "The Invention of Lying"; Joel and Ethan Coen's "A Serious Man," a 1960s tale set in their native Minnesota; the documentary "Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel," a portrait of the Playboy publisher; "The Private Lives of Pippa Lee," a domestic drama with Robin Wright Penn, Alan Arkin, Keanu Reeves and Winona Ryder; and Atom Egoyan's "Chloe," the film Liam Neeson was shooting in Toronto last March when his wife, Natasha Richardson, sustained a fatal head injury while skiing in Quebec.
Toronto also is presenting big films that premiered at other festivals such as Cannes and Venice, including Michael Moore's documentary "Capitalism: A Love Story" and Terry Gilliam's fantasy "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus," Heath Ledger's final role.
With a city full of sophisticated cinema fans, the Toronto showcase allows distributors to gauge the commercial prospects of films.
At festivals such as Cannes and Sundance, "those audiences mostly don't live there. It's mostly industry or press or people in the film business. The response can be a little more reserved or jaundiced or critical sometimes," said Toronto festival co-director Cameron Bailey. "Toronto audiences, these are people who love movies. They're interested and they're also informed about movies, so filmmakers can get kind of a real-world reaction."
Sony Pictures Classics has a schedule crowded with such recent acquisitions as "Doctor Parnassus" and top Cannes prize winners "The White Ribbon" and "A Prophet," yet the company is actively scouring Toronto for other films.
"The economic downturn has affected us all. We're all in survival mode," said Michael Barker, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics. "But the fact is, when you look at the Toronto film festival, its value is the same as it always was, which is to launch films effectively, to get the attention of critics and academy members at the dawn of the so-called awards season, and also for companies like us to look for new films to buy."
For directors whose films already have a distributor, such as Clooney's producing partner Heslov, the festival is a place to find out if their hard work might pay off with fans.
"You put a year of your life into something, so I'm excited about the prospect of having it in front of audiences, hearing their reaction," said Heslov, who makes his directing debut with "The Men Who Stare at Goats," about a fringe military unit researching psychic warfare. "It comes to life with an audience in a way you don't really get when you're editing and shooting."