And the first Academy Awards screeners are…

If you’re hoping Michael Shannon lands a best actor nomination for “Take Shelter,” one of the most critically acclaimed films of the year, you might be worried.  

Shannon has been busy shooting Zack Snyder’s “Man of Steel” and has been able to do much publicity for the flick.  A busy Sony Classics didn’t have a great launch for “Shelter” last month as it has effectively tanked on the art house box office grossing just $272,521 after expanding to 24 theaters last weekend.  That’s a puzzlingly low $4,846 per screen,  especially for a drama that has a fantastic 85 grade on Metacritic and 93% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.  Well someone at Classics must have realized it would be a long and slow sell, because they smartly pushed “Shelter” to the front of the Academy member screening cue.

“Take Shelter” made it out of the gate first arriving in Academy members mailboxes over the weekend. This follows Classics sending out two other Sundance alums, “Animal Kingdom” and “Mother and Child,” as the first screeners in 2010.  That mailing was generally credited with helping get supporting actress Jacki Weaver from “Kingdom” a Golden Globe and eventual Academy Award nomination (although the Academy’s Aussie contingent and critic’s groups helped too).  In 2008, Roadside Attractions launched “Frozen River” before its competitors which was seen as sparking Melissa Leo’s first nomination for best actress.  The best actor field is somewhat competitive this season, but not impossible to break into.  Shannon, a previous supporting nominee for “Revolutionary Road,” could get a major assist in the best actor race with Classics move.

Also arriving within hours or a day of “Shelter” for most members was Summit Entertainment’s “A Better Life.”  The studio believes it might have something with actor Demian Bichir in the best actor race, but we’re not convinced it isn’t just an Indie Spirit Awards play.*

*Correction: This actually arrived over Labor Day weekend and I was misinformed.  Obviously, it didn’t create much initial buzz.

Most studios are increasingly strategic and secretive about when and where their screeners will be released, but don’t be surprised if Searchlight has “Win Win” (a big original screenplay contender) and “The Tree of Life” (now out on DVD and Blu-ray) before Thanksgiving.  Weinstein Company is making screeners a priority this year (sooner rather than later) and Paramount may distribute “Rango,” “Super 8” and “Like Crazy” by mid-November (also in time for the Thanksgiving break).

The Academy has loosened the rules this year around studio screenings and events in hopes that members will watch more films on the big screen.  Whether that really works beyond a certain base remains to be seen (will some members really trek from Malibu, the Palisades or the top of the hills for multiple shindigs?).  Needless to say, screeners are here to stay.

For year round entertainment coverage and awards season news follow @HitFixGregory on Twitter.