TIFF seeks to evolve and stay relevant as it opens with The Magnificent Seven

Almost 400 films are ready to unspool for movie-lovers gathering in downtown Toronto.

Facing more competition, organizers branch out to keep festival thriving

Chris Pratt appears in a scene from The Magnificent Seven, which will have its world premiere as the opening film of the 41st Toronto International Film Festival. (Sam Emerson/MGM/Columbia Pictures/Associated Press)

Antoine Fuqua's The Magnificent Seven kicks off the Toronto International Film Festival Thursday, where almost 400 films are ready to unspool for movie-lovers gathering in downtown Toronto.

The high-profile Hollywood movie starring Denzel Washington and Chris Pratt revisits the story told in the original 1960s western as well as the Akira Kurosawa film (The Seven Samurai) that inspired it, but director Fuqua puts a different spin on the tale, according to TIFF artistic director Cameron Bailey.

Actors Chris Pratt, left, and Denzel Washington, centre, appear on the set with director Antoine Fuqua (right) during the filming of The Magnificent Seven. (Associated Press)

"There's a much stronger role for female characters in this Magnificent Seven," said Bailey. "It's a much more diverse range of the characters' ethnicities, reflecting what the Old West was actually like.

"You often didn't see those clearly in classic westerns of the last century, but you do now, because this is a western for 2016," he added.

Fuqua might be successful at reinventing an old theme, but all eyes are on another filmmaker whose work might not be easily separated from controversy about his past.

The Birth of a Nation, about Nat Turner's life and the 1831 American slave rebellion he led, was lauded at Sundance and is destined to be an audience favourite. But its success has been overshadowed by a rape allegation against Nate Parker, who wrote, directed and stars in the film.

Armie Hammer, left, and Nate Parker in a scene from the film The Birth of a Nation, directed by Nate Parker. A rape allegation against Parker that was dismissed in 2001 has raised much controversy. (Elliot Davis/Sundance Institute via Associated Press)

Parker was acquitted in 2001, but recently admitted he was wrong in how he treated women at the time, and said he didn't understand the idea of consent.

TIFF still plans to screen the film and a press conference with the talent is scheduled.

Camaraderie, controversy, competition

TIFF is "a little bit like the Olympics," according to its CEO, Piers Handling, though he's referring to the camaraderie more than any controversy.

"People from 83 countries are coming to this festival: filmmakers, film artists, buyers, sellers, some of the key, most important film talent in the world," Handling told CBC News.

But there's also fierce competition that comes along with a festival as big as this one.

TIFF has developed a reputation for being a bellwether for awards-season kudos. The films 12 Years a Slave, The King's Speech and Slumdog Millionaire, all of which went on to win best picture Oscars, were first recognized with People's Choice Awards in Toronto during the years they were screened. But the film festival circuit is a crowded one.

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling appear in a scene from La La Land, which is screening at TIFF but has already had its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival. (Dale Robinette/Summit Entertainment/Associated Press)

The Telluride Film Festival in Colorado is gaining momentum with its pre-TIFF slot on the calendar, and the Venice Film Festival's final days overlap with the beginning of TIFF this year. Buzzworthy movies being presented at TIFF, such as Canadian director Denis Villeneuve's Arrival and the musical La La Land starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone have already had their world premieres at those festivals.

But there are other films audiences haven't seen yet. Snowden, starring Joseph-Gordon Levitt as the NSA whistleblower, and the big-budget Deepwater Horizon, about the 2010 oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico, have world premieres at TIFF.

"One of the greatest challenges is always just maintaining relevance," said Bailey. "You have to evolve. You have to constantly change."

Fisher Stevens's climate change documentary with Leonardo DiCaprio, called Before the Flood, will make its global debut in Toronto.

Before the Flood follows actor Leonardo DiCaprio's campaign to raise awareness about climate change. He's seen here speaking on the topic at the United Nations in April. (Mary Altaffer/Associated Press)

So will Voyage of Time: The IMAX Experience, a 45-minute version of Terrence Malick's history-of-the-world documentary, narrated by Brad Pitt. A feature-length version of the same film premiered in Venice.

Expanding perspectives

This year, TIFF is also exploring virtual reality, expanding to showcase new television series and putting a spotlight on one of the world's lesser-known hotbeds of filmmaking: Lagos, Nigeria.

In the same vein, David Oyelowo, who was born in Britain and is of Nigerian heritage, wants to see more films portray Africa in a fresh light.

He stars in another anticipated movie: Mira Nair's Queen of Katwe alongside Lupita Nyong'o, about a young Ugandan girl trying to become a world chess champion.

Oscar winner Lupita Nyong'o and newcomer Madina Nalwanga appear in Queen of Katwe, about a young girl from the streets of rural Uganda who is introduced to the game of chess. David Oyelowo, who also stars, hopes films like this will spark fresh perspectives on Africa and its stories. (Edward Echwalu/Disney/Associated Press)

Oyelowo is hoping the film will show a different side of a continent often stereotyped, even in films that have been praised by critics and audiences.

TIFF 2016 in numbers:

397 films in total (296 features, 101 shorts).

138 films making their world premieres.

6,933 films submitted for consideration.

83 countries represented at the festival in 2016.

32,320 minutes of film altogether.

2 minutes, the length of TIFF's shortest offerings, Anima, Silueta de Cohetes and SiluetaSangrienta.

449 minutes, the length of TIFF's longest screening, the entire Wasteland series.

28 screens showing TIFF films around Toronto.

"I developed this desire to just have more breadth of what you'd seen out of Africa," Oyelowo told The Associated Press. "The Last King of Scotland was part of a crop of films like The Constant GardenerHotel RwandaBlood Diamond, and they were all about the darker side of what happens on that continent. All of which is true. Like anywhere, there's good and bad. But there was almost nothing else balancing it out."

​The film festival has taken pride in being a more publicly accessible festival compared with most on the circuit, but people don't have to go to see the latest movies in the theatre anymore. So festivals have to offer something more.

"There's something special about watching a film for the first time, with the filmmaker present, with an audience around you," Bailey said. "You can laugh and cry and gasp together in a cinema. That's what festivals do."

TIFF continues through Sept. 18.

With files from The Associated Press