The Oscar season's annual staging ground -- a.k.a. the Toronto International Film Festival -- opened Sept. 9, and suddenly an even brighter spotlight shines on the Canadian event. Due to an Oscar season that has been condensed (the ceremony was moved from March to February this year), studios are ramping up their campaigns earlier than before. And that means Toronto's role in the movie industry's awards hunt becomes more critical ''this year even more drastically than last year,'' says Fox Searchlight president Peter Rice.
As expected, the festival's slate includes no shortage of Academy Awards hopefuls. There's Ray and Che -- as in the Ray Charles biopic Ray and the young Che Guevara story The Motorcycle Diaries -- DreamWorks' star-studded animated Shark Tale, Kevin Spacey's ode to Bobby Darin Beyond the Sea, and the ballyhooed Sean Penn drama The Assassination of Richard Nixon. Coming at the start of the year-end movie season, says Rice, makes the festival ''a wonderful place to premiere movies that you're releasing in the fall.''
Meanwhile, studios looking to present or acquire less-heralded fare stand to benefit from another notable shift: the lower profile of longtime film-festival 800-pound gorilla Miramax. Last year the House of Weinsteins presented Oscar-baiting dramas The Barbarian Invasions and The Human Stain and purchased award winner Zatoichi; this year, in the midst of well-publicized difficulties with corporate parent Disney, Miramax arrives with just two low-buzz movies.
Not that it should make a big difference, say rivals. ''From my perspective,'' says Focus Features copresident David Linde, ''if we believe that we're the right distributor for a movie, then we're going to pursue it no matter who the competition is.'' Game on.