AS Leonardo DiCaprio walked on stage at the Beverly Hilton Hotel last October to accept the Hollywood Film Festival's actor of the year award for his portrayal as Howard Hughes in "The Aviator," the audience burst into applause.
Ironically, few people in attendance that evening had even seen the Martin Scorsese film because the studio still had it under wraps in preparation for its December release. But as he took his bows and gave his acceptance speech, DiCaprio's campaign for an Academy Award nomination was shifting into high gear.
Since its inception nine years ago, the Hollywood Film Festival has emerged as one of the signature events in the Oscar award season. It wasn't completely by chance: Carlos de Abreu, the festival's founder and executive director, positioned the festival -- this year it will run Tuesday through Oct. 24 -- so that it would be held near the start of the campaigning for the awards season, which gets its unofficial start just after Labor Day. The Hollywood awards dinner got a boost, though, when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences decided to move up the Oscars by a month, adding new intensity to the abbreviated awards season.
"I estimate that out of 1,200 people at our gala awards, probably 500 people are academy voters," said De Abreu, who noted that last year his festival handed out 10 awards to recipients who went on to either win or be nominated for the Oscar. (DiCaprio would eventually be nominated for an Oscar but lose to Jamie Foxx, who also was at the Hollywood Film Festival that night in October accepting the festival's "breakthrough actor of the year" award for his role as singer Ray Charles in "Ray.")
"We're not saying we make Oscars happen," De Abreu said, "but our track record shows that our selection of honorees and films have often been picked up at the Academy Awards."
Maxim magazine film critic Pete Hammond said that clout has helped turn the Hollywood Film Festival into a star-studded event, even by industry standards. Past attendees include Mel Gibson, Nicole Kidman and Harrison Ford.
That said, it isn't really the award that the stars covet, it's the attendant publicity and the chance to be honored in front of potential Oscar voters that counts.
"To have somebody accepting an award and to be seen by academy members ... translates into awards cache, and that's what it is all about," Hammond said.
Film festivals, long accustomed to showcasing low-budget, cutting-edge independent and foreign films as well as documentaries, have in recent years become launching pads in the Oscar wars.
At the Toronto Film Festival in September, the studios and various art-house distributors descended on the Canadian city with a bushel of Oscar hopefuls: 20th Century Fox brought "Walk the Line," Focus Features had "Brokeback Mountain," Warner Bros. had "North Country," Sony Pictures Classics had "Capote,"; Fox Searchlight had "Thank You for Smoking," Paramount Pictures had "Elizabethtown," and Disney had "Casanova."
Come November, the Los Angeles-based AFI Fest 2005 will feature four galas: "Walk the Line" on opening night Nov. 3, followed by two centerpiece galas -- the U.S. premieres of "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada" directed by Tommy Lee Jones, and "The World's Fastest Indian" directed by Roger Donaldson -- and the closing-night U.S. premiere on Nov. 13 of Lasse Hallstrom's "Casanova."
AFI Fest "used to just have an opening and closing night," Hammond said, "but now they have an opening night, a centerpiece, another centerpiece, and a closing night. Four red-carpet events. They'll also be doing a tribute to Johnny Depp and showing his movie "The Libertine." That is perfectly placed because his handlers want attention for the awards season."
And sandwiched between those two events this year is the ninth annual Hollywood Film Festival. The opening-night gala will feature a screening of Shane Black's new film, "Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang." There will be daily public screenings ($11 per ticket) at the ArcLight Theaters in Hollywood. And the festival will close Oct. 24 with a black-tie awards dinner at the Beverly Hilton that is already sold out.