Toronto film festival opens with Downey Jr legal drama

TORONTO, Canada (AFP) - The red carpet has been rolled out for the 39th Toronto International Film Festival, which opens Thursday amid criticism over new rules meant to cement the event's reputation as an Oscar kingmaker.

The legal drama The Judge - starring Robert Duvall and Robert Downey Jr. as father and son - will kick off North America's largest film festival, which runs through September 14.

Over the next four days, organizers will for the first time showcase only world premieres, including from directors Noah Baumbach, Susanne Bier, François Ozon, Lone Scherfig and Chris Rock.

The new policy was put in place as festivals compete to land more buzz-creating film debuts, explained the Toronto event's co-director Piers Handling.

"There's a lot more focus on film festivals and a lot more prominence," Mr Handling said.

"It doesn't affect the selection of the films at all - it only affects the scheduling." Critics however accuse Toronto organizers of using their considerable clout to lure high-profile films, to the detriment of smaller events like the Telluride festival in the US state of Colorado.

Actors are usually contractually obligated to show up for premieres - with top names drawing big media and critical attention. It could thus be devastating for other festivals if stars decide to only attend the Toronto fest.

Distributors have also expressed fears that the new rules could result in less critical attention to their films.

Organizers in Toronto say there is a need to clarify what actually counts as a world premiere, after complaints in past years that some films had first screened at the Venice or Telluride film festivals, which overlap with the Canada event.

At stake are bragging rights for showcasing films that go on to win awards, especially the coveted Oscars.

Several films that were said to have premiered in Toronto in recent years went on to win a best picture Oscar, including 12 Years A Slave, Argo, The Artist, The King's Speech, and Slumdog Millionaire. But those films had all first quietly screened to film industry crowds at Telluride.

- European, Chinese films in focus -

Several well-regarded European filmmakers chose Toronto for their premieres this year.

On the schedule are Bier's A Second Chance, Scherfig's The Riot Club, The New Girlfriend featuring rising French star Anais Demoustier, Christian Petzold's Phoenix and Norwegian master Bent Hamer's 1001 Grams. Top Chinese filmmakers Zhang Yimou (Coming Home), Ning Hao (Breakup Buddies), Peter Chan (Dearest) and Wang Xiaoshuai (Red Amnesia) are also expected to hit the red carpet in Toronto.

Many eyes are on actor Benedict Cumberbatch, who stars as codebreaker Alan Turing in "The Imitation Game." He appeared in Toronto in three films last year: The Fifth Estate, August: Osage County, and 12 Years A Slave, but was overlooked at awards time.

Insiders said this could be his year.

Reese Witherspoon is expected to kick off a "big year" with two films in Toronto: The Good Lie about an American woman who takes in a Sudanese refugee, and Wild, the film adaptation of Cheryl Strayed's best-selling memoir.

James Gandolfini will make a posthumous return to the big screen in the gangland tale The Drop, shot just before his death in June 2013.

But other industry heavyweights such as Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, whose film Birdman stars Michael Keaton, have opted to skip Toronto.

The Mexico-born director previously brought Biutiful and Babel to the Canada event.

After emerging at the Venice film festival last week as an Oscar contender, Birdman will now make its North American premiere at the boutique New York Film Festival.

In all, the Toronto festival will showcase 268 feature films, including 143 world premieres, from 70 countries.

Celebrities such as Jennifer Aniston, John Cusack, Tina Fey, Al Pacino, Adam Sandler and John Travolta are also expected to grace the red carpet.

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