This year's Oscar race is one of the most wide open in recent memory, giving some big-studio blockbusters a shot at the best-picture crown after years of victories by indie darlings.
Gold Derby, which tracks the Academy Awards race, lists six films at 10-1 or better, based on picks by critics. "A Star Is Born," the drama starring Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga, is favored by 21 of 30 at the website.
But they lack conviction, putting the odds at 13-2, a hair above "Roma," director Alfonso Cuaron's tribute to his childhood in Mexico, at 15-2.
This may also be a year that the winner is a film a lot of people have seen. "A Star Is Born" has taken in more than US$388 million ($509 million) in ticket sales worldwide. "Roma," which is playing in a handful of theaters to ensure it can compete for an Oscar, is being promoted heavily on Netflix, which has more than 137 million subscribers worldwide. The nominations will be announced January 22, with the Oscar ceremony scheduled for February 24.
Other widely seen films with a strong chance at a nomination include the superhero blockbuster "Black Panther," with US$1.35 billion in worldwide ticket sales, and the Freddie Mercury biopic "Bohemian Rhapsody," at US$702.5 million. Last year's winner, "The Shape of Water," took in US$195.2 million globally -- much of it after capturing the Oscar nomination.
"To see a movie like 'Black Panther' in the conversation is very reassuring," said Phil Contrino, director of research for the National Association of Theatre Owners. "It shows that the Oscars are more in tune with what the paying public is responding to."
Two potential contenders opened in late December: "Vice," a satirical biopic about Dick Cheney, and "On the Basis of Sex," about the early years of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. From a business standpoint, smaller films like these benefit most from high-profile nominations, with many movie fans often hearing about them for the first time.
The race kicks off this weekend when the Hollywood Foreign Press Association hands out the Golden Globe Awards on NBC. But cinephiles will get more clarity on the favorites later in the month when Hollywood trade groups begin bestowing their honors. In particular, fans should track the Screen Actors Guild, which represents the largest voting bloc in the academy and announces its winners on January 27.
The Bafta Awards, bestowed in early February by the British Academy of Film & Television Arts, are also influential.
"A Star Is Born" has a lot going for it, including a directing and starring role for Cooper, one of the industry's most popular leading men, as well as a hit soundtrack. It's about the entertainment business, a subject that always seems to appeal to the Oscars voters, members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences. It's also a major studio production -- from Warner Bros. The last major-studio film to be crowned best picture was also from Warner Bros.: "Argo," in 2012.
"Roma," by contrast, has appeared in just a few theaters, the preferred venue for movie lovers.
Although artfully shot in black and white by a director who won the Oscar for 2013's "Gravity," the film would need to overcome Hollywood's uneasy relationship with Netflix and the streaming service's unwillingness to distribute its movies widely in theaters.
"Black Panther" has its own momentum. The academy has been recruiting more minorities in response to criticism such as the #OscarsSoWhite social-media campaign. The organization found itself in trouble in December after announcing that African-American comedian Kevin Hart would host the show, only to have him step down after being called out for homophobic comments he made previously on Twitter.
"Black Panther" is in line to become the first superhero film to get nominated for best picture. It stars a largely black cast and features a superhero who rises to prevent the exploitation of natural resources in a fictional African nation.
Walt Disney Co., which released the film as part of its Marvel universe, is campaigning heavily for an award, including hosting more than 100 academy members at an event in West Hollywood. Chief Executive Officer Bob Iger even asked Oprah Winfrey, who had nothing to do with the picture, to come show her support.
Having "Black Panther" in the mix would burnish Disney's image with filmmakers and also likely help the TV ratings for the Oscar ceremony. It's carried on the company's ABC network and has suffered a loss of viewers in recent years. The academy has flirted with a most-popular-film category to boost the audience.
"If they were to recognize a film with that kind of political and cultural impact, that would be tremendous," said Barton Crockett, an analyst with B. Riley FBR Inc. "It would be very good for the industry."
--With assistance from Bloomberg's Anousha Sakoui.