After box-office magic, can 'Avatar' strike Oscars gold?

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It may have cast a record-breaking spell over the box office -- but can "Avatar" work its magic at the Oscars?

(AFP) -

It may have cast a record-breaking spell over the box office - but can "Avatar" work its magic at the Oscars?

That is the question Hollywood is asking as nominees for the movie industry's most prestigious awards are revealed here Tuesday, signaling the start of a five-week sprint to the Oscars finishing line.

Science-fiction blockbuster "Avatar" had emerged as an early favorite in the coveted best picture category after scooping top honors at the Golden Globes as well as a best director award for James Cameron.

Since that double victory, the groundbreaking 3-D film has surpassed Cameron's "Titanic" as the highest-grossing movie of all time, earning more than 1.8 billion dollars in less than two months.

But it is far from certain that the stellar commercial performance of "Avatar" will translate into success at the Academy Awards, which will be handed out in Hollywood on March 7.

While "Avatar" won big at the Golden Globes, other awards shows heading into the Oscar nominations have been snaffled by rival films.

The top prizes at the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and Producers Guild of America (PGA) Awards - both seen as key Oscars indicators - were shared by Quentin Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds" and gritty Iraq war drama "The Hurt Locker," confounding most pundits' predictions.

The Oscars hopes of "The Hurt Locker" were also enhanced late Saturday when its director Kathryn Bigelow pipped ex-husband Cameron to win the top prize at the Directors Guild of America (DGA) Awards in Los Angeles.

The DGA honor is regarded as a virtual passport to a best director statuette at the Oscars. On all but six occasions since 1948 the winner of the award has gone on to win the Oscar.

Veteran awards season commentator Tom O'Neil of the Los Angeles Times's says this year's battle for best picture will be a four-horse race, despite the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences decision to double the field of nominees from the usual five to 10.

"There's a real drama in this Oscar race," O'Neil told AFP. "The indicators are all pointing in different directions.

"The bottom line is there are four movies seriously in the running to win best picture, and those are 'Avatar,' 'The Hurt Locker,' 'Inglourious Basterds,' and 'Up In The Air.'"

Oscars organizers doubled the number of best picture nominees in a move analysts have said was intended to help boost television ratings for the awards show, which increased by 13 percent in 2009 after hitting a record low in 2008.

While the best picture race is one of the most wide open in years, the competition for the coveted acting awards are starting to acquire a look of inevitability about them.

Popular Hollywood veteran Jeff Bridges is the heavy favorite in the best actor race after already winning a slew of honors for his portrayal of a washed up country singer in the drama "Crazy Heart."

Bridges's likely rivals are expected to include George Clooney for "Up In the Air," Morgan Freeman for "Invictus" and Colin Firth for "A Single Man."

In the best actress stakes, Sandra Bullock has emerged as a front-runner after winning at the Golden Globes and Screen Actors Guild Awards.

Bullock's accolades have come for her performance in "The Blind Side," where she plays a southern housewife who takes in homeless black teen Michael Oher who goes on to become an American football star.

However, Bullock is expected to face stiff competition from perennial Oscar favorite Meryl Streep, who is tipped to pick up her 16th Academy Award nomination for her performance in "Julie & Julia."

In the supporting acting categories, "Inglourious Basterds" star Christoph Waltz and Mo'Nique of the drama "Precious" are favorites.

Tuesday's nominations announcement takes place at 5.38am (1338 GMT) local time.