Acclaimed Quebec theater director Robert Lepage’s first feature film, “Le Confessionnal,” finally made its North American bow Sept. 7 in Toronto, officially kicking off the 20th annual edition of the Toronto Intl. Film Festival which runs through Sept. 17.

The black tie audience gave “Le Confessional” a rather subdued welcome, but the reception for Ontario Premier Mike Harris was downright frosty. Harris’ conservative government recently cut funding to the Toronto festival and there are rumors of more cultural cuts on the way. When Harris took the stage to introduce this year’s edition of the festival, he was greeted with scattered applause and no small amount of booing from the industry audience.

Bill Marshall, the founding father of the festival, followed Harris with a pointed, rabble-rousing speech about how the government-funded film industry in Ontario has become a booming business that pumps major-league dollars into the province’s economy.

The opening-night gala was held at the 1,800-capacity Roy Thomson Hall, and all of the fest’s marquee galas are being held at this larger venue because the musical “Tommy” is occupying the Elgin Theatre, the series’ usual site.

More stars to come

A host of Hollywood actors and helmers will be descending on Toronto in support of gala pics, starting with director Gus Van Sant and thesp Matt Dillon, who were to be on hand Sept. 8 for the screening of “To Die For.” Actress-turned-director Diane Keaton is expected Sept. 9 for the first Canadian screening of her latest pic, “Unstrung Heroes,” along with Michael Richards and Andie McDowell, who topline the Buena Vista release.

Other celebs on the sked for the weekend of galas include director Andrew Davis and thesp Andy Garcia from “Steal Big, Steal Little,” which has it world preem Sept. 9, Walter Matthau and his son, helmer Charles Matthau, for “The Grass Harp,” and director Sean Penn and actor David Morse from “The Crossing Guard.” The other lead thesps in “The Crossing Guard,” Jack Nicholson and Angelica Huston, are not attending.

The all-Canuck Perspective Canada program launched Sept. 8 with the North American premiere of “Rude,” the first feature from Toronto helmer Clement Virgo. The Canadian-content sidebar contains 20 new pics, including Stephen Williams’ “Soul Survivor.” Norstar Entertainment has world rights to “Soul Survivor.” and Norstar VP Andy Myers said Toronto is the ideal fest to launch the pic in North America.

“You’ve got a captive audience in the form of the public and media representatives from coast to coast,” said Myers. “So you can reasonably gauge the commercial prospects of your movie. Toronto audiences are extremely hip, discerning and film literate.”

Brit actor/helmer Kenneth Branagh will be here for “In the Bleak Midwinter,” and he will deliver the keynote address at the festival’s industry symposium Sept. 11. This year’s symposium, which runs Sept. 11-12, will include panels on cable competition, Euro financing and indie film production.

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