Despite competition from big baseball and football games and the final Presidential debate, the 16th annual Hollywood Film Awards gala last night featured a nice starry turnout — especially considering all those stars were able to go onstage and accept an award for themselves. That always helps, doesn’t it?

As the ballroom announcer intoned, this event marks “the beginning of Hollywood’s awards season”. Well, actually it marks the beginning of the awards-season chicken dinner circuit for the Beverly Hilton. But  give ’em an award this early in the game and they will come. It’s a way for awards strategists to get their hoped-for Oscar contenders in the winner’s circle right off the bat. These are negotiated honors, and Hollywood Awards co-founder (with wife Janice Pennington) and executive director Carlos de Abreu is the guy who decides who gets the “gold” (although he has a board that supposedly has input).

De Abreu, not unlike some other awards organizations, insists that in order to receive a Hollywood Film Award, recipients must be there in person to accept. He won’t even allow live satellite acceptances, the thinking being that it would open a can of worms, and strategists would try to find a way to get the award without delivering talent directly to the ceremony. It’s a formula that delivers an impressive turnout and it gets participation due to the early date, with many of the winners hailing from movies that haven’t been released. No one takes it seriously, but it serves its purpose as far as the studios are concerned. As Seth Rogen said in his hilarious intro for Comedy Award winner Judd Apatow: “Perhaps the most annoying thing is none of these movies have come out yet. I haven’t even heard of some of these movies. (Screenwriter winner) Quentin (Tarantino) is still shooting! Who voted for these things?”

And even though the upper tiers of the Hilton ballroom were filled with what appeared to be dress extras (one studio bigwig looked around the room and wondered who these people were), the “pit” was loaded with either heavy hitters getting awards or studios (which must pay for the tables) supporting their winners. It’s odd this event doesn’t have some sort of broadcast deal in place. With so many actual Academy voters in the room, I have often said that if the Golden Globes are a good place to try out your Oscar speech, then the Hollywood Awards are a good place to try out your Golden Globe speech. And last night there were some pretty damn good ones.

Somehow earning the Hollywood Breakthrough award, The Sessions star John Hawkes said, “Thirty years in the business and I am breaking through. Thank you for this breakout honor proving it’s never too late to make an impression.”

Robert De Niro, getting the Supporting Actor award for the upcoming Silver Linings Playbook (11/21), is not normally the most talkative guy out there, but he killed last night. “I’m an old hand at awards ceremonies,” he said, explaining that he has become an expert at handing trophies to others. “I have given a half-dozen to Marty Scorsese, but even Leonardo DiCaprio has replaced me as his go-to guy.”

Dustin Hoffman received the Breakthrough Director award for feature directorial debut, Quartet (due out December 28) and thanked presenter de Abreu (did someone drop out at the last minute?) for his “thrilling” breakout directing award — although he wasn’t thrilled about following De Niro’s speech.

The Argo gang winning the Hollywood Ensemble Award (Ben Affleck, John Goodman, Alan Arkin, and Bryan Cranston) scored big gravitas points in accepting it from the real-life people in the movie. That included Tony Mendez, the CIA operative who hatched the operation to make a fake film in order to rescue six standed Americans during the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis. “When lives were hanging in the balance, Hollywood stepped up,” he said. This real-life connection will play well all during awards season for Argo, and the strong boxoffice and word-of-mouth isn’t going to hurt. Both Warner Bros topper Jeff Robinov and distribution head Dan Fellman were clearly in a good mood when I talked to them before the show. “This had the smallest second-weekend drop of any non-holiday movie”, said Fellman. “I think our chances are looking very good.”

I was sitting at a table with Sony Classics co-president Tom Bernard and Marion Cotillard, who got the Actress award for her upcoming Rust And Bone in which she plays a double amputee. She told me it was not her first time at the Hollywood Film Awards and repeated it in her acceptance speech after she received the award from her Dark Knight Rises co-star Joseph Gordon-Levitt. “Five years ago I stood on this same stage and had no real sense of what it would  bring. I got lucky, ” she said of the award she received that season for La Vie En Rose. It eventually led all the way to the Oscars.

Actor award winner Bradley Cooper (presented by Tom Ford), winning for Silver Linings Playbook (which also took the Director award for David O. Russell, giving that film the biggest haul of the night) remembered doing a small role with Affleck in Changing Lanes and noted how he was just “the nicest guy to me”. He also praised co-star De Niro. Harvey Weinstein, sitting at their table, certainly was having a good night with awards going to each one of his fall pictures including Silver Linings, Quartet, Tarantino’s Django Unchained and The Master, which was represented by Amy Adams’ Supporting Actress win. This is Harvey’s time to shine. Clearly he is in his element.

It was in fact surprising to see so many studio heads attending and staying through most of the evening. Universal was especially well-represented with chairman Adam Fogelson and co-chairman Donna Langley and president Ron Meyer out in force supporting Apatow, and Les Miserables and Anna Karenina Producers Award winners Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner. At the reception, Meyer could not contain his enthusiasm for Les Miz, telling me it totally delivers in every way you would hope a film version of a Broadway musical can. He is clearly excited about this one. I asked if he regretted moving the film from December 14 to Christmas Day in light of the Academy’s announcement that voting dates for nominations are now December 17-January 3. “It’s just the right kind of movie to open at Christmas. I think everyone will find a way to see it,” he said. Indeed, Universal will be screening it extensively beginning Thanksgiving weekend. Meyer said the film is almost completely done.

After that, Rogen came out to present the Comedy award to Apatow (his This Is 40 opens in December) and had the place rolling. “I would fuck both of those guys,” he said, referring to Cooper and Ford. “This is the first stop in the awards season for Comedy and the last stop. The funniest film ever could come out and we would still lose to Les Miserables.” Apatow managed to follow that speech with one equally as funny as he read off all the notes he had been taking during the show and offered an off-the-cuff recap on the spot — including a line about Beasts Of The Southern Wild’s 8-year-old star Quvenzhane Wallis’ acceptance  for her New Hollywood Award, in which she thanked God (and Fox of course). “Please tell the kid from Beasts Of The Southern Wild not to mention God. This is Hollywood.”

It was left to Career Achievement Award winner Richard Gere and his presenter Ed Norton to really class up the place, especially with Gere’s touching tribute to Ed Limato, his late agent of 40 years. “There was not a decision I made without talking to him,” said Gere, who is getting Oscar buzz (he’s never been nominated) for Arbitrage.