By Peter Bowes
BBC News, Los Angeles
Penelope Cruz sparked early Oscar interest for her role in Volver
More than three months before the golden envelopes are ripped open, Oscar buzz is once again swirling around Hollywood.
The deadline has passed for media organisations wanting credentials to cover the big night at the Kodak Theatre and film publicists are preparing for a media blitz in the run up to Christmas.
The awards season, as it has become known, is well underway. It may go unnoticed by the civilized world, outside Los Angeles, but Tinsel Town is already frothing at the mouth.
It means months of frenzied speculation about the likely winners, followed by countless back-slapping ceremonies where the same smiling faces crop up time and again.
"It's definitely masterminded and strategised," says Stacey Kumagai, a veteran Los Angeles-based entertainment industry publicist.
"'Buzz' is getting people to pay attention through proactive campaigning, through advertising or basically just getting people talking about someone's work."
It already has some seasoned observers throwing up their arms in despair.
"When it comes to the triumph of tawdriness and superficiality, nothing quite matches the endless Oscar-prognostication monsoon," writes Patrick Goldstein in the Los Angeles Times.
"The sad truth about Oscar season is that it has become a froth-filled marketing event...".
Forest Whitaker is tipped for his portrayal of dictator Idi Amin
The Oscar nominations will be revealed on 23 January, and the winners will be announced a month later on 25 February.
"At this juncture, mid-November, I think all buzz is largely premature," says Richard Schickel, Time magazine film critic.
"Many of the movies that I think will be in contention, most of us have not seen."
"The buzz is emanating from publicists, studios, self-interested performers or directors who have it in their interest to hype their own activities, so I don't think there's anything meaningful to be taken from all the Oscar chat at this stage."
But the studio marketing departments clearly believe in the value of early buzz.
For the past few weeks they have been sending out so-called screener DVDs. The special, copy-protected discs will play only on a certain type of DVD player, previously made available to Academy members.
Little Miss Sunshine, United 93 and The Last King of Scotland were early arrivals on the doorsteps of voters - marked 'For Your Consideration'.
Cannes frontrunner Babel is another Oscar hopeful
The latter, a historic drama starring Forest Whitaker as Idi Amin, has only just gone on general release in the US.
In most countries the film will not been seen until early next year, but Whitaker has already attracted awards season attention for his mesmerising performance.
The headline, 'Becoming Amin brings Oscars buzz', appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer at the beginning of October.
"I'm really excited that people are receiving my performance like this - it makes me feel really good, I've been working really hard," says Whitaker.
But the actor, who has never been nominated for an Oscar, is reluctant to get carried away by the hype.
"I don't want to get too caught up into it because, first of all, it could lead to a great disappointment and you never know what's going to happen."
Mirren was named best actress at this year's Venice Film Festival
Whitaker recalls that he received a considerable amount of Emmy buzz last year for his performance in TV's The Shield - but far from winning, he was not even nominated.
Dame Helen Mirren's portrayal of Elizabeth II in The Queen is another much-praised performance attracting attention. According to fellow British actor, Michael Caine, Dame Helen appears to have the best actress award in the bag.
"She is uncanny. I read at least three reviews in England which said they might just as well send the Oscar to her now and save all that problem of going through the ceremony and all that - which is true."
" I would hate to be an actress with a chance of an Oscar, this year," says Caine.
The actress says she he happy to go with the flow, but she is quick to point out that she has been down this road before.
"I've experienced the ups and downs of that whole world and I know how lovely the up is - and the down isn't that bad," she says.
"Obviously personally I would be incredibly honoured. I think it would be great for the film - we want above all people to see the film. And that's a great tool for getting people's attention on the movie."