It's that time again, time to pull out the ballots and read the tea leaves and see who's going to take home the trophies at Sunday's 86th Academy Awards.
Will it be "12 Years a Slave"? Leonardo DiCaprio? "Let It Go" from "Frozen"?
Oscar forecasting is a lighthearted parlor game for many and a "who cares" shrug for others. (Go ahead, commenters, let us know how you really feel!)
But to studios, agents, managers and many of the nominees, winning the Oscar is not only first-line-of-the-obituary recognition, but it also means "cold, hard cash," as Oscar winner Wendy Hiller once bluntly put it, in box-office receipts and future contracts.
With that in mind -- and with the possibility of some of this article's readers taking home cold, hard cash for winning their Oscar pools -- here are a few key indicators to follow at the 2014 Oscars Sunday night. Of course, the Oscars being the Oscars, nothing is guaranteed.
What are the best picture front-runners?
There may be nine nominees for best picture, but only three have a good chance of winning, says Tom O'Neil of the awards handicapping site GoldDerby.com: "12 Years a Slave," "Gravity" and "American Hustle." "12 Years" is the favorite among his 30 experts, with "Gravity" second at 10-3 odds and "Hustle" at 50-1. Everything else is 100-1.
The site TheCredits.org agrees. Its social awards season app, DataViz, crunched the numbers based on mentions on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and film-related sites. It determined that "12 Years" has 42% of the online mentions (as of February 24) and "Gravity" is second with 33%.
But, points out Clayton Davis of AwardsCircuit.com, in a year with divisive choices -- and "12 Years," though widely hailed, is not necessarily widely loved -- the preferential voting system for best picture can favor everybody's second choice. That's "Gravity," which also has the benefit of being the people's choice as the highest-grossing film among the nominees.
Film editing is your friend
Of course, best picture is the last category of the night. What are some of the early signs that one of these films has an edge?
The film editing category may seem minor to Oscar viewers, but it often has an outsized role in showcasing best picture winners. O'Neil observes that the best picture has won the editing Oscar more than half the time -- and if you rule out action-oriented flicks such as "Bullitt," "Star Wars" and "The Bourne Ultimatum," it's even more predictive.
This year's editing nominees include all three best picture front-runners along with "Captain Phillips," directed by the handheld-camera-favoring, quick-cutting Paul Greengrass, and "Dallas Buyers Club." "Gravity" is the favorite, says O'Neil, and that could foretell a spacey night. But even more notable will be if "12 Years" or "Hustle" grabs the trophy, since a win would be so unexpected. As for "Phillips," that would simply acknowledge the expertise of Greengrass and editor Christopher Rouse -- who won for "Ultimatum" six years ago.
Pressing the flesh
Though overt Oscar campaigning is frowned upon, there's nothing wrong with showing up at industry functions, saying the right things, posing for pictures and shaking a few hands.
That could make a difference in the best actor category, whose favorites are Matthew McConaughey ("Dallas Buyers Club") and Leonardo DiCaprio ("The Wolf of Wall Street").
Though both have some high-profile wins, they have yet to face off in the same category. (Both won Golden Globes, but McConaughey's was for a drama and DiCaprio's was for comedy.) And when it comes to politicking, DiCaprio has played the game well, says O'Neil, who points out that the "Wolf" star has been making the rounds with humor and class.
"When I look at the list of past winners of best actor, I see movie stars," he says. "There's kind of a veteran glow to it. With Leo being overdue, it's to his advantage -- and he's given the biggest performance of his career in the most talked-about movie of the year."
But McConaughey may have a secret weapon. No, not his extreme weight loss. Try "True Detective" on HBO, which has become an addictive hit.
"(One academy member) told me he's voting for McConaughey because he's addicted to 'True Detective,' " says O'Neil.
"Gravity" is up for several technical awards, including production design, sound editing, sound mixing and visual effects. It's considered the front-runner for most of them. If it falters, it could be a long night for director Alfonso Cuaron and his film.
"If you see 'Gravity' lose some techs, it's indicative that it's not going all the way," says Davis.
A 'Slave' surprise
"12 Years a Slave" has fewer technical nominations but has a number of acting nods: best actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, best supporting actor Michael Fassbender and best supporting actress Lupita Nyong'o. Only Nyong'o is given a strong shot to win -- she's the top pick of GoldDerby's experts -- but if Fassbender and Ejiofor triumph, expect "Slave" to take it all.