The Oscar Race: Ladies And Gents, Place Your Bets

Historically speaking, "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" doesn't stand a hobbit's chance in Mordor of winning this year's best-picture Oscar. No fantasy film has ever won, nor has the third part of a trilogy. (Gosh. Not even "The Godfather: Part III"?) And only two films that grossed more than $300 million domestically ("Forrest Gump" and "Titanic") have snagged the top prize. The conventional wisdom is that if a film is too successful, voters think it's already been rewarded--and the first two "Rings" installments have raked in more than $650 million combined. "People in this town get sick of a winner," says one Academy member and longtime industry watcher. "They prefer underdogs."

The paradox is that Peter Jackson's epic series is the underdog--a daring long shot taken years ago by New Line, which gave a $300 million-plus trilogy to a largely unproven director, putting the future of the indie studio in Jackson's hands. "It was a truly gutsy, ballsy, old-Hollywood decision," says one rival exec. "They took the biggest risk you could possibly take: financial ruin, shutting the f---ing studio down."

That backstory--as well as the quality of the films--has made "The Return of the King" the early front runner in the Oscar race, even before Academy members have seen it. "There's an overwhelming affection for it in the industry," the rival exec says. "So even though we tend not to root for one another, and we're pushing our own movies, we're actually rooting for it to win." But it won't be an easy race. With two months before the nominations are announced, the field is full of likely contenders. The Hollywood consensus is that Clint Eastwood's "Mystic River" is the most certain second nominee. The third is Anthony Minghella's "Cold Mountain." Though Miramax hasn't started screening the movie, it's never a good idea to bet against Miramax heads Harvey and Bob Weinstein. "We're all just followers in their little game," says another rival studio source. "And I say that with a fond, and annoyed, tip of the hat."

That leaves two slots for seven other viable nominees. Three are big-studio pictures: Peter Weir's "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World," Gary Ross's "Seabiscuit" and "The Last Samurai," starring Tom Cruise. But it's unlikely the Academy will nominate so many epics, regardless of merit. "It's usually one," says a studio exec. "And that's going to be 'Lord of the Rings'." If he's right, one or two more-intimate films could sneak in. Jim Sheridan's heartfelt "In America," about an Irish family in 1980s Manhattan, is playing well at Academy screenings, and early response to "Big Fish," Tim Burton's poignant father-son tale, has been very positive. Sofia Coppola's poetic "Lost in Translation" generated early buzz, but now seems a better bet for acting and directing nominations. And while DreamWorks' "House of Sand and Fog," from first-time director Vadim Perelman, is one of the most impressive debuts since "American Beauty," it may be just too bleak.

"Academy members vote for posterity," says one Oscar voter. "It's got to be something they'll be proud to see on cable three years from now." If that's really the criterion, Jackson may go home on Oscar night a happy man.