Movie stars, filmmakers, cinephiles and media from around the globe are gathering in Toronto for the kickoff of the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival.

The annual cinematic celebration — featuring a vast program packed with big budget Hollywood flicks, fresh work from established and emerging Canadians, anticipated new international titles and foreign language gems — officially opens Thursday night with Rian Johnson’s sci-fi action thriller Looper, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, Emily Blunt and Jeff Daniels.

Celebrities like Ben Affleck, Vanessa Redgrave, Penelope Cruz, Salman Rushdie and Keira Knightley are set to stroll along red carpets around the downtown core, while esteemed directors such as Michael Haneke, Olivier Assayas, Susanne Bier and Peter Mettler will showcase their latest to Toronto audiences.

In its 37th year, TIFF is "now the premiere festival in terms of launching films, not just into awards season but also into the fall marketplace," festival CEO Piers Handling told CBC News.

"Toronto has a lot of impact in terms of commercial potential and future for a film, so people come here regardless of whether [they’re seeking] awards ... They need to be here," he added.

"There are a lot of world premieres and [the stars] do show up for their world premieres ... It really speaks to the strength of the festival and also what Toronto as a city can offer them."

Beyond movie screenings

While other top festivals, like Cannes, are largely industry events open to insiders and media, Toronto developed a reputation as a valuable testing ground and "the people’s festival" because of its large, welcoming and cinema-savvy audience of regular filmgoers.

That said, TIFF is increasingly becoming a key marketplace and meeting ground for the international industry, according to festival artistic director Cameron Bailey.

Filmgoers visiting TIFF Bell Lightbox this year will likely pass an information picket by members of IATSE Local 58, which is disputing TIFF's outsourcing of digital revision work to the post-production house Deluxe. TIFF revisers check, clean and repair film prints for the festival. They claim the outsourcing breaches their contract. The festival is pursuing resolution through arbitration.  

"There's an opportunity to really bring together people from all different parts of the world during the festival — who are already here doing business and showing their films and having premieres, but to talk about business, to talk about what are the next steps for all of us, so that we can understand how we need to grow," he said.

"Because the film industry, like every other business, never stands still."

Further to this new goal of serving as an international bridge-builder — for movie production, financing and as a talent showcase — festival organizers have expanded its industry-related offerings, for instance boosting TIFF’s existing program of workshops, widening the annual documentary conference and hosting its first-ever Asian Film Summit.

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TIFF is increasingly becoming a key gathering place for the international film industry, according to TIFF CEO Piers Handling, left, and artistic director Cameron Bailey. (Michelle Siu/Canadian Press)

High-profile participants include Oscar-winning movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, former U.S. Senator Chris Dodd (now chair of the Motion Picture Association of America), IMAX executive Larry O’Reilly and filmmakers like Mira Nair, Eli Roth and Jackie Chan.

"Toronto is now beginning to seriously look at its industry responsibilities in terms of building the next generation — a new generation — of Canadian talent, international talent [and]

to act as a meeting ground for the international industry to talk over common issues," Handling said.

Breaking out a new ticketing system

As the festival has increased in stature, so has the public's desire to get in and see what’s onscreen.

"The public demand is phenomenal," Handling noted, adding that because movie-going patrons complained of difficulties acquiring tickets for the festival, TIFF has invested a significant amount of time and resources to revamping its system.

'The festival is all about making the films as accessible as possible for the public of Toronto and if we haven't done a good job, I'm sure we'll hear it. Please tell us.' —Piers Handling, TIFF CEO

"The festival is all about making the films as accessible as possible for the public of Toronto and if we haven't done a good job, I'm sure we'll hear it. Please tell us," he said.

"What hasn't worked this year, we'll make absolutely sure we'll fix for next year."

And when all else fails, Handling suggests there’s always the possibility of a little movie magic.

"There's this notion that it is impossible to get tickets to the festival. Well it's not. You can go online. You can find the single tickets. There's day-of sales," he said.

"I'm always of the opinion that if you really want to get into something, you absolutely can. Just go down to the cinema and stuff happens."

TIFF runs through Sept. 16, concluding with its prize gala and a free screening of this year's People's Choice Award-winner.