'Stop pushing, people. It's only a movie!"

It may have looked that way to the crowd-control officer in front of the showplace Princess of Wales Theatre. To the excited throng who jostled her along like a cork on rough seas, the Canadian premiere of "The Master" was an event.

The Toronto International Film Festival began provincial and small, drawing just 35,000 audience members in 1976. It has grown to become North America's biggest, starriest movie showcase. It's an 11-day feast for movie lovers, this year featuring 372 films (146 of them world premieres) from 72 countries.

Unlike the casual ambience of the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, Toronto briefly turns a sophisticated city a little gaga. This year, the bustling theater district was a menagerie of rush ticket lines, power lunchers at sidewalk cafes and gawkers pressing against barricades to take iPhone photos of visiting luminaries. Bill Murray, Jennifer Lawrence, Johnny Depp, Ben Affleck, Bradley Cooper, Keira Knightley, Snoop Dogg, Tom Hanks and Will Smith joined some 400,000 other attendees.

For civilians it's an opportunity to see potential blockbusters (such as Paul Thomas Anderson's cult religion drama "The Master") and outright oddities (such as the loony "Liar's Autobiography," an eccentric animated tribute to Monty Python's late Graham Chapman).

For media and industry types it's a first peek at next year's Academy Awards contenders. The buzz here can break or make a film. After it won a TIFF audience award, plans to dump "Slumdog Millionaire" direct to video were retooled, putting it on the path to $370 million in worldwide grosses and a best picture Oscar.

In keeping with Canada's egalitarian ethos, exclusive, invitation-only events are the exception. TIFF screenings are open to the public and audiences get a chance to see the stars up close at red-carpet premieres and post-screening Q&A sessions. It's an arrangement that inspires festival- goers to line up around the block for movies that will soon be in theaters or home-rental vending machines. Thousands of hopefuls waited outside cavernous Roy Thomson Hall, fingers crossed, hoping to see- Robert Redford introduce his political thriller "The Company You Keep."

The personal appearances give filmmakers a chance to earn some goodwill and get the excitement of a live audience in return. Colin Farrell, Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson and Christopher Walken took the stage at Ryerson Auditorium at a packed midnight screening of their action-comedy "Seven Psychopaths," triggering cheers that a rock star would envy.

Even media-averse personalities find it worth their while to attend. The reclusive director siblings Andy and Lana Wachowski met the press for the first time in more than a decade to present their metaphysical sci-fi conundrum "Cloud Atlas." Fuchsia-dreadlocked Lana (who before her gender-reassignment procedure was Larry) made her TIFF appearance a public coming-out. The film, whose stars switch identities, races and genders over a span of centuries, "is about transcending our fear ... and boundaries of others. [It] seemed quite natural," she said.

More than an influential industry event, TIFF has become a civic institution with a strong year-round presence. The festival's new ultramodern downtown headquarters, the TIFF Bell Lightbox, is a five-story complex of theaters that opened in 2010. With its museum-quality bookshop and attractive, Italian-flavored Oliver & Bonacini Canteen restaurant, it's a vibrant new destination in the entertainment district, even for visitors who are all movied out.

Colin Covert • 612-673-7186 • Follow on Twitter: @ColinCovert