Toronto International Film Festival is key to the Oscar race

Four years ago, a controversial British film called “Death of a President” stormed into the Toronto International Film Festival. The media was abuzz about its premise, which imagined that George W. Bush had been assassinated and Dick Cheney had ascended to the presidency.

It became the hottest ticket of the festival that year and inspired intense debate about the limits of artistic and political expression — before fizzling in commercial release.

Toronto, the preeminent North American gathering for top-tier filmmakers that starts Thursday and runs through next weekend, generates more heat and contention than almost any other festival. But the movies that wind up with staying power — and with past awards contenders including “Slumdog Millionaire” premiering here in the last few years, there is no shortage of them — are not always the ones garnering the most headlines.

For organizers, it’s a tricky balance. “If debate or controversy comes out of the festival, we think that’s a good thing,” said Cameron Bailey, co-director of the festival. “If controversy is coming from something outside of the films themselves, then it’s a bit more of a problem.”

Last year, the festival got off to a geopolitically charged start when several filmmakers boycotted the event because it was spotlighting films from and about Tel Aviv. The run-up has been quieter this year, with more focus on the festival’s move from its digs in the city’s Yorkville section to a new venue downtown called Bell Lightbox. But there are still a number of movies that could get juices flowing.

Middle East conflict is again on the map as Julian Schnabel premieres his Palestinian historical drama “Miral,” which centers on an orphanage, stars Freida Pinto and is already generating awards-season buzz. “Casino Jack,” in which Kevin Spacey plays disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, will make its world premiere amid heavy pre-screening expectation. And the debut of “Trust,” the David Schwimmer-directed film about a girl who falls for an online predator, seems likely to ignite debate about the politics and ethics of identity in the digital age.

A number of documentaries also could become lightning rods, particularly “Cool It,” Ondi Timoner’s film about Bjorn Lomborg, a Danish academic who has sought to debunk the message of Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth.”

“It’s the first film that’s an optimistic film about global warming,” Lomborg told The Times about the message of the movie. “It’s a problem but it’s not the end of the world. It doesn’t mean everything you love is going to wash away.”

Filmmakers say gatherings like Toronto are not just about empty provocation but can also encourage and amplify social and political debates in a meaningful way. “The festival felt like a family and we’d just returned with news from the front,” said Ariel Schulman, co-director of “Catfish,” the social-media documentary that inspired fervent discussion at Sundance this year the way “Trust” could well do at Toronto.

But the hothouse atmosphere of a festival can also create a sense of disproportion, as it did for “Death of a President.” While the film was picked by distributors, it grossed less than $1 million at the global box office.

But there are happy endings on the sales front.

Although Toronto lacks the global rights activity that takes place at the market adjacent to the Cannes Film Festival, a number of films do come here and clinch high-priced deals that pay off at the box office, as was the case for the Mickey Rourke drama “The Wrestler” two years ago.

This year, the most talked-about titles whose U.S. rights remain available include the adaptation of David Lindsey-Abaire’s stage hit “Rabbit Hole”; Will Ferrell’s dark drama “Everything Must Go,” based on a Raymond Carver short story; and the Robert Redford-directed “The Conspirator,” which centers on the events that unfolded after the assassination of President Lincoln.

By showing a large number of pedigreed films, Toronto is a key handicapping ground for the Oscar race. This year, the specialty division Fox Searchlight, which has effectively used Toronto as an awards springboard for films such as “Slumdog Millionaire” and “Juno,” rides in with a trio of pictures that could attract attention. They include Darren Aronofsky’s supernatural-tinged character drama “Black Swan,” the Carey Mulligan dystopian mood piece “Never Let Me Go” and Danny Boyle’s follow-up to “Slumdog,” the mountain-climber drama “127 Hours” starring James Franco.

The Weinstein Co. will officially premiere the Tom Hooper period drama “The King’s Speech,” starring Colin Firth, after a highly successful sneak screening at the Telluride Film Festival.

Still, many of the early contenders often don’t end up panning out. Last year coming out of Toronto, Jason Reitman’s recession drama “Up in the Air” was the favorite to win the Academy Award for best picture. But that film faded down the stretch, and the top prize eventually went to “The Hurt Locker,” the Iraq war feature that had premiered at Toronto to far less fanfare a full year earlier.

“The fall festivals, and maybe especially Toronto, set the horse race,” Bailey said. “But you can never predict what’s going to come out of the back of the pack.”