By Christine Kearney
NEW YORK (Reuters) - A strong film lineup full of politically charged themes and a heavy dose of Hollywood stars have raised high hopes the Toronto International Film Festival, set to open Thursday, will breed Oscar contenders, rapturous audiences and plenty of film deals.
Considered one of the world's top festivals, Toronto serves as a kick-off to Hollywood's awards season, and will screen more than 280 films over 11 days. Stars turning out to showcase or support films including Ben Affleck, Johnny Depp, Ryan Gosling and Kristen Stewart.
The festival has previously unearthed films that go on to success at the Academy Awards, such as "Slumdog Millionaire" and "The King's Speech," which both won best-film Oscars.
"It's going to be one of the strongest years ever, not just for the pictures we are bringing but so many unsold pictures that are there with major directors and major names," said festival regular Michael Barker of Sony Pictures Classics.
"This is a contest where you want people to see your film," he added, noting that festival founded in 1976 had forged a reputation for guaranteeing filmmakers media attention, friendly audiences and quality movies.
Political thriller "Argo," directed and starring Ben Affleck and premiering on Friday, is one of several bigger titles hoping to pave the way for later awards success.
The story, based on how the CIA smuggled six Americans out of Iran under the cover of a Hollywood film production during the 1979 hostage crisis, is one of several politically themed films, said the festival's co-director Cameron Bailey.
"A lot of films are dealing with the intersect of political and social conflict," Bailey said, also citing "The Reluctant Fundamentalist," about a young Asian man coping on Wall Street after the 9/11 attacks, and several documentaries including "Camp 14: Total Control Zone," about a man's escape from a labor camp in North Korea.
Adding to the political atmosphere, Palestinian National Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad is scheduled to appear at a press conference on September 11 to talk about the film "State 194," which follows his efforts to gain United Nations recognition for his country as an independent state.
Another film examining the Middle East conflict, "The Gatekeepers," is a documentary that tells the inside story of Israel's Shin Bet security agency. It has already gained critical buzz coming out of the Telluride film festival.
Bailey noted many of the films tackling political issues were often years removed from the event and posed "more complex questions that come after a political conflict or tough social situation - it's not just about the moment but living with what happens afterwards."
But away from politics, stars expected to add glamour on the red carpet are Nicole Kidman, Ewan McGregor, Bradley Cooper, Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Marion Cotillard and Selena Gomez.
"Twilight Saga" actress Kristen Stewart is expected to make her first official appearance since her public admission to cheating on boyfriend Robert Pattinson and will hit the red carpet for her movie "On The Road" on Thursday, the same night the festival officially kicks off with time-travel thriller "Looper".
And Johnny Depp is due to appear to help promote the documentary "West of Memphis" about the case of the West Memphis 3 murderers first screened earlier in the year.
Among Oscar hopefuls, critics and audiences will weigh in on Paul Thomas Anderson's "The Master," that stars Philip Seymour Hoffman as a cult leader and Joaquin Phoenix as his tortured protégé. It already gained high praise at the Venice Film Festival.
Other highly anticipated films include "Cloud Atlas," an adaptation of the best-selling novel starring Hanks and Halle Berry, as well as David O. Russell's "Silver Linings Playbook," which stars Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence and Robert De Niro.
Performances being watched for possible later awards success will include Bill Murray's already buzzed-about turn as U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt in "Hyde Park on Hudson" and Marion Cotillard as a marine worker who loses her legs in an accident in "Rust & Bone."
Actor Dustin Hoffman will make his directorial debut in the comedy "Quartet" and Robert Redford will show his "The Company You Keep."
In addition, from "The Reluctant Fundamentalist" to Salman Rushdie's "Midnight's Children" and "Anna Karenina" starring Keira Knightley, there will be more literary adaptations this year than usual.
On the business end, movies ranging from "At Any Price," starring Zac Efron, to Terrence Malick's "To The Wonder," are due to arrive without distributors among dozens of films looking to get sold.
Barker predicted there would be brisk business at the festival, "however because of the nervousness in the marketplace about whether they will make money or not, they probably will not be sold for the money that the sellers want."
(Editing by Jill Serjeant; Editing by M.D. Golan)