The 2007 Oscars were held on Feb. 25, which means the studios started thinking about the 2008 Oscars right around Feb. 26. But all that thinking -- the strategizing, the planning, the conniving -- didn't go public until this week. Now the Los Angeles Timesreports that Fox Searchlight has fired the first shot in the upcoming Academy Awards battle by sending screeners of three of its biggest contenders to the people who vote for the Oscars and Golden Globes.

Once,Waitress, and The Namesake are the titles, and DVD copies of them arrived today on the desks of everyone in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (that's the Oscars) and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (that's the Golden Globes).

In case you didn't notice, it's barely September. Studios usually don't start sending screeners out until November. So why the hurry? Well, Fox Searchlight struck gold last year with Little Miss Sunshine, which opened in July (not typically an Oscar-friendly month) and went on to earn four Academy Award nominations and one Golden Globe nod. The studio credits that at least partially to its early screeners -- the film went out to voters in early October -- and figured what they heck, let's try it again.

It might work, too. Once and Waitress both had their U.S. premieres at Sundance in January, earning ecstatic reviews from critics and festival-goers alike. More acclaim followed when they were released theatrically in May. I haven't talked to anyone who's seen either film who didn't at least like them, if not love them. Personally, I adore Waitress more than anything I've seen all year, and I liked Once quite a bit.

The Namesake, on the other hand, hasn't exactly been setting the world on fire since its bow at Telluride a year ago. You don't hear people talking about it nearly as much as they do the other two. Yet it's quietly built up credibility, currently scoring an impressive 85 percent at Rotten Tomatoes. (Waitress is at 88 and Once has a whopping 97!)

But that raises a question: If the movies are so good, does Fox Searchlight really need to send out screeners this early? The answer is probably yes. Releasing Oscar-friendly movies in November and December, when voters are more likely to remember them, is commonly understood as being a wise, even necessary strategy. These three films all came out in the first half of the year, and none of them were financial blockbusters. There's a good chance that voters haven't seen them. So it makes sense to give them the opportunity now, before they get inundated with dozens of other contenders. In Hollywood, the cream doesn't necessarily rise to the top. Sometimes it needs a little push.