Toronto film fest offers Oscar bids in strong market

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By Christine Kearney

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Coming off a robust first half of 2011 for independent films, the Toronto film festival kicks off on Thursday with expectations for a generous amount of business deals, Hollywood star power and Oscar hopefuls.

Film fans and industry pros are heading into this week's festival, which will screen 268 feature throughout 11 days, in a buoyant mood following strong movie lineups and dealmaking at the Cannes and Sundance festivals earlier this year.

Adding to their optimism for the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) is a full roster of Hollywood A-listers among the event's movies, ranging from George Clooney and Brad Pitt to U2, Pearl Jam and Madonna.

Moreover, attendees will all be looking at a group of films that might turn into Oscar contenders following on from last year's "The King's Speech," which won top prize at TIFF.

"This year is going to be a turnaround in a very big way for Toronto in terms of getting people jazzed on movies. The enthusiasm from Cannes is going to continue through," said film critic and Deadline Hollywood columnist Pete Hammond.

Red carpets will be laid out for films featuring Clooney, Pitt, Viggo Mortensen, Keira Knightley and Jennifer Hudson along with directors Luc Besson, David Cronenberg, Cameron Crowe, Michel Winterbottom, Sarah Polley and Madonna.

Clooney will turn out for "The Ides of March," which he directs and stars in, as well as "The Descendants," from "Sideways" director Alexander Payne in which Clooney plays an indifferent husband and father forced to reexamine his life. Both films won many fans when they debuted at the Venice and Telluride festivals only days ago. Telluride organizers gave Clooney an award for his contribution to cinema.

Pitt stars in "Moneyball," based on the true story of Billy Beane, the general manager of baseball's Oakland A's who reinvents his team, while David Cronenberg's "A Dangerous Method" starring Mortensen and Knightley will be tested for audience reaction after runs at other festivals.

OSCAR WATCH AT TIFF

"The Lady," about Myanmar's opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, is one of the of most buzzed about films -- including Michele Yeoh's turn as Suu Kyi -- looking for distribution in the United States.

Besides Yeoh, eyes will also be watching Glenn Close in "Albert Nobbs," a drama the five-time Academy Award nominee co-wrote in which she plays a woman pretending to be a male butler set in 19th century Ireland. Last year, "Rabbit Hole" earned Nicole Kidman buzz and a later Oscar nomination.

"In terms of Oscar hopefuls I think it is a very good year (in Toronto) because there has been very little so far that has come out," Hammond said, adding many directors had "Academy pedigrees."

Eyes will also be peeled to British artist Steve McQueen's "Shame" starring Michael Fassbender. Other actors in pointed roles include Woody Harrelson as an L.A. cop in "Rampart" and Matthew McConaughey in "Killer Joe," while Jennifer Hudson plays Winnie Mandela in the anticipated biopic "Winnie" and Tilda Swinton stars in "We Need to Talk About Kevin."

Among foreign films, Polish director Agnieszka Holland's will show her new "In Darkness," and "Melancholia" by Danish director Lars von Trier, who was expelled from the Cannes Film Festival in May for joking about Hitler, will have its North American premiere.

Documentaries featured at Toronto include for the first time ever an opening night gala slot for Davis Guggenheim's "From the Sky Down," which chronicles the making of the U2 album "Achtung Baby."

Other documentaries include the Cameron Crowe-directed "Pearl Jam and Twenty," and films by top directors including Werner Herzog, Wim Wenders, Alex Gibney and Morgan Spurlock.

Coming off positive moods at Sundance and Cannes, the industry's business outlook seems optimistic after recent indie films such as "Black Swan" won awards and earned near or more than $100 million at U.S. box offices.

A TIFF trailer for "Hysteria" has been viewed more than 400,000 times already, said festival co-director Cameron Bailey, who thinks TIFF gives buyers "a very good indication of how a film will do in the North American market."

Sony Pictures Classics co-president Michael Barker said last year was a difficult time to buy films, but now he said the market seemed "very strong. People are very optimistic and there are a lot of companies that want to buy film."

"In my mind theatrical has never been more robust than at the present time, which is one the reasons why we are very bullish...There is an insatiable appetite for films," he said.

Both Bailey and Barker said the industry was still waiting for a profitable straight-to-Web distribution model.

(Reporting by Christine Kearney, editing by Bob Tourtellotte)