TORONTO (Reuters) - The curtain rose on the Toronto International Film Festival on Thursday night with romance "Passchendaele" playing to a packed theater and starting a 10-day parade of films and stars at one of the world's top movie gatherings.
In keeping with tradition, the event opened by shining its spotlight on a Canadian movie, but Hollywood invades in the days ahead with the likes of George Clooney, Brad Pitt and even Paris Hilton in town.
Before the festival ends on September 13, more than 300 films will screen here as filmmakers hope to gain attention that earns box office bucks and movie fan buzz ahead of Hollywood's upcoming Oscar season. Last year's Toronto darling, teen pregnancy comedy "Juno," went on to win wide acclaim.
But Thursday belonged to Canadian actor Paul Gross, who wrote, directed and starred-in "Passchendaele," a love story set against the backdrop of Canadians fighting in World War I.
"In the end, love is all that can counter the implacable brutality" of war, Gross told the opening night audience.
Beyond the romance, "Passchendaele" explores class and ethnic clashes in the country and serves up a healthy amount of Canadian patriotism.
Gross told Reuters that seeing his movie selected for opening night at a festival that has long promoted Canadian filmmakers was particularly gratifying.
"This film took an uncommonly long time to get around to making, and hundreds of people were involved," he said of the labor of love that took more than 15 years from idea to movie. "This is a great tribute to the people involved."
But even as the red carpet rolled out for the Canadians, British director Guy Ritchie on Thursday also screened his newest gangster movie "RocknRolla," starring Thandie Newton, Jeremy Piven of TV's "Entourage" and rapper Chris "Ludacris" Bridges. And the "RocknRolla" cast will not be the only Hollywood stars in town.
Oscar-winning directors Joel and Ethan Coen ("No Country for Old Men") screen a new comedy "Burn After Reading," starring Pitt and Clooney, telling the story of a gym instructor who tries to blackmail a former CIA agent.
Fourteen year-old Dakota Fanning, who won the hearts of moviegoers as a child actor in films such as "War of the Worlds," grows up in front of audiences in coming-of-age tale, "The Secret Life of Bees," and directors including Spike Lee and China's Wong Kar Wai also bring their movies to Toronto.
Hilton, who has earned a reputation for grabbing the media spotlight, did it again on Thursday when a report in the New York Post said she had asked festival organizers to cancel two screenings of a documentary about her, "Paris, Not France," in favor of just one showing that would garner greater attention.
Festival organizers and a Hilton spokesman were not immediately available to comment, but the filmmakers released a statement saying that "for a variety of reasons -- which we are unable to discuss -- the film will be screened only once."
Meanwhile, audiences looked forward to upcoming movies ranging from 18th century romance "The Duchess" with Keira Knightley to cop drama "Pride and Glory" starring Colin Farrell and Edward Norton -- all leading to the festival's final gala film, "The Good, the Bad, the Weird."
Additional Reporting by Ka Yan Ng