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It has been one of the sneakiest, most expensive and hard-fought campaigns in recent memory – and we're not talking about the U.S. presidential race. No, the prize at the end of this contest isn't a White House but a little gold man.

Millions spent on advertising. Politicians pulled into the fray. Whispering campaigns. Favours called in, articles solicited, letters written – it's all part of the race to win Academy Awards, which in Hollywood is a sport as bloody as bullfighting and as precise as fencing.

In 2011, in the latest attempt to rein in the crazed campaigning that accompanies each contending film, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced new rules restricting the number of parties and events producers could hold between a film's nomination and the ceremony itself (the 85th Academy Awards will be held in Los Angeles on Sunday night.) But that just meant that the campaigning began before the nominations were announced on Jan. 10, and that much of the stumping takes place under a veil of coyness.

"It's pretty cutthroat this year," says Sasha Stone, founder of the Awards Daily website, who's been writing about Hollywood's top horserace for 14 years. "You have all the titans of the Oscar campaign world going head to head in a wide-open race." The front-runner for best picture is Ben Affleck's Iran-hostage caper Argo, but since Mr. Affleck himself didn't win a best director nod, Argo is perceived to be fallible. The producers of other top contenders – Lincoln, Life of Pi, Zero Dark Thirty and Silver Linings Playbook – circled, looking for a weakness." (Or at least they did until Oscar voting closed this week.)

In past years, the award might as well have gone to the craftiest campaign. Famously, in 1998, Harvey Weinstein of Miramax orchestrated a tidal wave of goodwill for Shakespeare in Love – employing Oscar consultants, wooing Academy voters and journalists – and the film beat what many consider to be a superior rival, Saving Private Ryan, for the best picture award.

The academy has cracked down on the most zealous off-piste campaigning: Star-studded dinners like the one Arianna Huffington hosted for the 2010 best-picture-winner The King's Speech are no longer allowed in the run-up to the awards ceremony. More egregious examples from the past – like having Miramax ghostwrite an article under the byline of Oscar winner Robert Wise in support of its contender, Martin Scorsese – are now verboten.

Which means that studios just have to be craftier, and win big-name endorsements, or look for alternative ways to publicize their contenders. Says Steve Pond, Los Angeles-based author of The Big Show: High Times and Dirty Dealings at the Academy Awards, "Is it a coincidence that David O. Russell [director of Silver Linings Playbook] went to Washington to talk to Vice-President Biden about mental-health issues the day that Oscar voters could first cast their ballots? No. Is it a coincidence that Disney announced that it was sending a DVD of Lincoln to every middle school and high school in the country during Oscar nominations voting? No, it wasn't."

Sometimes a push can cause a backlash. When Bill Clinton made a surprise appearance at the Golden Globes to introduce Steven Spielberg's Lincoln, calling it "a brilliant film," it seemed at first like a coup. Soon the ever-changing Oscar narrative had shifted, and Mr. Spielberg was portrayed as so desperate that he had to call in the biggest favour of all: "It seemed like one-upmanship," Mr. Pond says.

Sometimes no campaigning is necessary to sink a competitor, as with the torture controversy surrounding Zero Dark Thirty, the well-received tale of the CIA hunt for Osama bin Laden. A film that was once the front-runner in critical accolades stumbled under the weight of Washington politicians' (possibly self-serving) criticism over its portrayal of torture.

But why does the little gold man matter, anyway? Is it all about ego and prestige, or is there something at stake even closer to Hollywood's heart – money, for example? "For some movies, it can make quite a difference at the box office," says Keith Simanton, managing editor of the website Box Office Mojo. It's especially crucial for more obscure movies without huge stars. He points out that The King's Speech made an additional $21-million at the box office after its Oscar win, and 2008's winner, Slumdog Millionaire, tripled its $44-million take.

For movies like Argo, which came out on DVD this week, the windfall would be smaller, but still significant.

If there is money to be made by winning an Oscar, the studios' huge ad expenditures begin to make sense. (Mr. Pond estimates that the makers of Lincoln and Argo have each spent at least $10-million on "for your consideration" notices and other advertising.)

However, even as the Academy attempts to ride herd on cats – control Hollywood producers, that is – the award season gets longer, and voters' mailboxes fill with invitations, entreaties and swag. As one anonymous member of the Academy recently complained to The Hollywood Reporter's Scott Feinberg, "I've gotten books, cookbooks and just about everything short of Lincoln condoms. It's ridiculous."