Seven weeks from today Oscar nominating ballots will be in the hands of Academy voters. Seven weeks!  No wonder Academy campaigners already seem stressed and overheated about the race. With the Acad moving to electronic voting and shifting the nominating balloting period 10 days earlier than normal to the holiday corridor of Dec 17 thru Jan 3 this has become the most truncated race in memory, as least as far as those all important nominations are concerned. Noms will be announced on January 10th. That’s two weeks earlier than last year and the same day as the Broadcast Film Critics Association recently announced they would hand out their precursor awards this year and just three days before the Golden Globes. The Academy’s surprise move even forced the Director’s Guild Of America to move up the date of their own nominations announcement by two days to January 8th as everyone scrambles to maintain their piece of the pie and Oscar consultants try to figure out ways to get their movies seen before those ballots are in voters hands.

Speaking of the DGA, their normally non-controversial membership screening program is suddenly causing waves and concern among some awards campaign consultants who got the Guild’s November screening schedule and felt it was showing favoritism to one big contender over all the others. The Guild normally has one official screening for members in  LA, NY, SF, DC and Chicago for most movies. The all-important November schedule does list just one official Guild-sanctioned showing for such contenders as Hitchcock, The Life Of Pi, The Sessions, Silver Linings Playbook, Anna Karenina and Skyfall among other buzzed-titles, with all but the latter two featuring a Q&A with its director. Disney/Dreamworks’ Lincoln though has been given two prime back-to-back official screenings at 3 and 7 PM on Saturday November 10th featuring a Steven Spielberg Q&A following the first one. One studio rep with contenders this year said they had never heard of this happening before and at least one other called the DGA to question them about it. Yet another veteran consultant I contacted who has a film scheduled for November also said it was the first time they had heard of this DGA policy and was upset about the perceived favoritism.

The guild for its part says it is definitely not playing favorites in the awards race and that this policy is actually nothing new. A spokesperson told me that although Lincoln was the only film double-playing in November, there are at least two or three others that will do the same in December (no specific titles were divulged) and that overall approximately 18 films in 2012 will have had double-plays, 14 in 2011 and 12 in 2010. They said they decide internally which films to screen twice based on “projected attendance” and that it has no bearing on awards potential. In fact the spokesperson notes that only one film in the last two awards seasons that had the additional screening even made the list of DGA nominees. A Dreamworks source told me they had “no idea” the DGA was running Lincoln twice and that it was strictly the Guild’s decision and they were not involved in it. Certainly it makes sense from the DGA’s standpoint. Spielberg is a 10-time DGA award nominee, 3-time winner and recipient of the Guild’s Lifetime Achievement honor.

But the concern about something like an extra guild screening just shows the tension already out there about a race that is heating up early and with less time to get those all-important voters in to see your film. Expect it to continue like this for the next four months, and maybe especially during the normally quiet holidays because with the condensed voting period there won’t be much of a holiday break at all in the Oscar game this year. Even Thanksgiving weekend will be used in a bigger way than usual to get late-breaking films seen. Universal, for one, plans to have multiple screenings and Q&As for key voting groups of their December 25th release Les Miserables that weekend and other studios plan similar strategies to get their movies out front for Academy and guild voters. DVD screeners have so far been slow to land in Academy mailboxes with only a handful of smaller titles delivered so far. That process should really heat up quickly, even for big studio titles that fear piracy. This year they will just have to get them all out there in the next seven weeks (some like Les Miserables even before they open) or risk falling behind.