A new weekly column talking up the season with bits and pieces from the awards circuit.

“I would love to do the Oscars again,” Chris Rock told me late last year when I asked if he thought he should have been chosen over Neil Patrick Harris to host the 2015 Oscarcast. “I think they got the right guy. Yeah, but it was weird because when you’re thinking of host, you’re thinking of me before Neil Patrick Harris,” Rock joked at the time, while praising Harris, who in the end did not offer up the best time ever as emcee.

I am thrilled Rock is getting another shot to host, and it only took 11 years after the Academy’s first go-round with him in 2005. He got mixed reviews at best, but I thought Pete Hammond badgehe was hilarious — I love edge, and Rock is king of that. As he told me about that hosting gig and the reaction to some of his more controversial jokes, “You know it’s not good weed if you don’t choke.” I am looking forward to him taking a chance and  “choking” quite a bit this time. The fact that he was chosen by new producers Reginald Hudlin and David Hill is hardly surprising: Hudlin has worked with Rock before and he was really the only choice. Simple. One former producer of the Oscar show immediately emailed me: “No surprise here. We predicted it at lunch a few weeks ago.” Indeed we did.

The day afterFilm Title: Straight Outta Compton he was announced as one of Oscar’s two new producers Hudlin tipped his hand when we talked. “The host is someone you have to hang out with for a couple of hours (Ed note: or three or four hours, Reggie). Are you curious what that person is going to say to you or do? We want a host that does that. We want the viewer to have a sense of excitement and a little hint of danger. It is a high-wire act obviously and a lot of folks are ‘I’m not ready for that kind of challenge.’ But we think  there is an exciting list of possibilities that could kill it,” he said then. The top guy on that list got the gig. And let’s face it, it is not a bad move for the Academy which now in addition to  a black president (Cheryl Boone Isaacs) and Oscarcast producer (Hudlin), there is once again a black host.

In a blowback to widespread criticism about last year’s Academy Awards being a largely white affair (including all 20 acting nominees), this is also a year where Spike Lee is being given an Honorary Oscar at next month’s Governors Awards. And if Universal has its way, its N.W.A. biopic, Straight Outta Compton could be showered with nominations: The August box office and critical smash today became the first For Your Consideration screener to be sent by a major studio to Academy voters (I just got mine too), and the studio has also become the first out of the box with a major print and online campaign using the tagline “We’ve Got Something To Say” aimed at directly capturing the attention of those voters. That aforementioned “former Oscar producer” is one Academy member who told me it remains their favorite film this year, but certainly not the only one I have heard that sentiment from. Clearly Universal, which may not have originally planned this big a campaign, has gotten that message as well.

And speaking of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and its diversity efforts, I was very pleased to have been asked by the Academy to The Oscars logo 1participate in their first-ever Careers In Film Summit, an all-day event Saturday at its Samuel Goldwyn Theatre in Beverly Hills designed to inspire and encourage students (largely minorities) from the LA Unified School District about opportunities in the film business. It was a lot of fun and seemed to be a roaring success judging by the turnout and the enthusiasm of the students (with many swarming us afterwards). I was on a marketing and distribution panel giving the perspective of a film critic. Executives from Participant Media, AMC Theatres and All Def Digital were also on the panel. Make this an annual event, Academy.

SPIELBERG, WHITEY BULGER, ‘BIG SHORT’ MAKE A PLAY FOR VOTERS

Later that night at the same theater, Academy members took over every single seat to see the official screening of Steven Spielberg’s truly great Bridge Of Spies (at least in the opinion of this “over-caffeinated” critic). It was clearly a must-see and drew a great response. Do you know how I know that?  The first email I got about the screening came from someone involved with a rival contender who said “AMPAS loved Bridge Of Spies. It was packed and there was lots of applause. A good showing.” Usually you only hear that from people pushing their own films, not the enemy’s product. That’s a good sign that this movie — one of the last for the partnership between DreamWorks and Disney — could be a major Oscar player. Of course SpielbergBridge Of Spies is often in the game but you can tell he senses this one could go far. He was there for the Q&A following the screening and the next day did the same thing with moderator Paul Thomas Anderson after an untitledequally packed DGA screening where members lined up as early as 10 AM for a 1PM screening. It was full by 11:30 AM so they went into an overflow house. There was a standing ovation at the end for the director-centric talk, with Anderson expressing surprise that a film as logistically complex as Bridge was shot in only 59 days. Star Tom Hanks wasn’t around for any of this as he is in New York shooting Clint Eastwood’s Sully Sullenberger biopic. That’s a reason he also wasn’t at the Sherman Oaks Arclight on Tuesday night where Brian Grazer and Ron Howard took their latest Hanks-starring Dan Brown movie, Inferno, out for a test screening.

Warner Bros, which benefited strongly last awards season with Eastwood’s massive hit American Sniper, is out to keep this year’s September hopeful Black Mass alive in the minds of press and awards voters, holding a late-afternoon reception at the Four Seasons with co-star Julianne Nicholson, director Scott Cooper, producer John Lesher and some key below-the-liners. Cooper told me he just got back from Europe with the Whitey Bulger biopic and was so happy they “got” the movie.

“I tend to make films people either love or don’t love so much. Over there they really seemed to love myblack mass 2 films, ” he said, joking that if it all goes downhill for him in the U.S. he is ready to become a European filmmaker. Cooper says he actually steers clear of reading anything about his movies, good or bad. I asked Lesher, who won an Oscar earlier this year for producing Birdman, whether Bulger had seen the film yet.  “I understand in prison they get use of WiFi and that sort of thing for an hour a day, so I am willing to bet he will eventually find a way,” he said.

Paramount, which until recently looked to be out of the running this year, is really ramping up and pulled an unusual strategy by previewing their late-blooming entry The Big Short (December 11 release) for an audience that was heavy with Academy members. Press, pundits and industry gadflys on the other hand have to wait until it closes AFI Fest on November 12. Usually Academy members aren’t the first crowd to see it, but several I talked to who did were raving — particularly about the performances of Steve Carell (said to knock it out of the park) and Christian Bale bigshottrailerin the film that also stars Ryan Gosling and Brad Pitt and was directed by Adam McKay. I guess the big question with an ensemble effort like this one is who is lead and who is support? Or are they all support or all lead? I couldn’t get a consensus except to say Paramount may have a very big, apple-cart-upsetting deal with Big Short. That doesn’t mean the studio has forgotten Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation; it sent out an email to members of the Broadcast Film  Critics Association notifying them the DVD is on the way , pointing out this: “We are incredibly proud of this film, which proves thatMI5 Mission Impossible Rogue Nation posterjpg well made, entertaining movies happen all year round – not just during the ‘season’.” They will be campaigning this summer hit in all categories even though sequels to big blockbusters rarely get taken seriously by Oscar, even with a 93% Fresh score at Rotten Tomatoes and $675 million at the box office as Par notes.

LUNCHING WITH GWYNETH AND MOM

The lunches and dinners aimed at luring Oscar voters continue to multiply. Michael Shannon got a dinner in his honor for his performance in 99 Homes at AOC on Sunday night that was thrown by new distributor Broad Green Pictures. Reaction to the film was strong from Academy members who were invited to the movie before the sitdown meal, even if the box office likely isn’t going to hit even $2 million for the powerful film that, like The Big Short, is set during and around the 2008 financial meltdown (in this case, Shannon plays a Gwyneth and Blythe Dannershifty real estate broker who evicts people). Hopefully the film’s quick fade from theaters won’t affect this great actor’s chances at a truly deserved Supporting nomination. I am constantly astounded when I go to these events how little Oscar voters have really seen, in some cases nothing (except of course The Big Short, thanks to Paramount). Thank God for screeners.

I sat next to Gwyneth Paltrow on Tuesday at a Craig’s Restaurant lunch she hosted to help bring attention to her mother Blythe Danner and her great turn in the May release I’ll See You In My Dreams. Paltrow is one of those who have yet to see much of anything — too busy being a mom. But she gave a touching speech in tribute to her mom that certainly warmed the room packed with Oscar voters and colleagues (it was the biggest turnout I have seen for one of these so far this year).

Paltrow told me she gets incredibly nervous whenever she has to do any public speaking but you wouldn’t know it. When she came over to our table Danner was still wiping tears from her eyes. As Paltrow says this is the first leading role in a movie ever for the veteran actress who won critical acclaim during its debut at the Sundance Film Festival. Now Bleecker Street is launching an Oscar campaign on her behalf; the screener was the very first sent this year.

Both Danner and Shannon received nominations this morning for the Gotham Awards, a largely quirky list that was selected by a handful of esoteric critics. But they are deserving of any recognition they can get that might look good in an ad aiming to convince voters to check out their movies. If they are good for nothing else, niche awards like these can still shine a light on deserving people.