Nancy O’Dell, host for the 17th annual Hollywood Film Awards on Monday night at the Beverly Hilton, looked across the impressive star-studded room and said, “This is just like the Oscars”. Uh, not exactly. It’s not just like the Golden Globes or The Critics Choice Awards either, but it’s become a pretty good warm-up act for all of them. “We used to make fun of this show, but not so much anymore,” said one industry observer. In fact the cover of the slick program says it all: “First mandatory stop in the awards season”. And this brainchild of Carlos de Abreu, who is the arbiter and chief negotiator of who gets what, has really been growing. The studios seem to love it because they essentially get to dictate the winners and plant a flag for one film or another early in the season. No one takes the actual award too seriously, but getting the opportunity to be seen holding that award is another thing altogether.

In its early days, stars would come in the back of the Hilton, make an appearance onstage to accept an award and get a photo op, and then make a hasty retreat. Now, most of them stayed all night for the nearly three-and-a-half hour show, schmoozing, seeing old friends and subtly campaigning. One person at the Disney table where I was sitting (director Dan Scanlon won the Hollywood Animation Award for Pixar’s smash sequel Monsters University) put it succinctly, saying about the appeal of this show: “If they show up, it’s worth it. If they don’t show up, it’s not worth it”. They showed up.

And there was lots of high star-wattage in the room including various winners like Sandra Bullock, Matthew McConaughey, Jake Gyllenhaal, Julia Roberts, Harrison Ford and Jared Leto, plus presenters like Sean Penn, Robert Downey Jr, Kanye West, Geoffrey Rush, Bruce Willis, Jennifer Garner, Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Jane Fonda, Forest Whitaker and others. Hollywood Song Award winner Chris Martin of Coldplay even performed his tune Atlas from the upcoming The Hunger Games:  Catching Fire, the first song the group has written for a film.

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Studio heads like 20th Century Fox’s Jim Gianopulos, Warner Bros’ Kevin Tsujihara, Fox Searchlight’s Nancy Utley, Sony Pictures Classics’ Tom Bernard and Harvey Weinstein were also in the room for the show which has never been televised — but will be next year according to an announcement by O’Dell. Dick Clark Productions, which also produces the Globes,  has now got a stake in the event and plans to start exploiting it in 2014. Just how it will all play on TV is anybody’s guess when there are no nominees only winners, and most of the viewers will not have seen any of the movies rewarded on this very early mid-October Hollywood lovefest (hell, not many of the industry audience or even the presenters had seen most of the films yet).

It doesn’t really matter. This has become a great place to try out your speeches for other shows and be seen by a large number of Oscar voters with an award in your hand. The show even offers a teleprompter for nervous recipients — just getting their toes wet on the 2013 awards circuit — who want to read their remarks. Afterward, I spoke with Hollywood Actor of the Year McConaughey who said he doesn’t do well with teleprompters and didn’t take the producers up on their offer. He gave a charming, funny, leisurely speech highlighting the films he’s made in the past couple of years and offering shout-outs to old friends like Hollywood Screenwriter winner Richard Linklater, who gave him his start in Dazed And Confused. “I just started talking and eventually it all came around in the end,” he laughed. I would hazard a guess this Dallas Buyers Club star will have a few more chances to deliver a speech this season.

After a seven-minute introduction by a rambling Penn to “his neighbor” Julia Roberts in which he obsessed on her eating habits, Roberts, named Hollywood Supporting Actress for August: Osage County (which also took the Hollywood Ensemble Award), thanked de Abreu “Carlos, the mysterious Carlos” for the party. She also explained the only way her husband convinced her to fly in was because “it’s not televised and I knew I won”. Kanye West also flew in from San Francisco to present 12 Years A Slave director Steve McQueen with his “breakthrough award” leading to an eloquent acceptance from the director who actually broke through a while ago. But never mind. An award is an award.

Leto was particularly funny, thanking the HFF for his own “breakthough” award at age 41. “It’s crazy what happens when people find out that you look great in a skirt. You get invited to all the cool parties,” he said of the honor for playing the transgender Rayon in Dallas Buyers Club. “I’ve actually never gotten an award for anything I have ever done on screen until now,” he said, noting it’s his first film in six years.

In one of the night’s many references to the ubiquitous Weinstein, Bullock took her acceptance for Gravity as Hollywood Actress of the Year to lobby him for a job. “Harvey, why don’t you hire me? I even wore your wife’s dress,” she said about the mogul’s designer spouse.

Weinstein himself later told me he was most impressed by the speech given by Lee Daniels, Hollywood Director of the Year, for his company’s Lee Daniels’ The Butler. And it was indeed one of the evening’s highlights in terms of sincerity and smarts. “It’s weird that it’s called the Hollywood Film Awards because Hollywood was not for this movie. Every studio passed. But this is for (producer) Laura Ziskin’s memory. She said ‘you can do it’,” he said, noting they even worked on Danny Strong’s script literally on her deathbed. He also saluted the other black directors such as McQueen and Fruitvale Station‘s Ryan Coogler saying he was so happy to be part of such a great year for black filmmakers. “I’m not the only spot in the spot for once,” he said. Weinstein plans to make a big Oscar push for the hit film that opened in August and has grossed well over $100M. Ironically, he was sitting directly in front of Tsujihara and the table for Warners, the studio that tried to prevent Weinstein from using the name The Butler and inadvertently gave the movie a ton of publicity. Tsujihara and marketing wizard Sue Kroll flanked Bullock all evening while another current Warner star, Harrison Ford, won the only standing ovation of the night receiving the Hollywood Career Achievement Award from his 42 writer-director Brian Helgeland. “It means so much to be in this community of people dedicated to telling stories… At this stage of my career there’s a lot left that I want to do,” he said. Ford is being campaigned by Warners for a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his work as Branch Rickey in the April release about Jackie Robinson.

But it was another career award that clearly stole the show when producer Jerry Weintraub accepted his Hollywood Legend Award. He was hilarious in talking about the real meaning of awards in Hollywood, putting this game all in shrewd perspective. “My first award was about 45 years ago and I got it here about 10 feet over. Sinatra gave it to me when I came to town — I was working with him — and he said. ‘Look kid we’ve gotta give you an award. We’ve gotta make you important in town. You can’t be with me at Chasen’s having dinner and nobody knows who the hell you are. We’re gonna figure something else.’ So he got me, my first night in town, the NAACP award and the b’nai b’rith, all in the same night.” He added that he really learned about Hollywood awards years later from Lew Wasserman, his “only boss”, when a group of industry figures insisted on giving Weintraub the Variety Club Award. He didn’t want another piece of hardware at that point and kept turning it down. He even suggested another potential recipient. “Three houses down there’s a guy named Lew Wasserman. Why don’t you give it to him? And they said ‘We did but he sent us over to you’!”

As for this Hollywood Legend award, Weintraub also hesitated when his publicist Paul Bloch called him about the honor. “A few days later he called me and said, ‘I want you to do this. It’s a precursor to the Academy’s. It’s very important. Do this award’. I said ‘Paul, I don’t like it’. He said ‘Why, what’s wrong?’ and I said, ‘Well when I was in my 30s, Sinatra gave me the b’nai b’rith and the NAACP, then I got the Variety Club, then I got this, I got that, I got Cedars, I got St. Johns, I got all this stuff. I got all these awards in my house. They are all going on eBay when I die. In my 30s I already had awards and in my 40s they called me an icon. Now in my 70s, they want to call me a legend. The next stop is Hillside Cemetery’.”

If you want to know the true meaning of awards — Hollywood or otherwise — just ask Jerry Weintraub.