Event will screen 171 pics in 11 days

TORONTO — The world preem of “Act of God,” Toronto helmer Jennifer Baichwal’s musing on the metaphysics of lightning, will fire up Hot Docs on Thursday with 171 pics set to unspool over 11 days in North America’s biggest documentary film festival, confab and mart.

With organizers projecting a 20% increase on last year’s audience tally of 85,000, Rendezvous sessions (one-on-one pitch meets) up 33% from 2008’s 300 to 450 and delegate and buyer numbers on track, the Toronto-based event looks set to sizzle despite tough economic times.

“Documentary filmmakers are better equipped to weather the storm than anyone,” said Hot Docs programming director Sean Farnel. “Economic crisis is the norm.”

To “celebrate” the global plight, Hot Docs offers the timely, one-off, 11-pic programming strand Let’s Make Money, named for (and including) Erwin Wagenhofer’s chilling examination of world banking, with buzzworthy world preems of Liz Canner’s “Orgasm Inc.,” Jonathan Bricklin’s “The Entrepreneur” and co-helmers Shannon Walsh and Alan Kohl’s “H2Oil.”

Piping hot from Tribeca, Kirby Dick’s “Outrage” and Yoav Shamir’s “Defamation” (U.S. rights just nabbed by First Run Features) should score with auds and international buyers.

“In recent years the proximity of our dates (to Tribeca) has presented producers and sales agents with a viable launch platform, not unlike the Venice, Telluride and Toronto combo in the fall,” Farnel added.

While politics remains a hot topic, environmental themes are high on the agenda with the world preems of Scott Crocker’s “Ghost Bird” and Kevin McMahon’s “Waterlife” plus Sundance pleasers Louie Psihoyos’ “The Cove” and Rupert Murray’s “The End of the Line.”

Baichwal is among several Canucks with world preems, including Larry Weinstein (“Inside Hana’s Suitcase”), Barry Greenwald (“The Experimental Eskimos”) and Hubert Davis (“Invisible City”). Veteran outsider Ron Mann (“Grass”) gets a retro, while the National Film Board of Canada’s 70th anniversary is marked with a special program.

On May 6 and 7 more than 500 industry pros will attend the Toronto Documentary Forum (TDF), where 25 pre-selected projects pitch live to a roundtable of international commissioning eds. Expect a star turn from Christopher Hitchens in the pitch for “God Is not Great” (Magnolia), adapted from his 2007 best-seller.

New sister event the Good Pitch on May 8 — co-presented by the Sundance Institute and U.K. pubcaster Channel 4’s Britdoc Foundation — will see five projects about human rights (including “Resilient,” exec-produced by Angelina Jolie) pitch to a large international panel of NGOs, foundations and charities.

“The collegial tone of these events is so important now,” said TDF’s new director Elizabeth Radshaw. “Funding is always a challenge, but times like this force us to be creative by taking risks and building new alliances to get films made.”

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