TORONTO - The red carpet has been rolled out for the 39th Toronto International Film Festival, which opened Thursday amid criticism over new rules meant to cement the event’s reputation as an Oscar kingmaker.

The legal drama ‘The Judge’ - starring Robert Duvall and Robert Downey Jr as father and son - kicked off North America’s largest film festival, which runs through September 14. In the film, Downey as a slick Chicago defense lawyer returns to his Indiana hometown and must defend his father in a murder trial, despite their bitterly dysfunctional relationship.

In an interview with Canada’s public broadcaster, Downey said he empathized with the dynamic. ‘I just love that there’s so many people that are grown up and still act like kids around their folks,’ he told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. ‘There’s some part of that relationship that was halted or there’s some unrequited aspect to it and certainly I can relate to that.’ Downey, Duvall and the rest of the cast, including Vera Farmiga, Dax Shepard and Vincent D’Onofrio, were cheered as they arrived for the gala presentation.

The audience reaction at an earlier press and industry screening, however, was subdued. Over the next four days, organizers will for the first time showcase only world premieres, including from directors Noah Baumbach, Susanne Bier, Francois Ozon, Lone Scherfig and Chris Rock. The new policy was put in place as festivals compete to land more buzz-creating film debuts, explained the Toronto event’s co-director Piers Handling. ‘There’s a lot more focus on film festivals and a lot more prominence,’ Handling said. ‘It doesn’t affect the selection of the films at all - it only affects the scheduling.’ Critics, however, accuse Toronto organizers of using their considerable clout to lure high-profile films, to the detriment of smaller events like the Telluride festival in the US state of Colorado. 

Actors are usually contractually obligated to show up for premieres - with top names drawing big media and critical attention. It could thus be devastating for other festivals if stars decide to only attend the Toronto fest. Distributors have also expressed fears that the new rules could result in less critical attention to their films. Organizers in Toronto say there is a need to clarify what actually counts as a world premiere after complaints in past years.