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TORONTO (Reuters) - The Toronto International Film Festival will pull back the curtain for its 34th edition this week, as an unofficial kick-off to the Oscars for an industry whose glitz factor has been dulled by the slumping economy.
More than 330 films from 64 countries will be screened over 10 days from Thursday, up slightly from 2008. Many were financed last year before funds dried up as a result of the global financial crisis.
Although participants expect fewer lavish parties, they say the festival should still be a deal-making hotbed as distributors clamor to uncover the next "Chariots of Fire" or "Slumdog Millionaire."
Those films won the Oscar for Best Picture after garnering attention at the Toronto festival.
As of last week, about one-third of the films on the bill this year lacked distribution rights in major territories.
"My feeling is that this is going to be a very good year as far as dealmaking is concerned because there are so many unknown films that look intriguing" said Michael Barker, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics.
"Every year, several of those films have always been bought. I don't think that's going to change this year."
Barker, however, said he expects the value for deals to distribute top films will likely fall from past years.
In the past three decades, the Toronto festival has built a reputation rivaling the better-known Cannes and Sundance film festivals and has carved out a niche as the place where studios showcase films ahead of the end-of-year Academy Awards races.
With Toronto offering more public access to screenings than at many other festivals, studios and distributors often are able to see how a film plays in front of a real audience.
Audience approval of "Slumdog Millionaire" -- it won the festival's top award last year -- presaged the movie's Best Picture win at the Oscars.
"I think Toronto's always been a really important part of opening the door to Oscar season," said Michael Schaefer, Senior Vice President of Acquisitions and Co-Productions for Summit Entertainment.
Following what reviewers saw as a lackluster 2008 roster, the festival has scored high profile titles among this year's 96 world premieres, including the Coen brothers' "A Serious Man," and Drew Barrymore's directorial debut "Whip It."
Other films include "Up in the Air," starring George Clooney and helmed by "Juno" director Jason Reitman, and "Get Low," starring Robert Duvall and Sissy Spacek.
Also showing is Lars von Trier's "Antichrist," which shocked audiences in Cannes for its graphic sex and violence.
The festival is also breaking with its long-standing tradition of opening with a Canadian film, opting instead to debut with British production "Creation," which tells the story of Charles Darwin and his struggle to bring the idea of evolution into a world rooted in religious belief.
The film's director, Jon Amiel, told Reuters that leading off the festival should raise the film's profile.
"Toronto is my favorite of the festivals in the sense it's a real moviegoer festival. It's about the movies, and not so much as the Croisette and the hoopla," he said, referring to the famous seaside promenade in Cannes.
The stars coming to Toronto for the festival will include George Clooney, Nicolas Cage, Penelope Cruz and Steven Soderbergh, as well as talk show queen Oprah Winfrey and Playboy founder Hugh Hefner.
Additional reporting by Bob Tourtellotte in Los Angeles; editing by Paul Simao