Roll Out The Red Carpet - It's Oscar Time

LOS ANGELES (AP) - A classic Hollywood cliffhanger will conclude
Sunday's Academy Awards, and organizers hope the suspense of an
up-for-grabs best-picture race will be enough to keep TV audiences
tuned in through the finale.

Hollywood's biggest party has lost some of its luster for
viewers at home over the last decade, with TV ratings on a general
decline and smaller movies that fewer people have seen dominating
key Oscar categories.

Fewer eyeballs on the movies usually translates to fewer
eyeballs on the Oscar ceremony, as the TV audience feels less
vested in the outcome.

This time, though, the best-picture race is as wide open as it
has been in years, lacking the usual front-runner or two that
everyone just knows will end up winning.

Earlier film awards that serve as a dress rehearsal for the
Oscars have been all over the place, their top prizes spread out
among so many different movies that any one of the five nominees
conceivably could walk off with best picture.

"The chatter about this being a wide-open year I think
encourages viewership," said Sid Ganis, president of the Academy
of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. "And it's a diverse year in
terms of the combination of ethnicity and nationality. The films
come from all over the place this year, and lord knows, we have
nominees in all shades and colors."

Five blacks, two Hispanics and an Asian are among the 20 acting
nominees, including best-actor front-runners Forest Whitaker and
supporting-acting favorites Eddie Murphy and Jennifer Hudson.
And the best-picture race presents a notably international
scope, including a road trip on America's byways ("Little Miss
Sunshine"), a classy British drama ("The Queen"), a
Japanese-language war tale ("Letters From Iwo Jima") and a
globe-trotting ensemble story ("Babel").

Unlike the previous two years, this season's best-picture crop
has a $100 million hit going into Oscar night, the
cops-and-mobsters epic "The Departed." The other nominees have
ranged from about $12 million to $60 million at the box office.
Collectively, the five best-picture nominees had taken in a
modest $256 million through last weekend, translating to about 38.5
million moviegoers. That continued a trend over the last three
years in which more intimate films with smaller audiences have
ruled at the Oscars, unlike blockbuster years when 100 million
people or more had seen best-picture contenders.

"There aren't a lot of people cheering on these films.
Unfortunately, the Oscars are being punished for the evolution of
filmmaking and where it is today, with the great movies being made
by independent filmmakers," said Tom O'Neil, a columnist for the
Los Angeles Times' awards site "The great movies
are no longer the studio-packaged blockbusters like they used to
be, like `Rain Man' or even `Gladiator.' The best movies being made
are more art house."

The largest TV audience the Oscar ceremony has ever drawn came
in 1998, when 55 million people tuned in to see
king-of-the-blockbusters "Titanic" crowned best picture. The
number of viewers has been down since, averaging about 40 million
over the last five years.

This season's Oscars lost the chance to have two $100 million
hits in the best-picture mix when the musical "Dreamgirls"
surprisingly missed out on a nomination.

The best musical or comedy winner at the Golden Globes,
"Dreamgirls" had looked like a lock for a best-picture slot, and
many thought it could emerge as a favorite to win.
"Dreamgirls" director Bill Condon certainly was disappointed,
though glad the film led with eight nominations, including acting
slots for Murphy and Hudson.

"We live in this world of so much speculation. You're grateful
for anything you do get, because you're not entitled to any of
this," Condon said. "I'm thrilled so many people in the movie are
nominated. Thrilled for Eddie and Jennifer."
Murphy and Hudson's roles as soul singers are expected to win
them the supporting Oscars, with Helen Mirren as British monarch
Elizabeth II in "The Queen" and Whitaker as Ugandan dictator Idi
Amin in "The Last King of Scotland" the favorites for the
lead-acting prizes.

Perpetual runner-up Martin Scorsese seems a safe bet to finally
win the best-directing Oscar for "The Departed," his return to a
modern crime genre for which he practically wrote the book with
such films as "Taxi Driver" and "Goodfellas."

For the third straight time, the Oscars feature a new host, with
Ellen Degeneres following Chris Rock and Jon Stewart, the masters
of ceremonies the last two years.

The star-studded lineup of Oscar presenters features Tom Cruise,
Gwyneth Paltrow, Tom Hanks and Nicole Kidman, while musical
performers include Beyonce, Melissa Etheridge, Randy Newman and
James Taylor.

The ceremony also will include honorary Oscars for film composer
and five-time nominee Ennio Morricone, ("Cinema Paradiso," "The
Mission," "The Untouchables") and former Paramount studio boss
Sherry Lansing, honored for humanitarian efforts that include her
work with the group Stop Cancer and a variety of charitable causes.

After last year's startling best-picture win for "Crash,"
which beat the odds-on favorite "Brokeback Mountain," just about
anything could happen this time with the big prize.

While "Letters From Iwo Jima" and "The Queen" are solid
contenders, the three films with the most heat from previous awards
shows are "Babel," "The Departed" and "Little Miss Sunshine."
The Oscars have not had this much drama since the 1995 awards,
which were considered a three-way race among "Apollo 13," "Sense
and Sensibility" and eventual best-picture winner "Braveheart,"
O'Neil said.

"It's the one saving grace this Oscar show has, the fact that
it really does deliver the most suspenseful best-picture race we've
seen in 11 years," O'Neil said. "People watch this because it's a
horse race, and the greatest suspense surrounds the most important
Oscar of all. That redeems this Oscar show."