Paramount, expanding ways to reach awards voters, got interactive Monday with a bi-coastal launch of its Oscar-bait drama Flight, including a special screening and Q&A in New York beamed to four Arclight theaters in the Los Angeles area and another in San Francisco for invited guild members and press. Taking place the day after the film’s world premiere as the closing-night attraction of the 50th New York Film Festival, director Robert Zemeckis, writer John Gatins and several cast members including John Goodman, Don Cheadle, Bruce Greenwood, and Melissa Leo took part in the interactive post-screening Q&A that featured tweeted questions from the California venues and live queries from the NY crowd — many industry-voter types. Paramount clearly found a nice way to expand its Big Apple premiere, and it went off almost without a hitch. Almost.

The only downer for the studio was jettisoning the scheduled appearance of Flight star Denzel Washington, who was in attendance for the premiere Sunday night. He “was taken ill” according to the announcement at the outset of the Q&A, followed by audible groans from the audience. For the money being spent on this, as well as its awards launch, losing Denzel had to be a big disappointment for the studio. Still, the rest of this digital-age awards event went off without a hitch with premium network Epix teaming with Paramount to stage the interactive, multi-city event.

Other companies have begun doing this sort of thing including The Weinstein Company, which staged a couple of live interactive events like this last year with Meryl Streep among others. But the major studios, more bottom-line-oriented and not usually on the front lines of new Oscar campaign techniques, are suddenly jumping on board if recent activity is an indication. Last week, Disney/DreamWorks staged a “Conversation With Steven Spielberg And Daniel Day Lewis” following a nine-city screening of Lincoln at which audience members (mostly students) in those cities were able to text questions to the same AMC Lincoln (appropiate name) Plaza theatre that hosted today’s Flight screening. In the past, most awards-season guild screening Q&As (and they number in the hundreds) were simply for the audience that showed up and not usually even taped.

Now, with awards campaigners looking to get the most bang for their buck and the talent’s time, that model appears to be changing. And for Flight, it appeared to pay off, at least in the Arclight Beach Cities Southern California screening I attended tht was just five minutes from where I live (if only all screenings were this convenient). Reaction among industry locals was strong, and most stayed for the entire 45-minute Q&A session that, since the star attraction was absent, centered in large part on questions aimed at the director and screenwriter.

The film, a rare studio-bred adult drama about an alcoholic pilot who becomes a media hero when he miraculously manages to crash-land his plane and save nearly everyone on board only to see his personal problems come crashing down as well, is a riveting and powerful nail-biting thriller of a very different sort. Two-time Oscar winner Washington (Glory, Training Day) lays claim to yet another certain Best Actor nomination in one of his finest performances. Even in as crowded a Best Actor race as this year’s is becoming, Washington’s exceptional work here should put him near the top of the heap. This is the kind of role actors would kill for. The film is dedicated to his late agent, Ed Limato. It’s being released November 2nd.

During the Q&A, screenwriter Gatins explained it took him a dozen years to see this project finally come to the screen, and strangely enough for the embattled world of character-based adult dramas this was fully developed by Paramount from Day One. Zemeckis, making his first live-action film since 2000’s Cast Away (which ironically also featured another plane crash), said “Paramount was very courageous in making this movie, but they really did want to make it and they left us alone”. He noted it was produced for a razor-thin budget of $30 million, and both he and Washington deferred their salaries because of the quality of the material and their desire to do it. It was shot in Atlanta, where they enjoyed a rebate, in just 45 days. “The schedule was very tight and we had little money but everybody stepped up,” Zemeckis said.

After spending the last 12 years working in the world of motion capture animated films like Polar Express and A Christmas Carol, one audience member wondered why Zemeckis would want to do such dark subject matter. But the director sees it another way. “At the end of the day I saw this as a very hopeful film, but to get to that light place you have to start in that dark place,” he said, adding that adult dramas of this sort are very difficult, if not nearly impossible, to get through the studio system these days. “It’s very hard to get them greenlit, but that’s just the way of the world for adult dramas.” Gatins said however that in the years he spent developing the script, he noticed a  “turnback” to the genre, that more movies aimed at adult audiences were starting to appear. Cheadle was less idealistic, saying, “I don’t know if Dog Day Afternoon or Kramer Vs. Kramer would even be made today”.

As for returning to live-action filmmaking, Zemeckis said it was a bit like riding a bike. “I read the script and fell in love with it, one of the most interesting and complex things I ever read…Making movies is making movies, but with motion capture you didn’t have to go out at night on location….I was in good shape to make this film now with this magnificent cast,” he said.

Paramount, which seemed to sit out the summer but is loaded with fourth-quarter releases, is planning a big Oscar campaign for this one and should find a receptive audience at the Academy with real shots at nominations for Best Picture (Walter F. Parkes, Laurie McDonald, Zemeckis, Jack Rapke and Steve Starkey are producers), Actor, Director and a very strong bid for Best Original Screenplay for Gatins. Among the fine supporting cast, British actress Kelly Reilly could grab awards attention too as another substance abuser who befriends Washington’s character.