The Academy Of Motion Picture Arts & Science’s official private weekend screenings for voting members are generally a must-stop for serious Oscar contenders, not only to show the films to voters all at once but also to gauge reaction both audibly during the film and by buzz in the lobby and restrooms after. After complaints about the quality of some the films shown, the Academy last year revamped the committee that chooses them and now seems much more savvy about booking movies that aren’t wasting members’ time – or so they’d like to think. While some fluff still gets screened, the cinematic menu this time of year turns to a heavy sked of Oscar prospects.

Not everything gets booked because there are basically just four slots each weekend: two matinees and two evening shows. But of the 10 pictures nominated last year, only The Blind Side, which seemed to catch even Warner Bros by surprise, did not play at one of these screenings.

In terms of this year’s Oscar contenders, it was a big weekend for Ben Affleck’s The Town (which he directed and co-wrote and stars in for Warner Bros and Legendary Pictures) which topped the weekend box office with nearly $24 million. That was a bit of a surprise, particularly for an adult-skewing drama (albeit one with a LOT of action in it). Then again, it had a 94% fresh critical rating on Rotten Tomatoes. But what was really significant awards-wise is that I hear it had a smash screening at the Academy’s Samuel Goldwyn Theatre in Beverly Hills on Saturday night. So you have a film right out of the gate among Fall releases that looks to be a serious awards prospect.

Even though the movie’s official Academy screening was skedded just as Yom Kippur was ending, the turnout was larger than normal and the response at the end very enthusiastic. A 2-time Oscar winner who frequently attends these private weekend screenings for voting members told me, “There was big loud applause at the end credits — and that’s something I rarely see at the Academy.” He went on to praise the film as easily one of the best he has seen there in some time (and, interestingly, he’s not impressed with much of the 2010 output so far). He singled out Affleck’s direction and the acting ensemble for particular kudos. Two other Academy members who saw the film at non-Academy screenings told me the same thing. So Warners could have another contender like The Town producer Graham King’s The Departed (2006) which the studio launched in early fall in low-key, almost non-existent, Oscar campaign mode and craftily rode all the way to Best Picture glory.

Never Let Me Go, Jack Goes Boating, and Catfish, also unspooled at the Academy this weekend. Upcoming films next Saturday and Sunday are Oliver Stone’s Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, Woody Allen’s You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger, Legends Of The Guardian: The Owls Of Ga’Hoole, and Oscar-winner Davis Guggenheim’s education documentary Waiting For Superman.

October starts out with a biggie, The Social Network on the 2nd, and the month will also feature high profile hopefuls like Tamara Drewe, Secretariat, Conviction, Hereafter, Company Men, Let Me In, Stone, and Nowhere Boy. Mixed in are documentaries looking for attention like Inside Job, 100 Voices: A Journey Home, Sicilian Girl, and Something’s Gonna Live, although the latter two have already come and gone in local theatres.

A 2008 Tribeca Film Festival title, 2-time Oscar nominee Bill Plympton’s little known feature toon, Idiots And Angels will play on Halloween. (Perhaps hoping to drum up some buzz for a run at Animated feature?) There will also be purely commercial titles such as You Again, Easy A, Red, and Life As We Know It thrown into the mix for members who just want to go to something that isn’t overtly being “positioned” for the season.

Finally, The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest, the third and final entry in Sweden’s Lizbeth Salander trilogy will play at the Goldwyn on October 24th. It’s significant because neither of the first two films, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and The Girl Who Played With Fire, screened for the Academy. Now with some Oscar buzz brewing for star Noomi Rapace, the films’ distributor Music Box clearly is seeing the value of getting her exposure in front of these voters even though the only one of the 3 pics likely eligible for an Oscar will be Dragon Tattoo since the latter two, including Hornet’s Nest, were made originally for Swedish television.