Another piece of this year’s Oscar movie puzzle was unveiled in a big way this weekend when Paramount rolled out Martin Scorsese’s 99.9%-finished version of Hugo, an ode to the early days of cinema and the eye-popping possibilities of movies. It’s the director’s first family film, 3D film and perhaps most personal film. In an intriguing and highly unusual move, Paramount held a packed screening, with tons of invited press and bloggers included, at Regal’s Downtown LA Live theaters Saturday afternoon. Then that night they also played it at the Samuel Goldwyn Theatre in Beverly Hills for the Academy’s official membership screening. That last move was interesting because most films play either the weekend of opening or after for the Acad (although The Weinstein Co.  unspooled their much-praised  ode to the early days of cinema, The Artist, to an appreciative audience for its official Academy screening Sunday night).

It is extremely rare to show voters something that is still unfinished (one special effects shot was missing and the end credits are far from complete), but Hugo‘s media rollout has been different from the start. It was first unleashed in a much-less-finished form at the New York Film Festival last month as a “work in progress.” Reaction on the web was all over the place, generally favorable, but did not signal a major awards contender outside of the obvious technical nominations for the film’s stunning look. That screening in hindsight may have been a miscalculation.

This week, things began to heat up. Paramount had a couple of “tastemaker” screenings for AMPAS members a few days ago (one in the evening, one during lunchtime) where the median age range was said to be 60-plus — with 50 members reportedly at each. There were also reportedly 80 members who checked in for the Regal screening that was accompanied by a lively post-movie Q&A moderated by director Paul Thomas Anderson with Scorsese and his dream team of much-Oscared collaborators including DP Robert Richardson, production designer Dante Ferretti, editor Thelma Schoonmaker, composer Howard Shore and visual effects supervisor Rob Legato. Scorsese received an enthusiastic standing ovation when he was introduced, just as he did again today after a DGA screening for a Q&A moderated by James Cameron, who told him Hugo was a “masterpiece.” He added, “finally there is a Scorsese film I can take my kids to.” And Cameron also told Scorsese it was the best use of 3D he had seen, including his own films. At Saturday’s Regal Q&A, Legato actually credited the innovations in Avatar for making possible a lot of what Hugo was able to do. Musician Slash was among those also at the DGA screening  and he later tweeted “Fantastic movie!”

Before now I never sensed Paramount was positioning this film as a major Best Picture contender, but apparently with just 2½ weeks to go before its November 23 opening it is letting the cat out of the bag. In fact, that is just the description one Par staffer emailed me to describe the emerging campaign, saying the studio now thinks the film can possibly go all the way. “The Oscar pic no one saw coming. Stealthy. It is playing like gangbusters with the Academy. The cat is out of the bag,” it read. Another person connected with the film reported on last night’s primetime Saturday night Academy screening, spinning that there were 450-500 members with their guests and that it was “looooooved” with solid, sustained applause and appreciation for “Scorsese’s homage to their industry.” This person feels it will now be a solid contender in most major categories and “across the board” in crafts.

Wishful thinking or based on truth?

The attendance figure at the Academy screening is middling, nowhere near the packed houses for other recent Oscar contenders — Midnight In Paris, Moneyball, The Ides Of March to name three that nearly filled the place. Despite Scorsese’s name, part of the problem might be that it is currently perceived as more of a 3D kids film by Academy members, who generally don’t lavish Oscar attention on that genre. Paramounties are positioning it as something with equal or even greater adult appeal and I would agree, if you can work them to a winter’s passion to see it the way it should be seen. It’s much more ambitious than the average studio family holiday offering. At the very least it’s definitely got HUGE film freak appeal (count me as one of those).

Scorsese working at the absolute top of his game may be key to getting those older butts in seats. From my perspective it is a masterpiece of personal filmmaking along the lines of Fellini’s Amarcord, Truffaut’s Day For Night and Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso. It goes without saying that the craftsmanship is as good as it gets, and for those who can’t stand 3D this could be a game-changer. Critic Leonard Maltin (who loved it) commented after the Regal screening that one extraordinary use of 3D in a scene involving co-star Sacha Baron Cohen’s face moving progressively closer into the audience could be the one that “finally makes the 3D sale” to those who just think it’s a fad.

I talked to producer Graham King in the lobby afterward and he said he was actually nervous that they were “finally” showing the film in its (near) finished state but couldn’t wait to have people see it — and see it on a big screen. “I really don’t want to send out the DVD screeners (to voting groups). I guess I have to, but it kills me. It is not the way to see a movie like this,” he said, well aware that screeners are the reality of Oscar campaigning. He’s right, though, and films from master filmmakers that are high on the visually artistic scale of Hugo, War Horse and Tree Of Life among others will undoubtedly be diminished significantly on the home video format. With looser Academy rules this year regarding once-verboten attendance of members where there are Q&As, perhaps the numbers of voters seeing these films in theaters will increase. That would be a good thing all around, and especially for Hugo.

Based on Brian Selznick’s children’s book The Invention Of Hugo Cabret, screenwriter John Logan and Scorsese have certainly retained those fantastical story elements to which kids will relate, but it is in the film’s second half with a plot involving film pioneer Georges Melies (strongly played by Ben Kingsley) and his lost silent movies that the connection to the wonderment of cinema comes alive in the hands of film aficionado Scorsese. “I’m hoping it will be educational for the audience,” King told me. Certainly it will inspire new generations of movie dreamers as well as those who are already living the dream (in other words, the Academy). I would be shocked if some of Scorsese’s chief competitors in the Oscar race this year, Steven Spielberg, Woody Allen and Alexander Payne — film nerds all — aren’t completely in agreement with Cameron’s assessment of the film. The sequence re-creating the making of Melies’ classic A Trip To The Moon is a must for cineastes.

It will be fascinating to see how deftly Paramount can try to steer what on the page is a 3D kids movie — albeit a sophisticated one directed by Martin Scorsese — into a Best Picture race that just got more interesting.