* 'WikiLeaks' film will kick off festival
* Event considered beginning of Oscar season
By Peter N Henderson
TORONTO, July 23 (Reuters) - The world premiere of "The Fifth Estate," a ripped-from-the-headlines drama about Julian Assange and the creation of WikiLeaks, will open the 38th Toronto International Film Festival, which typically yields a number of Oscar contenders.
Widely considered the kick-off to Oscar season, the 2013 festival will feature films starring Meryl Streep, Idris Elba, Colin Firth, Chiwetel Ejiofor, George Clooney and others, organizers said on Tuesday. The 11-day event opens Sept. 5.
Elba takes on the lead role in "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom," a dramatization of the life of legendary anti-apartheid South African leader Nelson Mandela, who has been hospitalized with a lung infection for the last six weeks.
"The Fifth Estate," directed by Bill Condon, stars Benedict Cumberbatch as Assange, the founder of anti-secrecy website Wikileaks.
This marks the third straight year the festival has opened with a high-profile title, after years of using the opening slot to highlight smaller Canadian films.
"As soon as we saw it, we knew that it would set the right tone for opening night. It's a movie about what we thought is one of the most important issues of the day - information and who controls it," said Cameron Bailey, the festival's artistic director.
In addition to his turn as Assange, Cumberbatch also stars in "August: Osage County," a star-studded family drama set in Oklahoma that also features Julia Roberts, Meryl Streep, Ewan McGregor, Abigail Breslin and Chris Cooper.
"Gravity," a thriller set in space starring George Clooney and Sandra Bullock, will be screened at the festival. "Gravity" is director Alfonso Cuaron's first feature film since "Children of Men" in 2006.
"Arrested Development" actor Jason Bateman will make his directorial debut with "Bad Words," a comedy in which he stars as a 40-year-old who enters a national spelling competition and dominates his prepubescent challengers.
"Blue is the Warmest Color," the lesbian love story that won the Palme d'Or for best film at the Cannes Film Festival, will have its North American debut at the festival.
Launched in 1976, Toronto's film festival ranks among the world's top movie events and often serves as a launchpad for international films seeking North American distribution.
The Toronto festival has a solid track record of unearthing films that go on to succeed at the Academy Awards, such as "Slumdog Millionaire" and "The King's Speech," which won best film Oscars. Last year's winner of the People's Choice award, the festival's top prize, was "Silver Linings Playbook," an Oscar nominee for best picture.
Last year, the event screened 372 features and short films. (With additional writing by Cameron French; Editing by Mary Milliken and Stacey Joyce)