The Twin Cities Film Fest, now in its fourth year, has had its growing pains. But with award contenders such as Alexander Payne's "Nebraska" and the star-studded "August: Osage County" on the 10-day, 75-film slate that begins Thursday at the Showplace Icon in St. Louis Park, the fall film showcase seems to be moving beyond the stumbling phase.

The festival's inaugural year in 2010 was split between the Mall of America and downtown Minneapolis' now-shuttered Block E theater complex.

"We had a few empty houses," recalled festival director Jatin Setia. "Which was a bit discouraging. But our first year at [St. Louis Park's] West End, in 2011, immediately grew paid attendance by 40 percent."

Last year saw another jump of nearly 60 percent, to a total attendance of 3,600. Advance ticket sales for this edition are on track to exceed that total.

"I very much feel that the festival matured last year, in terms of sellouts and packed events, and that we've turned a corner this year, in terms of filmmakers and fans approaching us," Setia said.

Film festivals occupy a valuable position in the ecosystem of movie marketing, offering a venue where fresh talents are discovered and new trends sampled. The studio-friendly TCFF screens the work of celebrated filmmakers alongside entries by upstarts. It showcases features and shorts, documentaries and drama. It's more eclectic than the area's plethora of gay, music-themed and ethnic special-interest film series. It's more mainstream than the artsy Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival, which favors imports that will never see wide U.S. release.

In contrast, TCFF has hosted the area premieres of the Oscar-winning "Silver Linings Playbook"; the education documentary "Waiting for Superman"; the Sean Penn-Naomi Watts thriller "Fair Game," about outed CIA agent Valerie Plame, and the Joseph Gordon-Levitt cancer dramedy "50/50."

Setia's ideal audience is made up of "movie buffs" rather than film snobs. "Our motto is 'Experience Film,' and this is what we're talking about."

TCFF is also an important platform for homegrown moviemakers, who get crucial live audience feedback from the local screenings, and the chance to meet peers from around the country. Setia said the most personally satisfying aspect of organizing the event is "the connections I see being formed every year between Minnesota filmmakers, movie lovers and visiting talent."

Mix of Hollywood, MN films

This year's lineup boasts a half-dozen prestigious, much-anticipated major-studio entries.

Thursday's opening-night presentation is "Nebraska" (7 p.m.). Alexander Payne's black-and-white comedy debuted at Cannes, where Bruce Dern won the best actor prize as a rural retiree convinced that a sweepstakes has chosen him for a million-dollar prize. Will Forte ("Saturday Night Live") co-stars as the cantankerous man's meek son.

Oscar-winning filmmaker Alex Gibney takes on the story of disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong in his documentary "The Armstrong Lie." The film is a penetrating examination of Armstrong's doping and the elaborate deceptions he employed to keep it secret (6:30 p.m., Oct. 22).

The epic biography "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom" stars Idris Elba as the South African president. The film, derived from Nelson Mandela's 1994 autobiography, focuses on his early years of anti-apartheid resistance and 27 years of imprisonment and his triumphant rise to national leadership. Naomie Harris plays his strong-minded wife Winnie (6:30 p.m. Oct. 25).

Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts head a star-studded cast in the adaptation of the Pulitzer- and Tony-winning play "August: Osage County." Family dysfunction and tragicomic warfare give the actors plenty to chew on (6 p.m. Oct. 26).

This year's closing weekend will be a showcase for emerging Minnesota talent.

Woodbury natives Brian Netto and Adam Schindler won raves at the Los Angeles Film Festival for their debut horror movie "Delivery." The Minnesota-shot shocker follows a young couple documenting their first pregnancy for a reality TV show until something goes horribly wrong (9:45 p.m., Oct. 25). The romantic drama "Pollywogs" was shot locally and directed by Minnesota native Karl Jacob (1 p.m. Oct. 26). The festival's closing night film, the psychological thriller "Nothing Without You," stars local actress Emily Fradenburgh (8:30 p.m. Oct. 26).

"In past years, Minnesota films have lined the middle of the week," Setia said, "but we're banking big that Minnesota audiences will turn out to celebrate these achievements in our primest slots."