The Toronto Film Festival got off to its customarily polite start Thursday, opening with a handful of modest deals and a gala launch of $20 million Canadian WWI epic “Passchendaele.”

The pace will quicken today as stars and other notables hit town for the annual crazy quilt of junkets, premieres and sales confabs plus an assessment of this year’s awards crop. In a short span tonight, Focus bows celeb-laden “Burn After Reading,” Warner Bros. preems Viggo Mortensen-Ed Harris oater “Appaloosa” and Fox Searchlight sends off the Will Smith-produced “The Secret Life of Bees.”

The launching of titles with distribution is one facet of Toronto. Another is the unofficial market for acquisition titles — one that is choppy given the misfiring of pricey Sundance buy “Hamlet 2” and the marked decline of the specialty B.O.

Nevertheless, Overture scored with last year’s modest Toronto buy of “The Visitor” and suitors will no doubt be chasing the likes of Darren Aronofsky’s “The Wrestler,” Kathryn Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker” and Broadway backstage doc “Every Little Step.”

The rest of the weekend will see the usual bounty of preems, including Jonathan Demme’s “Rachel Getting Married” and Kevin Smith’s “Zack and Miri Make a Porno.”

Small pickups announced Thursday centered on a pair of Cannes entries. Strand grabbed U.S. rights to the well-received memoir-doc “Of Time and the City” by Terence Davies. And Regent Releasing took North America on “Serbis,” from prolific Filipino filmmaker Brillante Mendoza.

A comparably arty pic that drew a packed house Thursday for an afternoon screening was Clare Denis’ “35 Rhums,” which had preemed in Venice to great acclaim. The French-language pic from the director of “Beau Travail” is likely to go to a specialist in such fare such as Sony Classics or IFC.

Among other screenings Thursday, Warner Bros.’ Guy Ritchie gangster pic “RocknRolla” won plaudits at a crowded 9 a.m. press and industry screening ahead of its evening preem.

One trend already well in evidence on the fest’s muggy opening day was the spreading out of events and screenings across a wider area in the city. Organizers and party-throwers are preparing attendees for next year’s transformative arrival of the Bell Lightbox, which will shift many films and activities downtown from their current Bloor Street locus.

The official opening-night party at Liberty Grand is a salute to the homegrown “Passchendaele,” which Alliance Films will open later this fall.

Normally a cause of unbridled civic pride, the opening was set to be marked this year by protests along the red carpet over tens of millions in arts funding cuts planned by Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Finance Minister Jim Flaherty was scheduled to attend the gala.

(Jennie Punter in Toronto contributed to this report.)