Sandra Bullock - Hollywood Film Awards

Any writer will tell you that dialog is important, but the crucial element is subtext. And so it is with the Hollywood Film Awards. Every year, Oscar contenders go in droves to the event, usually making wisecracks, but often they don’t even know why they’re there. The answer is simple: It’s not about who won what, it’s about superstition and strategy.

The awards were started in 1997 and were pretty low-key until Fox’s 2001 “Moulin Rouge” was named Hollywood Movie of the Year. Some in the biz scratched their heads, but the Baz Luhrmann film a few months later earned a best-pic Oscar nomination. The following year the celeb quotient rose considerably, as Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks and Jennifer Aniston all showed up to accept their honors. (And showing up seems to be the key factor in winning at HFA.)

Did the attention pave the way for Oscar? It’s highly unlikely, but during awards season, strategists leave nothing to chance and try to replicate success. So every year, more stars show up, just in case.

But the more important reason is that it’s a strategic testing ground. This year, for example, Julia Roberts and Jake Gyllenhaal received supporting awards for “August: Osage County” and “Prisoners.” This clearly established that they should be considered supporting, leaving the leading actress and actor category open for their co-stars.

But to ensure that Gyllenhaal isn’t the only supporting star who shows up, HFA gave breakout performance and career achievement honors, respectively, to two other supporting hopefuls, Jared Leto and Harrison Ford.

Also honored were people whose categories and nominations seem like no-brainers, including Sandra Bullock, Matthew McConaughey, etc. They’re there because in kudos-land, nothing is guaranteed: Ben Affleck and Kathryn Bigelow last year seemed like shoo-ins for director nominations, but neither made Oscar’s list. In awards circles, perception is reality and it’s nice to be perceived as a winner and receiving an award in October helps establish that reputation.

It’s the same reason Meryl Streep will be honored by the Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center, Cate Blanchett and Ralph Fiennes were given tributes by the New York Film Fest, and various contenders will be saluted in Palm Springs and Santa Barbara.

The Hollywood Film Awards are like the out-of-town tryouts. When it saluted Ben Affleck and the cast of “Argo” last year, they were accompanied onstage by four people depicted in the film, including ex- CIA agent Tony Mendez. It immediately established Warner Bros.’ smart (and effective) strategy for the film.

According to a press release, the awards “are determined by founder and executive director Carlos de Abreu and an advisory committee.” Who’s on that committee? Nobody is sure, but it doesn’t really matter.

The press info also touts it as “the first stop of the awards season.” It sounds nice, but it’s not true. The first stop is always the Hollywood Foreign Press installation of officers Aug. 13, followed by a fest flurry, including Telluride. Still, people will always make wisecracks about the event … but they will always show up.

PHOTOS: Inside the Hollywood Film Awards

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