You’ve got to feel for Nadine Labaki. For months ahead of the Toronto Film Festival, industry pundits have been eyeing up the fest’s lone mentionable prize—the Audience Award—as some kind of mystical key with the power to unlock the opaque maze of this year’s Best Picture Oscar race; a maze, thus far, with no appreciable entry or exit points.

While allowing for the general excitability of industry pundits, recent Toronto outcomes have justified such dependency: with the last three Audience Awards having gone to “The King’s Speech,” “Precious” and “Slumdog Millionaire,” there was reason enough to question whether AMPAS had somehow bought up the festival’s entire ticket count.

Determined by averages rather than argument, audience awards are traditionally the ugly sisters of fest honors: “Who cares what the audience likes?,” a publicist once asked me. “Audiences rate Martin Lawrence too.” Yet the Toronto crowd’s eerie middlebrow prescience in recent years has elevated that otherwise meaningless prize to a point where it matters to the Oscar race more than any far more prestigious juried festival trophy. What use is a Palme d’Or, one might ask, if the film doesn’t play with the Canucks? So you can’t blame Oscar-watchers—who enjoy uncertainty only as long as we don’t risk looking like dolts—for waiting on a sanctioned frontrunner in this fashion. I confess I voiced a bet as early as May on “The Artist” taking the award en route to a Best Picture lead; such are the dense yet trivial hypotheses this game forces us into.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying that poor Labaki could be forgiven for thinking she had it made when her latest film emerged as the surprise Audience Award champ last week. Ta-ta, “The Artist.” Adios, “The Descendants.” It was nice knowing y’all. Your new Best Picture frontrunner, ladies and gentlemen, is “Where Do We Go Now?,” a Lebanese feminist comedy with musical elements, about a group of local women negotiating peace between warring Christian and Muslim factions in their village. It’s inspiring! It’s important! It’s Lebanese! Everything Academy voters love, obviously, and I’m astonished that nobody clocked it as a Best Picture heavy until now. The film premiered four months ago at Cannes, for Chrissakes. How were we caught napping like this?

So the usual logic would dictate, at least. So imagine how crestfallen Labaki – a fine filmmaker whose previous feature “Caramel” already had me anticipating her latest, with or without festival hardware – must have felt when, on cruising the Oscar blogs the morning after her Toronto coup, “Where Do We Go Now?” had penetrated not a single prognosticator’s Best Picture sheet. So much expectation built around a single award, and all it takes is a few subtitles (coupled with a few cries of “Huh?!”) to bring us right back where we started. Where do we go now, indeed.

The moral of this admittedly rather disingenuous little fable is that the festival circuit is less transparent in its creation and elevation of hits than we’d like to believe. For every seemingly out-of-nowhere sleeper that captures festivalgoers’ imaginations before going on to broader critical, commercial and awards success, there’s a certain amount of stage management behind it – or, in many cases, an existing festival footprint that lends a certain level of pre-ordainment to the film.

“The Artist” could charm audiences every bit as effectively as it has at every festival it’s played since the spring, but would we be talking about it as an Oscar player if Thierry Fremaux hadn’t promoted it to the Cannes Competition strand at the last minute? “A Separation” has widely been hailed as one of the breakout stories of the Telluride-Toronto phase—it’s unenviably become many pundits’ default Best Foreign Language Film pick, while I’ve ventured a Best Original Screenplay prediction in my latest picks (which will be live when we figure out our contenders/predictions scenario)—but that progress was enabled by its quiet but emphatic victory at February’s Berlinale, a festival few American journalists pay much mind, and even fewer attend.

Spare a thought for Berlin fest director Dieter Kosslick: after years of indifferently received competition films, he lands a winner that may well outdo those from Cannes and Venice for universal critical acclaim, and still gets only a partial credit. Venice head Marco Mueller can buy him a commiseratory drink – how many people remember that “The Hurt Locker”’s long, protracted journey to the Oscar podium began at the Lido a year and a half before Oscar night?

And that’s not counting festival hits that come with built-in brand appeal: I was amused to read one columnist describing Alexander Payne’s well-received family drama “The Descendants” as one of the “discoveries” of Toronto. How can you “discover” an Alexander Payne film when it comes served on a bed of familiar auteur cachet and great expectations?

A festival stamp, even without attached awards, is a nice badge of honor for such pre-advantaged films, but it’s not mandatory: eyebrows are sometimes raised when a big-name autumn title with apparent high-end adult appeal chooses to bypass the festival circuit entirely, but recent Oscar successes for Clint Eastwood (“Million Dollar Baby”) and Martin Scorsese (“The Departed”) prove that festival training wheels aren’t a prerequisite for studios confident that their film has the goods. (Jason Reitman is planning a similar tack with “Young Adult,” perhaps burned by accusations that Oscar underperformer “Up in the Air” overplayed its festival-hit hand.)

In the past decade, only half the eventual Best Picture winners made their first appearance at a festival – three of them at Toronto, with one apiece for Cannes and Venice – and all five of them were the kind of independent productions Academy voters have obviously sympathized with of late. The other five (including, in addition to the aforementioned Scorsese and Eastwood films, “A Beautiful Mind,” “Chicago” and “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King”) are the kind of mainstream-oriented, often star-driven entertainments AMPAS used to habitually favor – and that the recent, partially reversed move to ten Best Picture nominees seemed designed to encourage once more.

This observation says little that isn’t already obvious: that smaller films need festival exposure more than bigger ones, that Oscar inclinations switch over relatively narrow time brackets and that, whatever its origins, the film has to capture voters’ imaginations, not just tick their boxes. All the same, it’s tempting to contemplate whether the relative scarcity of festival-anointed Best Picture frontrunners this year forecast another straight-to-theaters studio winner. “The Help,” anyone?

See, already I’m engaging in the kind of tortuously overthought punditry that opens the floor for just about any outcome. Welcome to The Long Shot, where I’ll try to alternately excavate, dismiss and revive each one of them in the five months leading to Oscar night. Don’t take your eye off the prize just yet, Ms. Labaki.