TORONTO – It's a real place to discover new talent, the Toronto International Film Festival (search). Just ask Niki Caro.
Three years ago, she showed up as a complete unknown at North America's biggest movie showcase, with a little film about a young Maori girl bucking convention to become leader of her patriarchal tribe.
The New Zealand director recalls "sitting at the back shaking like a leaf" at the tiny Toronto theater where "Whale Rider" had its first screening. The standing ovation at the end helped boost her confidence. So did the woman who stood up and told her she felt like a better person for seeing the film.
Then "Whale Rider" won the festival's people's choice prize as audience favorite. Newmarket Films, the distributor that released Mel Gibson's (search) "The Passion of the Christ," picked up "Whale Rider," turning it into a $20 million independent hit that went on to earn 13-year-old star Keisha Castle-Hughes an Academy Awards (search) nomination for best actress.
"We went to Toronto, we didn't have distribution, we didn't have a publicist, we didn't have anything," Caro said. "But we had a film."
That's the aim of the Toronto festival, welcoming filmmakers both established and unknown to put their movies before discerning audiences of cinema fans, industry professionals, critics and reporters.
Now in its 30th year, the Toronto festival opens Thursday with director Deepa Mehta's "Water," a drama about a widowed child bride in India who balks at Hindu tradition that relegates her to a dreary enclave filled with other widows.
The festival began as a spotlight for Canadian films. It remains a big forum for homegrown filmmakers, with 37 of this year's 256 feature films and 61 of the 79 short films coming out of Canada.
Like European festivals such as Cannes and Berlin, Toronto also has become a major spot for international cinema. Like Sundance, Toronto also aims to nurture aspiring independent filmmakers.
And Toronto has become one of the key places for Hollywood studios to launch their big fall releases and Oscar contenders.
"We perceive Toronto as the festival that has the widest brim. We try to fit as much under this umbrella as we can," said Noah Cowan, the festival's co-director.
Caro returns this year with her follow-up to "Whale Rider," the working-class drama "North Country," starring Charlize Theron as a woman who leads a sexual-harassment case against male co-workers at a Minnesota mining company in the late 1980s.
"If people, critics respond to the film there, it starts a nice little wave of chat, which for a movie like `North Country' is really important," Theron said. "It's one of those films that travels by word of mouth."
Other Toronto highlights include "Walk the Line," with Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon as country-music legends Johnny Cash and June Carter; Steve Martin's "Shopgirl," a romance adapted from his novella starring him, Claire Danes and Jason Schwartzman; the animated adventures "Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit" and "Tim Burton's Corpse Bride"; "Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story," with Kurt Russell and Dakota Fanning in the tale of a father and daughter nursing an injured race horse back to health; and Cameron Crowe's "Elizabethtown," a romance with Kirsten Dunst and Orlando Bloom.
"Toronto has such a nice balance as far as the films they show there," said Cameron Diaz, who stars with Toni Collette and Shirley MacLaine in the sibling comic drama "In Her Shoes," premiering at the festival. "They kind of give an opportunity to everybody. You get the best of the best there. It's a good standard to be held up against, and it's very flattering to be in that festival."
As at all festivals that attract top-name celebrities, stargazing and big studio movies overshadow many of the smaller films. Toronto organizers say the movies with marquee names attached serve as calling cards, fetching media attention and interest from local cinema fans that trickles down to the lower-profile films.
"We wouldn't be showing the Hollywood films we do unless we felt it was going to benefit all the films that are playing," Cowan said. "They are recruiting tools. We use them to attract, siren-like, the people of Toronto to experience the film festival, to experience what we perceive as satisfying work and hopefully then to experiment with more challenging films."