Premiere Of "Management" - Arrivals - TIFF 2008

Jennifer Aniston at the premiere of "Management' at the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival. (C.J. LaFrance, Getty Images / September 8, 2008)

THE Toronto International Film Festival always used to remind me of a celebrity petting zoo. Stroll down one of the major boulevards in Yorkville during the 10-day festival and you were bound to see someone like Charlize Theron window-shopping or Colin Farrell copping a smoke on a street corner. You'd nod, he or she would smile back, and you'd have an "I was chatting with so-and-so" story for the cousins back in Buffalo.

Not anymore. This year on the streets, sleek cheetahs like Keira Knightley and Brad Pitt were nowhere to be found -- let alone fed by hand. The big stars couldn't saunter around the city as they'd done in years past. And there were more Shrek-sized bodyguards than ever before. It's official: TIFF has become more circus than zoo, as Canadians catch up with us on the celebrity-worship hoopla.

Case in point: Pitt sneaked into the after party for his movie "Burn After Reading" through a back door instead of facing the phalanx of paparazzi. No one -- other than looky-loos flanking the premiere's official red carpet -- had a Pitt sighting to share. At the screening for "Paris, Not France," the documentary about Paris Hilton, the socialite didn't even stick around for the Q&A that followed. Instead, she and beau Benji Madden made a break for it, and festival volunteers had to link hands to prevent her from being mobbed by paparazzi and pedestrians. (It's a sad day indeed when the Paris-fever pandemic spreads to a seemingly sound country like Canada.)

"This is the first year that I have noticed more paparazzi around," says Julianne Moore, in town for her film "Blindness." "They're out on the street now, which is new."

Indeed, the shutterbug quotient was up at the 33rd annual TIFF, where 249 feature films screened. One photographer told me that wire services and tabloids advertised for local lensmen to nab shots of attending talent such as Renée Zellweger and Anne Hathaway.

"They recruited paparazzi this year for candid shots of celebrities," says John Densky, standing poised with his camera outside a hotel. He was shooting for the Associated Press this time around and noted that the ultimate coup was a shot of Jennifer Aniston -- known among the paps this year as "the big JA." (Presumably for the value of a shot, not for her dress size.)

A candid photo of Rachel Weisz running down a street with her toddler on her hip appeared in a local paper. It wasn't clear if she was fleeing paparazzi or in desperate need of a clean diaper. On one of its festival blogs, the Globe and Mail urged "amateur paparazzi" to send in their shots of celebs on the red carpet. Each day, it posted a tip sheet of which stars were expected at which events. Writer Simon Houpt advised: "When you head out today, please be respectful of the celebrities; true, you are hunting them in their natural habitat, but they may bolt off the red carpet if spooked, and that could get ugly."

Maybe even as ugly as the scene at other film festivals. At Cannes last May, Pitt and Angelina Jolie -- a perfect storm of celebrity -- traveled around by armored car and were always accompanied by enough beefy guys to build a barn. The throngs outside the exclusive Cote d'Azur hotels never dipped below a hundred heads. Visit the Sundance Film Festival and you'll see people in parkas chasing Jessica Alba or Mary-Kate Olsen through snowbanks. To me, TIFF always stood out as too civilized for such nonsense. And when even sensible Canucks get caught up in the celebrity delirium, you know the world is in some kind of crisis.

Tellingly, one new posh hotel in Toronto -- the Hazelton -- has adopted the "no interloper" rule of many Cannes hotels during the festival. Two hulking men in suits stand outside the entrance and smile warmly, because even the bouncers in Canada are polite. But you can't get in unless you're a guest or can prove that you're visiting one. (Rumor had it that P. Diddy and Alicia Keys were staying there.)

After I passed muster, I was waylaid again in the lobby. An employee insisted on escorting me to my friend's room. "We need to be very careful because there are so many celebrities here for the festival," she informed me. Right. And this year, they weren't leaving their cages.

monica.corcoran@latimes.com