Susan Wloszczyna, USA TODAY
In Hollywood, these truths are held to be self-evident:
There can never be too many comic-book superheroes on the big screen.
Tyler Perry is a better actress than an actor.
Be wary of any third sequel (except Star Trek IV - aka the one with the whales).
And the timeliest of these tenets: A best-picture contender that lacks a directing nomination has almost zero chance of claiming Oscar's most-coveted prize.
On Sunday night, however, expect to scratch that last truism off the list when the final envelope is ripped open at the 85th edition of the Academy Awards (ABC, 7 p.m. ET/4 PT).
The reason? The political thriller Argo is favored to become only the fourth movie, and the first since 1989's Driving Miss Daisy, to win best picture without having its director - in this case, Ben Affleck - in the running.
An Argo victory over such formidable opponents as crowd-pleasing comedy Silver Linings Playbook, tear-jerking musical Les Misérables and high-minded biopic Lincoln would be the ultimate twist in a season that has upended much of the conventional wisdom used to predict which nominees will dominate.
Basically, the "Golden Statue Playbook'' - long-tested rules employed by both professional Oscarologists and office-pool enthusiasts to justify their forecasts - has gotten a major rewrite.
Argo's surprise ascent is the primary cause for much of the rethinking. Not that Affleck didn't have company in the Oscar snub club. Les Misérables' Tom Hooper and Zero Dark Thirty's Kathryn Bigelow, all considered shoo-ins to compete for best director, are also MIA in the category.
Of course, it was an even bigger surprise because of another rule put asunder: The Directors Guild of America - whose nominees are usually not more than one name off from the academy's five choices - included all three filmmakers omitted by Oscar when their nominations were announced just two days before.
"That was the biggest shock of the year," says Dave Karger, Oscar expert and chief correspondent for movie site Fandango.com. "It is the one guild that most often lines up with the academy."
However, since Hooper and Bigelow already own directing Oscars, he for The King's Speech and she for The Hurt Locker, any outcry about the situation was mainly focused on Affleck's lack of recognition. What is different from years past is that such reaction can now be expressed instantaneously and spread in a flash, thanks to social media.
"If this was the same scenario 10 years ago, it would be hard to recover from a snub," says Tom O'Neil, overseer of awards site GoldDerby.com. "Instead, letters of outrage would have appeared on page 5 of Variety. But an instant outburst of indignation on the Twitterverse and blogosphere created a roar that could not be ignored. It propelled Argo into the position of a solid front-runner."
Add to all that Affleck's feat of winning the Directors Guild contest minus an Oscar nomination, which has happened only twice before: Steven Spielberg for 1985's The Color Purple and Ron Howard for 1995's Apollo 13. However, neither of those titles gained enough support or momentum to eventually collect Oscar's best-picture award as a makeup win.
Argo likely will be a different story.
"I think the best thing that happened to Argo is the best-director omission," Karger says. "It has set up this situation where Argo is winning every award yet still feels an underdog. And Ben has the academy to thank for that."
The epic rise of Argo is just one way that the long journey to the Oscars - which began in earnest in September with film festivals in Telluride, Venice and Toronto and will end at the Dolby Theatre - has veered from the norm. Other such deviations:
Rule: The best-picture battle eventually boils down to a two-way slugfest.
"Usually by November, it is a two-pony race," says O'Neil, a pioneer in the field of online predictions who recruits a team of 25 or so Oscar experts to act as handicappers. "The Hurt Locker vs. Avatar. The King's Speech vs. The Social Network. The Artist vs. Hugo."
But this year, among the GoldDerby.com predictors, "the top spot switched six times between four films: Silver Linings Playbook, Argo, Les Misérables and Lincoln."
That is, until Argo broke out of the pack last month post-nominations and began to scoop up every honor that is considered a steppingstone to Oscar glory: the Golden Globe for drama and awards from the Broadcast Film Critics Association, Screen Actors Guild, Producers Guild, Directors Guild and Writers Guild.
"What you are seeing now is that slow and steady wins the race," Karger says of the campaigning that goes on for months before and after nominations. The "after" part of the equation was increased by two weeks this year when the academy moved up the nominee announcement to the second week of January. That was done to supposedly give voters more time to see films but was viewed by most as a way to pre-empt the importance of such competitors as the Golden Globes.
That gave Argo - and its ever-charming star Affleck, who has mastered the art of the thank-you speech to humble perfection - 14 extra days to curry favor.
If the new, earlier deadline for nominations sticks, expect an increase in such tortoise-style shilling in the future.
Rule: When in doubt, bet on the best-picture contender with the most nominations.
The logic behind this belief? Every one of the 6,000 or so academy members can select the best-picture nominees. But the other categories are chosen by individual branches, such as actors, cinematographers and writers. More nominations equal more backers for an eventual best-picture win.
But not this year. Abraham Lincoln might have known how to woo voters skillfully enough to secure two terms. But his namesake movie is a long-shot to dominate the night, despite having 12 chances at earning an award.
Not that Lincoln won't reap a few prime consolation prizes. Results from other awards shows and pundits' predictions suggest Daniel Day-Lewis in the title role is unbeatable as best actor. A near-certainty is Spielberg as the default best director with no Affleck standing in his way. Meanwhile, Tommy Lee Jones is pretty much neck-and-neck with Django Unchained's Christoph Waltz as the likely best supporting actor, with Silver Linings Playbook's Robert De Niro as a possible spoiler.
But best picture? As unlikely as host Seth McFarlane not making a "Argo (bleep) yourself" joke.
We should have seen this coming. In the '90s, the Oscar hog held sway nine out of 10 times, save for 1991's The Silence of the Lambs. The closest competitor to a horror film to ever scare up a best-picture win had a fight on its hands, tying with The Prince of Tide's seven nominations against JFK's eight and Bugsy's 10.
But the days of 2003's The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King staging a sweep while conquering all 11 of its categories are over. In fact, since 2000, only half of the best-picture contenders with the most nominations have won the big one. Add to that the 2009 decision to allow the best-picture field to range between five and 10 titles instead of just five, and the odds simply are greater that the wealth will be spread out.
Rule: Academy voters are partial to esoteric art-house films that no one has seen.
Last year, out of the nine films up for best picture, only The Help crossed into the $100-million-plus blockbuster arena, with a total gross of $169.7 million.
This year, six of the nine nominees have crossed that line and haven't finished yet, for a total of nearly $925 million in domestic box office. Meanwhile, Life of Pihas proven to be an international sensation with a staggering $576.7 million total, while all nine films together have topped $2 billion.
Some see this as a renewed interest on the part of major studios to play the Oscar game. But Karger says it is a matter of the type of story that these mainstream efforts tell. "The movies that speak most to the academy are ones that largely focus on human achievements."
Which is why you still might not see the most popular box-office hits of the year, such as The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises or Skyfall - with their digital stunts, explosions and car crashes - earning much best-picture attention. But while the bias against commercial popcorn fare still exists, "there was less grousing about movies like Skyfall being left out since moviegoers actually saw so many of these films," Karger says.
Rule: The academy has lost its sentimental streak.
In the old days, Oscar would grab any chance to recognize an aging star, even in an inferior role. That explains stage great Helen Hayes winning her second Oscar for 1970's Airport nearly 40 years after she won her first.
But such soft-heartedness was no longer in vogue in 1997 when the academy passed by the legendary Lauren Bacall, then 72 and nominated for the first time for her supporting role in The Mirror Has Two Faces, directed by Barbra Streisand. (Instead, Juliette Binoche, then 33, won for her role in The English Patient.) Even an honorary recognition in 2009 can't erase memories of the sour look on Bacall's face as she reacted to the news that she had lost.
Instead, what O'Neil refers to as "the babe factor" has taken precedence in both actress categories, which suggests the safest bet is usually an ingénue type under age 40. This year, Jennifer Lawrence of Silver Linings Playbook and Jessica Chastain of Zero Dark Thirty fit that mold perfectly, and Lawrence is considered to be out in front.
Yet the academy this year showed it still has heart by picking the youngest and oldest best-actress nominees ever. At age 9, Quvenzhané Wallis of Beasts of the Southern Wild is lucky just to find herself in such heady company for her film debut. But French actress Emmanuelle Riva, who turns 86 on Oscar day, is just as much of a discovery to American moviegoers in Amour as Wallis is, despite having starred in one of the great classics of the French new wave, 1959's Hiroshima, mon Amour.
Right now, Riva is the top pick in the category for six of the 25
experts on the GoldDerby site. If she pulls a Binoche on Sunday and blocks Lawrence's charge to the stage, Bacall for one will surely turn that decades-old frown upside down.