It’s hard to believe it’s time for Deadline’s fourth annual The Contenders event, which officially launches Academy season—even though it seems as if the rallying never really stopped from last year.

The idea for the event was hatched four years ago as a way for studios and distributors to present a snapshot of the year’s top awards contenders by giving each a half-hour segment to show off their goods. Film clips are substantiated by interviews with key players, both in front of and behind the scenes—giving Academy and key guild members the ability to see what’s on tap. The day has become a revealing clue as to just what movies filmmakers, and the studios that release them, feel will rise to the top.

And with each iteration of The Contenders, things seem to get more competitive. Last year, a spirited best picture race went right down to the wire on March 2 at the Dolby Theatre, well after American Hustle, Gravity and eventual winner 12 Years a Slave started their long journey to the Oscars right here last November. There also was no less a competition for the acting prizes eventually won by Matthew McConaughey, Cate Blanchett, Jared Leto and Lupita Nyong’o. The stiff competition went right on down the line with writers, directors and all the other key categories, both above- and below-the-line. But that was the finish. At Contenders, we are all about where the race starts. Many industry members who have attended over the years have pointed out how helpful this one-day awards conference—for lack of a better way to describe it—really is. It’s also become a great networking opportunity, as it draws voters from the cream of the business. 

The acting races are equally unpredictable, particularly the lead actor category, which this year is impossibly crowded. I can count 30 contenders, just for starters, several of whom would be first-time Oscar and Screen Actors Guild nominees. This is the year of the newcomer—at least as far as the Academy is concerned. While Birdman’s Michael Keaton can hardly be considered a “newcomer,” he has never been nominated for an Oscar, and could be battling other newbies such as Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything), Benedict Cumberbatch (The Imitation Game), Miles Teller (Whiplash), Cannes winner Timothy Spall (Mr. Turner), Steve Carell (Foxcatcher), David Oyelowo (Selma), Jack O’Connell (Unbroken), Chadwick Boseman (Get On Up) or even young Ellar Coltrane, who spent 12 years of his life making his first film, Boyhood. Of course, people who are no stranger to Oscars and awards ceremonies are in the mix this year as well, including Brad Pitt (Fury), Bradley Cooper (American Sniper), Robert Downey Jr. (The Judge), Mark Wahlberg (The Gambler), Jeremy Renner (Kill the Messenger), Ben Affleck (Gone Girl), and of course, last year’s winner, Matthew McConaughey, who could be coming in for a second round with Interstellar.

The list of female contenders isn’t as deep, but includes everyone from potential first-time nominee Patricia Arquette (Boyhood) to record-breaker Meryl Streep, who is said to once again be dazzling in Into the Woods. They both are likely to turn up in the supporting race, leaving the best actress field to veterans such as Julianne Moore—as an early Alzheimer’s victim in Still Alice—and past winner Reese Witherspoon (Wild), both of whom could compete against five-time nominee Amy Adams (Big Eyes) as well as newbies such as Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl) and Felicity Jones (The Theory of Everything).

The density of this year’s contenders is incredibly impressive and many potential nominees are bound to be left out. Thankfully, Deadline’s The Contenders event is here to give you some perspective as well as a running start. Ladies and gentlemen, start your engines. The race is on.