LOS ANGELES, U.S - Hollywood was on tenterhooks on Monday as the countdown to the unveiling of nominees for the 80th Academy Awards began, with experts predicting a wide open battle for the Oscars' best picture prize.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was preparing to go into lockdown at its Beverly Hills headquarters, where the nominations for this year's awards will be revealed at 5:38 am (7.38pm Singapore time) on Tuesday.
Awards season watchers say a crop of dark or offbeat films have made this year's battle for the most famous gold statuettes in show business, which will be handed out on Feb 24, one of the hardest to call in years.
The early front-runner for the coveted best picture prize is Joel and Ethan Coen's 'No Country for Old Men,' a bleak thriller about the murderous forces unleashed when a drug deal on the US-Mexico border goes wrong.
However the film, which has won a string of critics prizes during awards season, was overlooked for the best picture prize at the Golden Globes on Jan 13, with the Hollywood Foreign Press Association instead choosing to honour period drama 'Atonement.'
Tom O'Neil, of Los Angeles Times awards blog theenvelope.com, said 'No Country for Old Men,' the powerful drama 'There Will Be Blood' and low-budget comedy 'Juno' were likely to be among the five best picture nominees.
But less certain was the identity of the other two nominees with 'Atonement,' 'The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,' 'American Gangster,' 'Into the Wild,' 'Michael Clayton,' and 'Sweeney Todd' all possible contenders.
There was a slim chance that the Golden Globes' two best picture winners 'Atonement' and musical 'Sweeney Todd' may both fail to get nominated.
'If that happens it will be the first time ever that one of the two best picture winners at the Globes did not translate into an Oscar,' O'Neil said. 'That would be shocking.'
In the acting awards, clear front-runners have emerged in most categories, with Daniel Day-Lewis the best actor favourite for his performance as a tyrannical oil prospector in Paul Thomas Anderson's 'There Will Be Blood.'
The best actress front-runners are tipped to be France's Marion Cotillard for her startling portrayal of tragic chanteuse Edith Piaf in 'La Vie En Rose' and British veteran Julie Christie for playing an Alzheimer's sufferer in 'Away from Her.'
In the best supporting actor category, Javier Bardem is considered a lock for his role as a psychopathic hitman in 'No Country for Old Men' while Australian Cate Blanchett is fresh from a Golden Globe for her gender-bending performance as Bob Dylan in 'I'm Not There.'
The build-up to the Oscars has been dominated this year by concerns that Tinseltown's biggest night of the year may be disrupted by picket lines set up by writers who have been striking since November.
Actors vowed to steer clear of the Golden Globes after the Writer's Guild of America vowed to set up picket lines, forcing the cancellation of the ceremony, which was replaced by a 30-minute news conference.
Despite fears that a similar scenario may play out at the Oscars, Academy officials are adamant that the show will go on next month, with or without the appearance of A-list stars.
Awards show producer Gil Cates told the Los Angeles Times he was praying stars showed up for the event, but hinted the ceremony could survive without the appearance of actors.
'There are enough clips in 80 years of Oscar history to make up a very entertaining show,' Cates told the Times.
'We'd have a lot of people on stage. Much as this is shocking to people, there are a lot of people who don't act. I just hope that the actors are there.'
'I pray that the actors are there. I'm planning that the actors are there.'
Sets for the show at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood were already being designed and built, while planners would start choosing actors to be presenters and musical numbers after Tuesday's nominations.
'I don't want to say read my lips, but it's not going to be cancelled,' Cates said.