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Toronto Intl. Film Festival

Canuck pop culture dominates Toronto this year: “Score: A Hockey Musical” (Mongrel Media) launches the fest in a gala screening, while “Fubar II” (Alliance), the sequel to Michael Dowse’s metalhead cult fave, kicks off the Midnight Madness section. While Canadian cinema isn’t just about hockey and hosers, those pics — part of a diverse 30-feature slate spread across the fest’s programs — reflect emerging changes in the overall picture.

Most notable is the shift several years ago in the mandate of Telefilm, the government film financing agency, toward supporting what it deems more commercial features and rewarding box office performers. Canadian films earned C$26 million ($25 million) or just 3% (with Quebec films taking in the majority of that) of the total Canadian box office last year, but an increasingly collaborative spirit, at all levels of filmmaking, along with growth in new distribution platforms means there’s a fighting chance more Canadian films will find auds both at home and abroad.

“The previous funding model didn’t allow for flexibility — maybe the script wouldn’t be ready or the cast not quite right and a film would shoot too soon because of Telefilm’s rigid funding cycle,” explains Alliance senior VP Mark Sloan. “Now we’re sticking to our guns and spending more time in development, working with producers at earlier stages of script, casting and financial issues so a film has every chance possible to succeed.”

“Mounting an ambitious independent film is not for the fainthearted, and it’s more challenging today than it’s ever been, due to a confluence of global events impacting those who want to make films that are not based on videogames — it’s the same no matter what country you’re in,” says producer Robert Lantos, who brings to the fest the marquee Canadian title “Barney’s Version” after its Venice bow. EOne is selling.

Other Canadian pics on the Gala screen include George Hickenlooper’s “Casino Jack,” about lobbyist Jack Abramoff and starring Kevin Spacey; Steven Silver’s “The Bang Bang Club,” about four white South African photojournalists; and Jonathan Sobol’s “A Beginner’s Guide to Endings,” a father-son comedy starring Harvey Keitel (all eOne titles).

“Beginner’s” producer Nicholas Tabarrock echoes Lantos: “It’s only getting more difficult year to year, and the only way to get an audience is to think of your film as competitive on an international level.”

This year’s slate includes new films from helmers familiar to followers of Canadian cinema: Bruce McDonald, Louis Belanger, Sturla Gunnarsson, Denis Villeneuve, Carl Bessai, Denis Cote (who just nabbed best director prize in Locarno for “Curling”), Xavier Dolan and Jacob Tierney.

But local buzz is swirling around what many agree is the strongest Canada First! program of feature debuts, which includes Mike Goldbach’s “Daydream Nation” starring Kat Dennings.

“In order to survive, we need to mitigate the risk and work with companies that might have been competitors,” says Vancouver co-producer Christine Haebler. She and Screen Siren’s Trish Dolman partnered with Toronto’s Film Farm on “Daydream.”

“We’re seeing more inter-provincial co-productions, and it’s developing a very interesting culture,” she says. “By focusing on the creative strengths of the collaboration, the film without a doubt is better as a result.”