"Your categories are being presented in a completely different way. Heads up," Ganis told actors. "Cinematographers, editors, composers. All of you guys. You're in for a big surprise."
Ganis did not elaborate, in keeping with Oscar organizers' efforts to maintain secrecy about the show, including the names of awards presenters.
While academy officials kept mum, nominees had plenty to say as a mix of first-time contenders and old hands turned up at a news conference before the luncheon.
Going zero-for-five on her previous Oscar nominations, best-actress contender Kate Winslet said the experience has given her a "good losing face." Yet considering her competition this time -- including Meryl Streep with a record 15 nominations -- Winslet said she felt the honor and intensity even more this time.
"I get very emotional about these things, I discover. I think I'm not cut out for this. I'm too emotional to lose, and I'm too emotional to win," said Winslet, nominated for her role as a former concentration-camp guard in "The Reader."
"I sort of wish there was some lessons in how to cope with awards seasons, even though I've gone through it so many times before. It always feels like the first time."
While Winslet has become a perpetual nominee, Robert Downey Jr. has not been up for an Oscar in 16 years, since he earned a best-actor slot for the title role in "Chaplin."
Downey found irony in his supporting-actor nomination for "Tropic Thunder," in which he's cast as an obsessed actor who undergoes a medical procedure to darken his skin to play a black soldier.
"The funny thing is, I was playing an Oscar-crazed weirdo whose every motivation was somehow geared toward accolades," Downey said.
Downey is back on top in Hollywood after years of substance-abuse problems. Another Hollywood reclamation project, Mickey Rourke, has a best-actor nomination for "The Wrestler," playing a former ring star with a fresh shot at glory.
The story mirrors the real life of Rourke, who squandered his early promise with bad behavior off-screen.
"I was out of work for about 14 years," Rourke said, adding that his biggest surprise this awards season was "the fact that so many years went by and I got a second chance."
Penelope Cruz -- earning her second Oscar nomination, this one for supporting actress as a volatile artist in "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" -- said winning would be great, but she simply wants to cherish the whole Oscar ride.
"I am so happy to be part of a group of people that can work, that can make a living out of this profession that I've loved so much since I was a little girl, that I really don't want to obsess about winning," Cruz said.
Oscar newcomer Melissa Leo, a best-actress nominee for her role as a destitute mom who turns to crime in the border-smuggling drama "Frozen River," said she never gave a thought about competing for an Academy Award.
"I'm an actor. I think about what the next job is. I think about what my character is. I think about what my director's needs are. I don't dream about this. So it's a dream I have not yet dared to dream," Leo said. "Win, lose or draw come the 22nd, I've gotten more than I ever dreamt of."
Frank Langella, a first-time nominee with an acclaimed stage background, said his Oscar nomination as Richard Nixon in "Frost/Nixon" was a career high-point but that it would not alter his career.
"I don't really think that I'm suddenly going to turn into one of those actors who makes millions and millions of dollars and stars in films holding a gun," said Langella, who reprised the role he originated on stage alongside co-star Michael Sheen. "I'm very lucky that I can continue to work on the stage almost any time I want. I think I'll just continue along apace."
Supporting-actress contender Viola Davis summed up what it feels like to be a first-time nominee having lunch with such Oscar veterans as Winslet, Downey, Cruz and Sean Penn.
"This is probably a morbid metaphor. People say if you're in a major accident and your whole life flashes before you, and of course, it's always all the important moments," said Davis, nominated for playing a mother whose son may have been abused by a priest in "Doubt." "This would be one of the moments that would flash."