Just as preparation for the New Year's Day Rose Parade each year begins on Jan. 2, handicapping for this year's Oscars has been under way since the day after "Chicago" won the top statue last year. It has gone through normal peaks and valleys of intensity -- with the spikes pegged to the release of pictures that are generally regarded as "Oscar-worthy."
The awards season guessing game actually takes off in late November and early December, but you can't really get enough information to make an informed guess about Oscar outcomes until after the various Hollywood guilds -- producers, directors, writers and actors -- have had their say. Now, with less than one week before Oscars night, Hollywood touts have collected just about all the intelligence there is on the subject, and it's time for odds makers, office pool players and the entertainment press to lock in their guesses.
Sunday night is shaping up as a very good night for "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King."
The third installment of writer-director Peter Jackson's adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's classic literary work is a heavy favorite to win the Best Picture Oscar. It's already won most of the major best picture awards, including the Golden Globe and the Producers Guild of America's Darryl F. Zanuck Producer of the Year Award.
The PGA Award has been a fairly reliable indicator of Oscar gold since it was established in 1989. Of the 14 PGA winners, 10 have gone on to win the Academy Award for Best Picture.
John Rhys-Davies -- who plays the short but fierce warrior Gimli in "The Return of the King" -- spoke bluntly with reporters backstage at the SAG Awards on Sunday.
"I hope you will not take this for immodesty, but we deserve to win," said the actor. "This film deserves every award it can get."
Jackson looks good for the directing Oscar, after winning the feature film-directing prize at the Director Guild of America Awards.
Since the DGA started handing out prizes for top feature directors in 1948, the winner has gone on to take the Oscar every year but six. That historical trend seems to be weakening a bit, however, as half of the six exceptions have occurred in recent years.
Last year, DGA winner Rob Marshall ("Chicago") kept his seat as Roman Polanski's name was called at the Oscars for "The Pianist." In 2000, DGA winner Ang Lee ("Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon") lost out to Steven Soderbergh for "Traffic." In 1995, DGA winner Ron Howard ("Apollo 13") watched Mel Gibson take the directing Oscar for "Braveheart."
The Writers Guild of America Awards have not tended to shed much light on eventual Oscar winning screenplays.
Last year, neither of the WGA winners -- Michael Moore ("Bowling for Columbine") or David Hare ("The Hours") -- went on to win a screenwriting Oscar. In 2001, Akiva Goldsman won both prizes for "A Beautiful Mind" and Julian Fellowes doubled up for "Gosford Park." Prior to that, you have to go back to 1996 to find the last time that both WGA winners went on to win Oscars.
SAG's 10-year track record probably does not qualify as a historical trend when compared against the older, more-established Hollywood awards, but if Oscar voters run to form, Johnny Depp and Charlize Theron have to be considered favorites to win the top acting prizes on Sunday.
Six of the past nine winners of SAG's prize for male actor in a lead role went on to win the Best Actor Oscar. A seventh -- Benicio Del Toro -- went on to win the Supporting Actor Oscar. However two of the three exceptions occurred within the past three years, so one wonders how reliable a predictor the SAG Award is.
Also, Depp's prospects are likely to be hurt by the academy's well-known aversion to comic performances, such as the one he turned in in "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl." Many observers still regard Sean Penn as the most likely Best Actor winner for "Mystic River."
Six of SAG's nine previous female leading actor winners went on to take the Best Actress Oscar -- including Halle Berry, who was a surprise SAG winner two years ago and went on to take the Oscar for "Monster's Ball." Theron's risk-taking performance in "Monster" is the kind of work academy voters have displayed a tendency to reward.
The SAG Award for outstanding cast -- the guild's rough equivalent of a best picture award -- has not been a reliable predictor of Best Picture Oscar gold. Out of eight previous winners at the SAG Awards -- the guild did not present an ensemble award in its first year -- only three have gone on to the top Oscar.
Only procrastinating Oscar voters are likely to be influenced by the SAG Award results, since voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences are obligated to return their completed final Oscar ballots by 5 p.m. PST Tuesday.