TORONTO (AP) — The commodity that most fuels the fervor of the annual Toronto International Film Festival is that elusive lifeblood of Hollywood's awards season: buzz.
That's what the major films will be seeking at TIFF, which opens Thursday with the premiere of the Robert Downey Jr. courtroom drama "The Judge." The festival packs some 285 feature films into 10 days of north-of-the-border moviegoing gluttony.
An eager reception. A hearty standing ovation. Viral tweets. These are the seeds that many of the fall's most anticipated films will hope to sow in Toronto, the first sprouts of — they hope — lengthy Oscar campaigns. Toronto is where best picture-winning films like "The King's Speech" and "Slumdog Millionaire" debuted, and while there isn't an obvious 2014 candidate to that lineage, there are a host of films looking to capture Toronto's spotlight.
"Buzz is for game," says Piers Handling, director of TIFF. "For the top section of films, it's absolutely crucial to start your campaign in these fall festivals."
Among the most notable at TIFF are "The Imitation Game," a World War II code-breaker drama starring Benedict Cumberbatch; the Reese Witherspoon hiking tale "Wild"; Jason Reitman's technology meditation "Men, Women and Children"; the next-door-neighbor comedy "St. Vincent," with Melissa McCarthy and Bill Murray; Bennett Miller's wrestling drama "Foxcatcher"; the Stephen Hawking biopic "The Theory of Everything" and the Sundance hit "Whiplash," about an aspiring jazz drummer.
Buzz comes in different flavors, though, and fall launching pads are carefully chosen by awards hopefuls. Do you want the first word to come out of the mountains of Telluride (a smaller, more curated festival held the weekend before Toronto)? Or from the regal Cote d'Azur pulpit of Cannes in May? Venice or Berlin are other fall options, as is September's New York Film Festival, which bathes its selective slate with the high-class sheen of Lincoln Center.
Lately, such festival choices have drawn increasing attention. TIFF made waves when it earlier this year instituted a policy regulating all premieres across its first four days (the main event of the festival) be North America premieres — essentially curtailing Telluride's habit of sneak-peaking films shortly before their heralded TIFF debut. (Such was the case last year with "12 Years a Slave," the eventual best-picture winner.) The slight tweak may be utterly irrelevant to the average moviegoer, but it's drawn much of the movie media's focus for ever so slightly altering the equilibrium of the fall movie season.
The buzz-factory side of Toronto, Handling says, "cuts both ways."
"It's nice to play that game, to be in the mix and be considered a powerful player and certainly we are," he says. "I just wish that the coverage was a little bit less celebrity-oriented."
Toronto, though, certainly knows how to fete its most popular faces. Friday won't merely be Day Two of the festival this year, it will be "Bill Murray Day," with a series of screenings of the actor's movies leading up to the premiere of "St. Vincent." Al Pacino, who has two films at the festival ("Manglehorn" and "The Humbling") was to be honored with a pricey dinner tribute Wednesday.
Other big names include Witherspoon (here not just with "Wild" but also the Sudanese Lost Boys drama "The Good Lie"), Denzel Washington (starring in the revenge drama "The Equalizer"), Jon Stewart (his directorial debut, "Rosewater"), Tina Fey (the family funeral comedy "This Is Where I Leave You") and many, many more.
But buzz helps only up to a point, and festival excitement can be fleeting. What many films — the ones not already placed optimistically on the Oscar track — really need is distribution.
"It's become so difficult to see so many of these films in any kind of commercial release," says Handling. "Many festival directors like myself feel exactly the same way: We're keeping that spark of the diversity of international cinema alive."
Among the high-profile movies looking for a distributor at TIFF is "Black and White," a drama directed by Michael Binder about a grieving man (Kevin Costner) drawn into a custody battle. Costner used his own money to finance the film.
"I'm really pleased and proud of the Toronto Film Festival for giving us such a nice place, given that we're not being pushed by any studio," says Costner. "For them to give us that spot is a credit to the director of the festival, who just believes in movies — because we don't go there with a big motor behind us."
Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jake_coyle