LOS ANGELES – 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.
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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 TheEnvelope.com. "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."