Credit: Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP

Some call it the most important dress rehearsal of awards season. Saturday night’s annual Governors Awards, held just a few floors above the distinguished Dolby Theatre where the Oscars take place, was initially created as a way to speed up the prime-time telecast by siphoning off the honorary awards to an event of their own. But now, in its sixth year, in addition to honoring some very distinguished guests, including Harry Belafonte for his decades of humanitarian work and legendary red-headed screen siren Maureen O’Hara, the night has transformed into a coming out party for the year’s crop of Oscar hopefuls–the first mandatory stop on a long, and rather tiresome, campaign trail that will stretch until the end of February.

That’s why guests including Jennifer Aniston (Cake), Tilda Swinton (Snowpiercer), and Robert Duvall (The Judge) mingled among Academy members while also celebrating the work of animator Hayao Miyazaki and screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière.

“It’s the first so-called campaign stop of the so-called Oscar season,” said one Academy member. “It’s a room full of members of the voting body of the Academy, and exposure to known and unknown talent and filmmakers may be remembered and appreciated later. Maybe.”

Maybe is right. Last year, for example, both Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson worked the charm offensive with their respective introductions for honorees Steve Martin and Angela Lansbury yet neither nabbed an Oscar nomination later that year for their work in Saving Mr. Banks (or Captain Phillips in the case of Hanks.)

Nevertheless, the stars of this year’s potential contenders made their rounds, including many who used the opportunity to reunite with old cast mates. Clint Eastwood reconnected with his Million Dollar Baby Oscar winner Hilary Swank (The Homesman); Octavia Spencer (Black and White) chatted up Jessica Chastain (Interstellar, A Most Violent Year), her co-star from The Help; while Steve Carell (Foxcatcher) made a point to seek out his co-star Keira Knightley (The Imitation Game) from their romantic dramedy Seeking a Friend for the End of the World.

Even those busy in production on other films stepped out to make an appearance. Timothy Spall, a contender for Best Actor for his role in Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner, just flew in from London where he was busy promoting his film to sold-out theaters. (Even his cab-driving older brother took some of his buddies out to see the arty biopic.) Ethan Hawke, angling for some love for this summer’s indie hit Boyhood, flew in from Toronto where he’s starring in a biopic of jazz trumpeter Chet Baker to support the film and his co-stars Patricia Arquette and Ellar Coltrane. “They really make you work for it, don’t they,” he quipped.

The night also marks a time when filmmakers toiling feverishly to finish their films ahead of their year-end release step away from the edit bays to show their faces to a crowd of influential voters. Eastwood, who locked his upcoming Bradley Cooper-starrer American Sniper on Friday, had no problem digging into his filet mignon before presenting O’Hara with her honorary Oscar. Writer/director Ava DuVernay, who is still putting the finishing touches on her Martin Luther King film Selma, reunited with cast mates including David Oyelowo and Tessa Thompson before posing for photos with former colleagues from her days as a film publicist.

But it might be Belafonte who has the biggest impact on this year’s campaign. The recipient of the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award for his decades of civil rights activism, not only marched with MLK but bailed him out of prison and funded the Southern Christian Leadership Council, the organization behind King’s march in Selma.

Belafonte took to the podium and harkened back to some of Hollywood’s most racially insensitive and culturally ignorant films–Birth of a Nation, Tarzan, Song of the South–before praising the town for what’s come more recently: Schindler’s List, Brokeback Mountain, and 12 Years a Slave. “I really wish I could be around for the rest of the century to see what Hollywood does,” said Belafonte from the stage. “Maybe, just maybe, it could be civilization’s game-changer.”

In fact, Belafonte‘s younger self will be portrayed on screen in the upcoming Selma, an idea that feels a little surreal to Oyelowo, who has been trying to get the movie made for years. “It’s full circle, really,” said the actor, before rushing off to meet the legend.