It was “Rings” a-ding-ding at the inaugural AFI Awards, as New Line’s “The Lord of the Rings” won three prizes, including best pic. However, the biggest winner was HBO, which nabbed six of the seven TV trophies handed out Saturday night at the Beverly Hills Hotel.

But while AFI praised “The Lord,” there were a lot of people missing from the congregation. Winners were present in only eight of the 19 categories, and most of those came from the TV world; of the 12 film awards handed out, only three winners were represented.

Aside from “Rings,” Fox’s “Moulin Rouge” was the only film to garner more than one prize, winning for Jill Bilcock’s editing and Craig Armstrong’s music. Otherwise, seven films earned one win apiece.

While there were a few victories for populist films (“Rings” and actor Denzel Washington for “Training Day”), the vast majority of winners were from the arthouse world: “Gosford Park” (for helmer Robert Altman), “In the Bedroom” (actress Sissy Spacek), “The Man Who Wasn’t There,” “Memento,” etc.

This may be an indication of the film year, but it more likely reflects the American Film Institute’s 100 judges, a heavy dose of critics and academics mixed in with industry pros.

And while Columbia’s “Black Hawk Down” and “In the Bedroom” led the nominations with five apiece, “Down” went down without a single win, as did four-time nominee “Mulholland Drive.”

Though the film nominations got more attention due to the awards’ timing — at this time of year, all roads lead to Oscar — the evening’s big surprise was in the TV wing, as HBO’s second-season “Curb Your Enthusiasm” took comedy series honors. The show hasn’t been saluted by other major awards shows before this.

And speaking of “Curb,” several people in Hollywood seemed to have curbed their enthusiasm for the American Film Institute’s awards.

“There are many people who have a lot of good will in this town toward AFI,” said one film exec after the show, “but only 30% of them showed up.”

MIA: some A-list noms

Somewhat mysterious was the absence of such A-list nominees as Tom Hanks and Russell Crowe. Aside from Dustin Hoffman and Michelle Pfeiffer, few big-name stars were apparently available even as presenters.

And while one of the show’s highlights was a montage of past AFI Lifetime Achievement Award rites, such recent honorees as Barbra Streisand and Harrison Ford were also no-shows.

Backstage, media members who were waiting to interview stars ended up twiddling their thumbs; one wag dubbed it the AFI MIA awards.

All the 10 nominated films had reps on hand and, aside from “Rings,” Spacek and “Memento” scripter Christopher Nolan were there. Those who did attend should get high marks for their appearances. But presenters like Alan Cumming, Joe Mantegna and Naomi Watts may not be names familiar enough to draw TV viewers to the three-hour CBS telecast.

Some speculated that the turnout reflected Hollywood’s reluctance to embrace a new awards show; many feel that kudocasts have reached the saturation point.

But a key factor may have been timing: The AFI fete came soon after the holidays and too far in advance of the flood of kudos events as the award season shifts into high gear. (The People’s Choice Awards are Jan. 13, the Golden Globes one week later, etc., culminating in the March 24 Oscars.)

And sometimes the absence of winners was just bad luck: In several categories, three out of the four nominees were present, but it was the one absentee who happened to win.

“AFI Awards 2001” was the first kudocast of the season, and many were curious if they might provide clues to the Oscar race. But, as with every other announcement of awards and nominations this season, AFI raised as many questions as it answered.

It’s hard to predict their accuracy as an Oscar bellwether, since this is the first year of the awards. New Line topper Bob Shaye told reporters backstage that he was too superstitious to speculate if this gave “Lord” a leg-up in the Oscar race. “But I’m a member of the Academy, and I’m gonna vote for it,” he laughed.

Earlier, at the end of the televised show, Shaye opened his mouth to give an acceptance speech but was cut off; producer Barrie M. Osborne had taken up the “Rings” group’s allotted time.

Finding its footing

Like most newborns, the AFI doesn’t yet have a fully definable personality. The red-carpet arrivals were subdued and — in contrast to the frenzy of the Oscars or the party feeling of the Golden Globes — the mood in the BevHills Hotel Ballroom was more of wait-and-see.

Still, the small room — approximately 600 persons were seated, so limited that some AFI judges could not be invited — created an intimate atmosphere, which was a positive.

Technically, the thoughtful three-hour show, broadcast live (except in the West) on CBS, went off without a hitch — which is more impressive than it sounds. It’s been a long time since an organization started from scratch a major awards show that included a network deal. So AFI faced the daunting task of compiling judges, scheduling viewings of the nominees, and arranging a TV telecast within a short period of time.

AFI is still on a learning curve with this one, and many of their headaches are easily fixed.

The kudocast introduced some innovations, such as the absence of comedy monologues or musical numbers. (The closest they came to a song was Natalie Cole singing a line from her father’s hit “Nature Boy” as she introduced a “Moulin Rouge” seg.)

Each of the 10 best pic nominees got a montage that lasted several minutes that included clips interspersed with filmed sound bites of various judges extolling the pic’s virtues. (It was an interesting idea, though they had a limited pool of authorities; Tom Pollock seemed to opine on nearly every film.)

Moments to remember

The show’s other invention was a month-by-month anthology of various mass-media moments, juxtaposing for one month such clips as “American Pie 2,” “A Place in the Sun” (its 50th anniversary) and “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.”

Dan Rather hosted a seg on Sept. 11 and its aftermath (though it seemed pretty CBS-self-congratulatory when he listed David Letterman’s return show as one of the key milestones in those dark days).

Thanks to the lack of acceptance speeches, the broadcast had ample time for such filmed segs.

During the show, AFI director-CEO Jean Picker Firstenberg took the stage to thank “friends and supporters like you,” and praised Target stores for funding scholarships at the AFI Conservatory in the names of all the presenters and keynote speaker Hoffman.

As with the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn.’s Golden Globes, AFI salutes both film and TV work. But due to the timing, it’s the pic kudos that get more attention.

Judy Davis’ victory for ABC’s “Life With Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows” was the sole win that kept HBO from a clean sweep in the TV races. “The Sopranos” scored a triple win for drama series and stars James Gandolfini and Edie Falco.

‘Boycott’ selected

Jeffrey Wright won for playing Martin Luther King Jr. in the telepic “Boycott,” and “Band of Brothers” won as top miniseries.

But the biggest news was the win for “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” Backstage, creator-star Larry David was asked about the importance of the new AFI awards. “It’s very significant now!” he laughed.

“AFI Awards 2001” was exec produced by Gary Smith and, for AFI, by Frederick S. Pierce. Dan Netter and Bob Gazzale produced. Gazzale also scripted, and Allan Kartun directed the production from AFI Prods. in association with Smith-Hemion Prods..

Nominations were made by two 13-person panels, for film and TV.

And the winners are…

“The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring” producers, Barrie M. Osborne, Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, Tim Sanders (New Line)

Denzel Washington, “Training Day”

Sissy Spacek, “In the Bedroom”

Featured Actor
Gene Hackman, “The Royal Tenenbaums”

Featured Actress
Jennifer Connelly, “A Beautiful Mind”

Robert Altman, “Gosford Park”

Christopher Nolan, “Memento”

Roger Deakins, “The Man Who Wasn’t There”

Jill Bilcock, “Moulin Rouge”

Production Designer
Grant Major, “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring”

Digital Artist
Jim Rygiel, “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring”

Craig Armstrong, “Moulin Rouge”

Drama Series
“The Sopranos” (HBO)

Comedy series
“Curb Your Enthusiasm” (HBO)

Movie or Miniseries
“Band of Brothers” (HBO)

Series Actor
James Gandolfini, “The Sopranos”

Series Actress
Edie Falco, “The Sopranos”

Movie or Miniseries actor
Jeffrey Wright, “Boycott”

Movie or Miniseries actress
Judy Davis, “Life With Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows”