TORONTO (Reuters) - It's normally a proving ground for movies hoping to make a splash during Oscar season, but in a 2010 film season that has been thin on critical successes, this year's edition of the Toronto Film Festival could grab an even bigger share of the spotlight.
Following a Cannes festival in May that lacked Oscar buzz and a summer loaded with sequels and remakes, industry players will sift through the 339 titles set to unspool in Toronto this week and next looking for another "Slumdog Millionaire" or "The Hurt Locker".
Both films parlayed Toronto success into Oscar wins.
"People are waiting for these fall pictures to drop to really fill out the dance card for the Oscars and (Golden) Globes and other awards," said Pete Hammond, a film critic and columnist at Deadline Hollywood.
The 11-day sprint of flashbulbs and red carpets kicks off on Thursday with the world premiere of Michael McGowan's "Score: A Hockey Musical".
The comedy fulfills the festival's traditional mandate of opening with a Canadian film, but it has already received some criticism for its low-brow subject matter.
While audiences will clamor for a look at stars such as Clint Eastwood, Robert De Niro and Natalie Portman, filmmakers will hope to nail down distribution deals in an industry that has run short of funding in recent years.
Last year's festival was notable for a lack of distribution deals, and industry players are still cautious as revenue streams such as DVD sales have flagged.
"It is a difficult time in which to buy films," said Michael Barker, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics.
"What you find is that companies tend to take less risks and tend to only make offers on pictures they feel very confident about. It's not an easy moment for the business."
Experts are banking on better times in 2011, and Barker noted that box office receipts have been strong this year.
But while the deal-making climate is uncertain, the star power promises to be a steady draw for a festival that prides itself on the large public audiences that see the films.
Legends Clint Eastwood and Robert Redford will each unveil new films.
Eastwood returns to the festival after a 20-year absence with his supernatural thriller "Hereafter", which stars Matt Damon and Bryce Dallas Howard.
Redford unveils "The Conspirator", about the lone woman charged in the Lincoln assassination.
Also anticipated is Danny Boyle's "127 hours", the director's follow-up to his 2008 hit "Slumdog Millionaire".
The film stars James Franco in the true story of Aron Ralston, who had to take extreme measures to save himself after a boulder fell on his arm while hiking in 2003.
Portman will star as a ballerina in Darren Aronofsky's "Black Swan", which won rave reviews at the Venice Film Festival last week. [nLDE6811EE]
Reporting by Cameron French; editing by Peter Galloway