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'Rings' losing its Oscar luster?

'Return of the King' faces key weekend tests in Oscar race

Oscar watchers say the race for Best Picture is far from over.

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LOS ANGELES, California (Reuters) -- Oscar fans and movie-goers, behold the one "Ring." And take a good, long look while you can because this may be the weekend it starts to lose some of its award-winning luster.

Film fantasy "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" has raked in box office cash ($925 million worldwide) and raced ahead in Hollywood's awards season but Friday, ahead of two key weekend industry awards, some film experts were starting to wonder if the Oscar shoo-in is really just that.

A slew of old Oscar handicapping rules are working at odds, and that fact has left pundits shaking their heads.

"I do think ('Rings') probably has the best chance, but a lot of people I talk to aren't into that movie," said Robert Osborne, author of "75 Years of the Oscar: The Official History of the Academy Awards."

The Oscars, the film industry's highest honors, takes place on February 29, and nominated for best film are epic "Rings," dark crime thriller "Mystic River," horse racing tale "Seabiscuit," seafaring adventure "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World" and "Lost in Translation," a low-budget tale of two Americans in Tokyo who are disconnected from their lives and marriages.

"I hear more people talking about 'Lost in Translation' and 'Mystic River'," Osborne said. "Their (Academy voters') idea of what moviemaking is about and what constitutes moviemaking is not as technology-friendly as it is for younger audiences."

A real horse race

Tom O'Neil, host of award Web site, pointed out that Oscar voters have never awarded their top prize to a science fiction or fantasy film.

"We are right to be leery," said O'Neil, who nevertheless said he thought "Rings" was still the film to beat.

"The movies that could pull off upsets," O'Neil said, "are 'Lost in Translation' and 'Seabiscuit.' 'Seabiscuit' is a movie Academy members loved in summer screenings ... 'Lost in Translation' has a high cool factor and a literary appeal."

"Rings," based on J.R.R. Tolkien's novels about an epic war for control of Middle-Earth among humans, elves and evil orcs took the lead in the Oscar race by winning top honors from movie producers, the industry's businessmen and women, and the 90 foreign journalists who hand out the Golden Globe awards.

Now come the professional guilds -- the artists -- whose members make up major voting blocks at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which give out the Oscars.

The Directors Guild of America, or DGA, names its 2003 best director at a gala ceremony Saturday and the American Society of Cinematographers follows with its awards on Sunday.

The Screen Actors Guild names its favorites on February 22, and while "Rings" is nominated for best ensemble cast, none of its actors landed in individual acting categories. Likewise, no "Rings" performers were nominated for Oscars, and actors make up the largest Academy branch with 1,298 of 5,816 Oscar votes.

Oscar ballots are due at the Academy on February 24.

Popular thinking in Hollywood is that "Rings" and director Peter Jackson will win Oscars because "King" is the end of the trilogy that has been a hit artistically, critically and commercially, and it is time to give the movies their due.

Going by that theory, Jackson should take DGA honors, which would boost its Oscar pace because only six times since 1949 has a DGA winner not received the director Oscar. Moreover, there has been an historically high correlation between best director and best picture Oscar winners.

But both of those old Oscar rules have been changing. Last year, for instance, Rob Marshall took the DGA honor for "Chicago," but Roman Polanski was named Oscar's best director for "The Pianist. "Chicago" came back to win best movie.

While "Rings," is undoubtedly ahead of the pack, this year's Oscar race is not over yet -- not by a long shot.

Copyright 2004 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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