The first award screeners are starting to arrive in voter mail boxes. The first ones mailed include Chris Weitz's L.A. illegal immigrant drama A Better Life (out on Summit DVD), starring well-reviewed Mexican actor Demian Bichir in a moving performance, and Sony Pictures' Classics' Take Shelter (in its second week of limited release), starring well-praised Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain. Both were box office disappointments. Both need the extra boost of guild and year-end critic support to gain traction, so mailing early screeners was a smart move.
As the year progresses, higher profile titles will rise to the top of voter screener piles, and by the holidays, which is peak Academy viewing time, small titles can get buried and overlooked. SPC has a strong track record at pushing relative unknowns such as Amy Adams (June Bug) to nominations. Take Shelter is one of several Sundance debuts wearing Oscar hopes on its sleeve.
Screeners are irrelevant in the foreign Oscar race; submissions have already started to be shown to Academy members, who have to sign in to a certain number of screenings in order to vote in that category. So far Joseph Cedar's Footnote (Israel, SPC) and Aki Kaurismaki's Le Havre (Finland, Janus) have played relatively well.