With last night’s conclusion of the annual AFI Fest in Hollywood, the curtain finally fell on the 2011 fall film festival season. So the question remains, has an Oscar frontrunner emerged after two months on this circuit? AFI previously was held in the spring but smartly repositioned itself to November several years ago. The significant side benefit of that is the fest has a shot at having an impact on awards season — not to mention AFI gets the pick of the litter in terms of prolific contenders. That strategy has worked again this year: the world premiere of Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar was the opening-night film and the closing-night selection was Steven Spielberg’s CGI animation contender The Adventures of Tintin, which made its North American premiere last night at AFI. Neither of these directors is necessarily known for putting his films widely on the fest circuit, but you can’t deny that hitting the fests can be a good strategy.

The last four Best Picture winners — No Country For Old Men, Slumdog Millionaire, The Hurt Locker, The King’s Speech — were all major festival players, finding their footing on the circuit then sailing smoothly into Oscar’s heart. This year, likely best pic possibilities that began at one fest or another include The Artist, Moneyball, The Descendants, The Ides Of March, Midnight In Paris and now J. Edgar. But there is an even larger number than usual of those skipping the circuit and trying other strategies to get the Academy’s attention. That list includes The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, War Horse, Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close, Young Adult, The Help, The Iron Lady and In The Land Of Blood And Honey.

Stuck somewhere in the middle is Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, which tried to catch the wave at the New York Film Festival by showcasing a “work in progress.” The results of the gambit ultimately were mixed opinions toward the film — at least in that form. Then, when the film was completed, Paramount skipped the opportunity to show it at AFI and decided to go in another direction (at the same time the fest was going on across town) by unveiling it almost simultaneously to L.A.-based critics, bloggers and members of the Academy. Reaction was upbeat and the film, which opens November 23, is now being talked about as a Best Picture contender, something that didn’t happen after its New York screening.

For AFI, the rest of the lineup was mostly déjà vu from what bleary-eyed festivalgoers have been seeing over the course of the last two months. Much of it was imported from May’s Cannes Film Festival, which produced its own sizable number of contenders, most notably Midnight In Paris, The Tree Of Life, The Skin I Live In and countless other foreign-language titles.  Whether any of AFI’s non-premiere titles actually have an impact on awards season remains a question, but it did give them a high-profile opportunity in the town where most voters live. The festival, though, tries to rival Toronto and Cannes in some ways for the biggest and most consistent number of red-carpet galas. Those galas consist of movies that seemingly haven’t met a film festival they didn’t like including the Weinstein Company’s The Artist (which hit fests big and small since Cannes, winning several audience awards along the way); Oscilloscope’s We Need To Talk About Kevin; Lars von Trier’s Melancholia; and the current king of the circuit, Steve McQueen’s controversial Shame, starring Michael Fassbender.

If any film has benefited from a dedicated fest strategy this season, it may be that latter one. Starting in Venice in early September, Shame took those critics by storm and won a Best Actor prize for Fassbender, causing a sensation that made it a must-see by the time it hit Telluride and Toronto a few days later. That’s where Fox Searchlight took serious notice and picked up the film despite the certainty of an NC-17 rating. Or maybe because of it: Controversy rarely hurts and Shame, due to its graphic nudity and sexual nature, has brilliantly ridden the wave. It is anybody’s guess though how this will play outside the cocoon of the festival trail when it opens in early December.

That can be said about a lot of this year’s films hoping to translate festival success into box office and Oscar gold. There is no question that Michel Hazanavicius’ charmer The Artist has been a smash at every fest it has played, but outside of this rarefied world will Harvey Weinstein be able to convince regular moviegoers who aren’t caught up in the intoxicating festival atmosphere to go see it at the multiplex? It’s a black-and-white silent movie. Festgoers are used to the types of films that inspired it; regular Joes, not so much. Certainly everyone realizes the value of fests for launching movies, but what plays on the Croisette, the canals of Venice, the dusty streets of Telluride or the cosmopolitan cities of Toronto, New York and Los Angeles isn’t always going to ride to glory in the end.

Perhaps that is why Paramount — which was stung sending Jason Reitman’s Up In The Air on the circuit two years ago only to see its September glow dim by the time it was finally released in December, although it did receive major Academy Award nominations including Best Picture — has been trying to find new ways to show off its contenders. Reitman’s Young Adult with Charlize Theron might have seemed primed for fests. After all, Reitman’s movies — notably Juno and Thank You For Smoking — had wildly successful fest berths before going on to even bigger commercial success. But Paramount purposely kept The Fighter and even the Coen brothers’ True Grit off that path last year, and both thrived at Oscar time with Best Picture and numerous other noms, and in the case of The Fighter two supporting acting Academy Awards.

When shock rang out in blogdom about the non-fest strategy for Young Adult, a consultant told me they were going to be doing other “fun” things, even if the no-fest approach was “something different for Jason.” For the past month, Paramount has been doing “pop up” screenings, secret showings around the country that generate immediate twitter buzz. It seems to be the new thing this awards season. When it made a stop at the New Beverly Cinema in L.A. at the beginning of November, influential awards bloggers were invited, liked what they saw and started shouting ‘Oscar,’ something Paramount has not been doing in any overt way to date.

Disney and DreamWorks have been doing the same thing for Spielberg’s War Horse, creating their own secret fest circuit in tiny towns mostly in the Midwest or places like Bellevue, Washington. It’s certainly one way of staying in the conversation without having to do the sometimes-grueling festival route. In the case of both films, it had the desired effect of getting attendees to pass the good word, much like they do in the streets of a film fest right after a screening of some hot title.

The big downside of doing fests of course is if you pick the wrong venue.  Venice, as it turns out, may not have been the best place for Madonna’s W.E., which has been trying to recover ever since, has been tweaked in editing and is ready to emerge again for its Oscar qualifying run in December and regular runs Feb 4. Similarly, Carnage, Roman Polanski’s adaptation of the Tony winning play, God of Carnage, might have been better off skipping the Italian city and heading straight to New York where it more successfully played as the opener of the NYFF.  The thing is, Sony Pictures Classics, which is releasing it, has had heavy rotation as usual in all the festivals and is a big believer in using them to promote its brand of movies.  It was difficult to find a Fall Festival without the presence of SPC’s lineup of A Dangerous Method, Footnote, Where Do We Go Now?, In Darkness, The Skin I Live In, A Separation and Carnage (although the latter did skip Telluride and Toronto).

The one undeniable thing about festivals is their free publicity value. It’s a way to gather so many media in one place and get a tsunami of talk going. It also helps when you have a star as ready, willing and eager as say, George Clooney, who hit Venice with The Ides of March on the fest’s opening night and has been everywhere with that film.  He’s also toured around with The Descendants in which he stars; a title that is perhaps the strongest contender to come out of this year’s fest circuit. You can’t buy that kind of coverage.

But will Oscar voters be swayed or is there a better way awards strategists will continue to explore?