If themeasure of a film festival is the company it keeps, the number of returningfilmmakers presenting world premieres marks this Toronto International FilmFestival as one of the strongest in its 29 years. From veterans like BilleAugust, Taylor Hackford and Istvan Szabo, who opens the festival with Being Julia, to new works fromnow-established filmmakers who made their first splash at the festival, likeDavid O Russell, who wowed Toronto ten years earlier with Spanking The Monkey, to Spike Lee, who did the same thing nearly 20years ago with his 1986 debut She's GottaHave It, Toronto's cup runneth over.

Thetraffic is so intense even world premieres from well-known filmmakers, likeSpaniard Alex de la Iglesia's FerpectCrime (Crimen Ferpecto), are being programmed in the catch-all ContemporaryWorld Cinema.

NoahCowan could not have picked a better year to take up his position asco-director, alongside long-serving Piers Handling. But, of course, the36-year-old Cowan is himself a returning veteran, having served as a programmerunder Handling until 2000 before moving into distribution. Cowan says thefestival's auteur turnout is a tribute to Toronto's sophisticated audience andits felicitous position on the awards-season calendar.

Indeed,this year sales agents and producers have lobbied the festival to schedule thepublic screenings of world premiere titles before the press and industryscreening to force buyers to see films with an audience and to boost mediainterest. Approximately 30 titles are getting the treatment, including Canadianfilmmaker Don McKellar's hotly anticipated second feature Child Star, Paul Haggis' ensemble drama Crash, and Australia-UK co-production The Oyster Farmer from debut filmmaker Anna Reeves.

Cowansays this year is equally impressive for the filmmakers no one has heard of'yet. Of the 253 features screening, more than one quarter are debuts. "We'vealways been a festival of discovery," he says, although he declines to endorseany particular film. But one has only to glance through this year's programmebook to see Cowan's picks for world-premiering first and second films: Frank EFlowers' debut crime drama Haven, featuringOrlando Bloom and Bill Paxton; French filmmaker Ziad Doueiri's second film Lila Says (Lila Dit Ca) - "unbelievablysexy" writes Cowan; On The Outs, fromUS duo Lori Silverbrush and Michael Skolnik; New Zealander Brad McGann's debut In My Father's Den; and Les Revenants (They Came Back), the first film from France's Robin Campillo,co-writer of Laurence Cantet's 2001 sensation Time Out.

Canadianfilmmakers too are hoping to be discovered, or perhaps re-discovered, asfilmmakers first and Canadians second. The festival retired its 20-year-oldPerspective Canada programme, a section created to showcase Canadian films thathad since become something of a ghetto. For the first time in 20 years,established Canadian filmmakers will fend for themselves within the overallprogramme mix. Meanwhile, emerging Canadian directors will be mixing it upamongst themselves in the inaugural Canada First! competition. Cowan says thechanges in Canadian programming are yielding results. "We're getting a lot ofmedia attention both in Canada and internationally." Michael McGowan's Saint Ralph, which opens Canada First!is already getting buzz as Canada's answer to Billy Elliott.

Cowansays acquisition executives will have their work cut out for them, and that'son the documentaries alone. And he warns against any consideration of leavingtown before the festival wraps on September 18. "There's a lot to fight over,"he says. "I feel I should call the buyers and apologise."