There are literally so many film festivals out there now that you could sell your house, make sure your passport is renewed, and have a comfortable life just traveling from one to the other, watching movies all day and talking with filmmakers all night. Is there a city that doesn’t have a fest or is angling to get one?

Beginning with Cannes in May, which sets the table for most of what is to follow (other than Berlin and Venice, I would say), the festivals obviously are tempting targets for awards campaigners. And why not? If festivals used to be reserved for the likes of true cinephiles, that certainly isn’t the case anymore. For most of its 41-year history, for instance, Telluride’s annual Labor Day fest drew a handful of upper-crust critics but then suddenly—and quietly—began screening the occasional movie that went on to win Oscar nominations. Then it showed a few more, and a few more after that. Suddenly, the small Colorado town was swarming with “Oscar bloggers” trying to get an early pulse on the season. That led to a David-versus-Goliath showdown this year between Telluride and the Toronto International Film Festival over who would get what world-premiere Oscar contender first. In the end, they both got good stuff and plenty of bragging rights, but you hope things will calm down next year. There’s enough to go around for everyone.

Telluride got The Imitation Game, and Toronto unveiled The Theory Of Everything. Birdman chose a combo of Venice and Telluride, skipped Toronto and headed to New York. Inherent Vice and Gone Girl skipped the September fests and landed at New York. Still Alice and Cake chose Toronto and had to literally debut back-to-back on a Monday afternoon, but the buzz paid off, and both films’ stars—Julianne Moore and Jennifer Aniston, respectively—have drawn Oscar buzz and December qualifying engagements. Neither had a distributor going in, just like Chris Rock’s Top Five, which slayed TIFF. Now all three films are—presto!—in the awards game.

Fest Foot Forward

These days, most films with serious awards aspirations are deciding it just might be too risky to entirely skip the fest circuit and lose the kind of instant praise these forums provide. And even though campaigning is year-round now, the common wisdom still is that anything that appears before fall is at a disadvantage. However, despite this rubric, several films in the race have been going at it for months since gaining early festival debuts. This, in fact, was a particularly good year for Sundance, which debuted two major best pic contenders in January: Whiplash and Boyhood. The former won the Grand Jury Prize, while the latter went on to more acclaim the next month at Berlin, which also had an awards-buzzy world premiere of Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel. That movie opened in the Oscar no-zone of early March but is the rare spring release to really garner talk that might translate into serious Academy nominations.

While the Berlinale praise certainly didn’t hurt Grand Budapest, Cannes and the fall fests are still more reliable Oscar-centric places to be seen. Sony Pictures Classics certainly realizes this and uses a multi-fest strategy to keep the hopes alive of many of its films, including Whiplash. Stars could get whiplash just trying to keep up with all the traveling required of them. SPC’s Mr. Turner—whose star Timothy Spall won the best actor prize in Cannes—also turned up in Telluride, Toronto, New York and Los Angeles’s AFI Fest. And how about the journey Foxcatcher has been on? First, it was announced for the 2013 second-night opening slot at AFI last November, and then was just as abruptly pulled because director Bennett Miller didn’t feel it was ready to open. That meant Cannes could grab the film in May, which it did, landing Miller the best director award there. Then the Foxcatcher train did fest duty in Telluride, Toronto, London and New York, along with the Hamptons and Savannah fests, finally arriving back full circle to close the 2014 AFI Fest on the eve of its general release. Whew. I am exhausted just writing all this.

But here’s the bottom line. Since No Country for Old Men, which premiered at Cannes in 2007, the best picture Oscar winners all have debuted on the festival circuit: Slumdog Millionaire (2008, Telluride), The Hurt Locker (2008, Venice), The King’s Speech (2010, Telluride), The Artist (2011, Cannes), Argo (2012, Telluride) and last year’s winner, 12 Years a Slave, which bowed at Telluride in 2013—a debut that, in particular, irked Toronto and set off the fireworks between the two fests. It apparently didn’t matter that 12 Years won the audience award at TIFF, and fest organizers got to label the event a world premiere there. Telluride doesn’t care about bragging rights, or so it says. Can’t we all just get along?

To Fest or Not to Fest

Let’s look at the landscape. Of this year’s contenders with dreams of Oscar and other awards consideration, Boyhood, Imitation Game, Birdman, Whiplash, Theory of Everything, Foxcatcher, Gone Girl, Wild, A Most Violent Year, Grand Budapest, Mr. Turner, Still Alice, Nightcrawler, Inherent Vice, The Judge, St. Vincent, Black and White, The Homesman, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby and The Gambler all made their debuts at film festivals. Throw in Paramount’s Selma, which used the AFI Fest for a last-minute screening of the just-locked film, bringing in director Ava Duvernay, star David Oyelowo and producer/costar Oprah Winfrey for a discussion—and you have a pretty impressive list.

Conversely, will no festival exposure hurt the chances or slow down the charge of other major contenders that decided to forgo the circuit before they open this holiday season? That list includes Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken, Rob Marshall’s Into the Woods, Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings, Tim Burton’s Big Eyes and Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, which got an earlier start with its November 7 release. Most on this director list have skipped the fest circuit for their films in the past and prefer the old-fashioned way of getting into the Oscar race.

Eastwood, in particular, likes stealth moves, like the one he just pulled at AFI, when American Sniper premiered as a “surprise screening” at the fest. A similar stealth move worked brilliantly with Million Dollar Baby a decade ago, when the film was dropped into a limited run in mid-December. Sniper seems to be taking a page from that playbook this year. There’s something to be said about bringing up the rear and avoiding the festival noise, which sometimes can turn out to be a mixed blessing. In almost all of these cases, the films are either dripping wet or still in post as I write this. There’s just no time. As one studio exec told me in the case of its finicky director, “I think we are going to have to pry it from his hands.”

Finally, let’s go back to Fury. There was lots of speculation it would hit the fall festival circuit at some point before it opened on October 17 (moving up a month from its originally announced November date) but it didn’t—and that was intentional. An exec on the film told me they were in favor of a strategy of opening cold, holding back lots of critical chatter and avoiding the traffic jam of those festivals, where every movie has to fight for attention. But not completely being comfortable with its no-fest strategy, Fury—with star Brad Pitt in tow—did show up two days later on October 19 for a splashy European launch to close this year’s BFI London Film Festival.

Sometimes a crafty campaign can have it both ways and triumph. We’ll find out who played the fest circuit game best in February.

Illustration by Costhanzo