Praisers look to festivals as awards-season launch pads

Oscar’s already in the air.

The Toronto Film Fest had barely wrapped when Q&A screenings for early kudos hopefuls kicked up the early jockeying, followed quickly by the first “for your consideration” trade ads and early screener mailings.

All this five months before the March 5 Academy Awards kudocast.

“It’s definitely game on — especially after Toronto,” says one praiser looking to turn fest buzz into early Oscar heat.

“There’s a race to get a step up,” agrees veteran campaigner Fredell Pogodin, who now considers Toronto the awards-season launching pad.

Among the early post-Toronto activity: “Capote” had two Q&A screenings in L.A. during the week of Sept. 19, then unspooled at the New York Film Festival early last week. Variety‘s L.A. Screening Series, built around studio hopefuls, kicked off Sept. 19 with “Corpse Bride.”

Online prognosticators and didn’t even wait for the end of the Toronto fest to post early Oscar picks. Gold Derby offered up no fewer than seven best film possibilities — ranging from “Brokeback Mountain” to “Walk the Line” — and 13 “maybes.”

Sony Classics co-prexy Michael Barker considers the one-two-three punch of the Telluride, Toronto and the New York festivals the official start of the season.

“That’s when people start to take notice and take stock of what’s out there,” he says. “A lot of the cream rises to the top.”

Barker says he and co-prexy Tom Bernard decided to send out “Junebug” screeners in September as soon as they settled on an August release, reasoning that it’s best to get their movie seen before the year-end onslaught of contenders.

Studios and distribs certainly aren’t complaining about the early buzz, which is music to publicists’ ears.

“If you have a potential contender, you need to be in all those Oscar previews and articles,” says Jeffrey Godsick, exec VP of marketing for 20th Century Fox.

But campaigners caution that it’s still early in the race. “The chess game is about to begin,” says one Oscar veteran.

And there’s always the possibility of a dark horse, like last year’s “Million Dollar Baby,” which opens late with little hype and builds its momentum during the voting period.

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