TORONTO (Reuters) - The Toronto film festival will provide the unofficial kick start to Oscar season this week, with distributors keen to give an early look at possible awards contenders and perhaps uncover this year's sleeper hit.
The 33rd version of the festival opens on Thursday with the gala presentation of "Passchendaele," Canadian director Paul Gross's take on the catastrophic World War I battle.
While many of the 249 features to be screened were also shown earlier this year at festivals such as Cannes and Venice, Toronto is seen as the key launching point for North American premieres and for films vying for Oscars.
"This is the one film festival that's a grab-bag of movies that the studios consider award-season contenders," said film critic Pete Hammond.
"The mind-set of the industry is that if it plays well in Toronto, that can launch it pretty favorably into the awards season."
This year, the festival will screen 312 features and short films from 64 countries over 10 days, a slightly smaller schedule than last year, but with a more international flavor, particularly from South America.
Often called the "people's festival" because of the relative ease for the public to get tickets, Toronto has no formal competition but awards the "People's Choice" prize, voted on by the film-going public.
Among the 116 world premieres will be Spike Lee's "Miracle at St. Anna" about a group of African-American U.S. soldiers in Italy in World War II, and "The Lucky Ones," about returning Iraq War veterans on a road trip home starring Tim Robbins.
But distributors will also be looking to sign deals with unknown movies that have the potential to be sleeper hits, such as last year's "Juno," a TIFF film that came out of nowhere to win an Oscar for best original screenplay and gain three other nominations.
While it's too early to get a strong sense of the overall quality of this year's slate, Hammond said there are some notable potential Oscar contenders due for late-season release that won't be at this year's festival.
"Overall, I don't think Toronto, in terms of this year's awards season, is going to be as big a player when we look at what finally winds up with nominations," he said.
"I think this is the early part of the (Oscar) season, and I think it's a little weaker than normal and a little smaller than normal."
Other notable premieres include the documentary "Religulous," a tongue-in-cheek look at organized religion by humorist Ball Maher and "Seinfeld" producer Larry Charles, and "The Secret Life of Bees," which stars Dakota Fanning and Queen Latifah in an adaptation of the Sue Monk Kidd best seller.
Eagerly-anticipated films that have already been screened at other festivals include Steven Soderbergh's "Che," a 4-1/2 hour biopic on revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara, and the Coen brothers' "Burn after Reading," a spy satire starring Brad Pitt and George Clooney.
Pitt headlines the list of hundreds of film stars and celebrities descending on Canada's largest city before the festival wraps up on September 13.
Editing by Vicki Allen