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TORONTO — It was only fitting that Canada’s hottest helmer, Atom Egoyan, was in the spotlight at the opening of the Toronto International Film Festival Thursday night. But Egoyan’s “Felicia’s Journey” is a relentlessly dark offering, making for a problematic kick-off to the fest.

Reaction from the corporate, black-tie audience at Roy Thomson Hall was reserved. The Toronto crowd clearly wanted to fete their hometown hero, but didn’t quite know what to make of this twisted tale of a psychopathic catering manager who takes in a pregnant Irish teenager.

Toronto Festival director Piers Handling noted that all but one of Egoyan’s pics have unspooled at the event and “Felicia’s Journey” is the second consecutive Egoyan film to open the festival, following “The Sweet Hereafter” two years ago. Egoyan has won the city TV award for best Canadian feature at the festival four times — in fact he withdrew his film this year from the competition to give other helmers a shot at the prize. “A great success story of the past 15 years is Atom Egoyan,” said Handling.

Egoyan took the occasion to make a few political points in front of an audience that included a number of elected officials. “There are serious problems in this province,” said Egoyan. “I urge [Premier] Mike Harris to stop the erosion of social services in this province. Tonight’s screening is dedicated to the alarming number of people who don’t have a place to sleep tonight.” In William Trevor’s novel “Felicia’s Journey” the plight of the homeless is a recurring theme.

Upbeat mood

The mood was upbeat on Thursday at the festival’s new headquarters at the Park Hyatt Hotel just off Bloor Street, as industryites and media reps began descending on the city for the event. The sales office was already buzzing with activity and execs were generally pleased with the new set-up, which has the festival even more concentrated than ever before.

Last year, the sales office and press center were in temporary digs in an office building a few blocks away from the host hotel. This year, the hub of the business activity is at the one hotel, which was the old fest headquarters a decade back. Industry folks like the fact that all of the offices and most of the cinemas are now in the Bloor/Yorkville area, which maximizes the networking opportunities.

There was a bit of a controversy earlier in the week over the new lottery system to dole out passes and coupon-books to film-goers, with some longtime fans grumbling that they couldn’t get the film selections they wanted. But fest organizers had some good ticket news on opening-day, noting that regular tickets, which went on sale Wednesday, were selling very robustly. The festival has sold two-and-a-half times as many tickets at this point than it had at the same time last year.

Key festival

Spirits at the festival were further boosted by an article by critic Roger Ebert in the National Post newspaper that argued that Toronto is “the second most important film festival in the world, after Cannes” and “although Cannes is still larger, Toronto is more useful and more important — certainly to North America”.

Toronto has become the key fest in terms of launching upscale fall pics, both from the studios and from indie producers. Part of this is timing. Toronto falls conveniently after Venice, so it can pick-up some of the higher-profile Venice titles — notably Lasse Hallstrom’s “The Cider House Rules” and Woody Allen’s “Sweet and Lowdown” this year. It is also neatly positioned just before the fall release schedule, which is traditionally the time that distribs launch their top art pics.

One of Toronto’s big selling-points is the fact that it’s a noncompetitive event. So it can program pics that have already unspooled at other festivals and film companies don’t have to worry about faring badly in an official competition.

“There are no losers,” said Toronto festival director Piers Handling. “The focus is on the films and not on awards. Everyone can come out of Toronto feeling like a winner. That’s why filmmakers love coming here.”

Key pics on the Toronto sked in the coming days include the world preem of Wayne Wang’s “Anywhere But Here” with Susan Sarandon and Natalie Portman, “Onegin” featuring Ralph Fiennes and Liv Tyler, Lawrence Kasdan’s “Mumford,” Scottish helmer Bill Forsyth’s “Gregory’s Girl” sequel “Gregory’s Two Girls,” Paul Schrader’s “Forever Mine” with Ray Liotta, Joseph Fiennes, and Gretchen Mol, and “A Map of the World” with Sigourney Weaver.

Often some of the hottest acquisitions action at Toronto focuses on the Canuck pics and Canadian films likely to spark some interest here include Jeremy Podeswa’s “The Five Senses,” which opens Perspective Canada on Friday, Allan Moyle’s East Coast coming-of-age drama “New Waterford Girl,” sci-fi parody “Top of the Food Chain” with Campbell Scott, and “Touched,” helmer Mort Ransen’s first feature since his Canadian hit “Margaret’s Museum.”