The last time Oscar voters surprised with a best picture winner was eight years ago, when Jack Nicholson opened the evening's final envelope, arched those famous eyebrows and announced Crash. He then mouthed the word "Whoa!"
The drama had beaten favorite Brokeback Mountain and also Capote, Munich and Good Night, and Good Luck.
Most years, Hollywood insiders have a good idea who will go home with an Academy Award. By the time the Oscars are handed out at the end of a long awards season, clear favorites have emerged.
Going into Sunday's 86th Academy Awards, there are front-runners in the acting, directing and writing categories. But there's one big exception: best picture. That contest has turned into a three-way battle among Gravity, 12 Years a Slave and American Hustle.
The three leading contenders have engaged in a game of awards-season musical chairs since December. American Hustle won the top prize from the New York Film Critics Circle. Gravity found favor with the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. 12 Years and Hustle each won best picture awards at the Golden Globes in January. A week later, Hustle took the Screen Actors Guild's ensemble award, and the Producers Guild's top prize ended in an unprecedented tie between Gravity and 12 Years.
Never before have the major guilds had a three-way split for their top honor, producing a best picture race so tight that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences took the preemptive step of announcing last month that its balloting system guarantees one winner and one winner only.
"There's going to be genuine suspense this year when that final envelope is opened," says veteran studio awards consultant Tony Angellotti, who doesn't have a horse in this year's race. "And that hasn't happened in some time. Argo, The Artist, The King's Speech ... everyone knew those movies were going to win."
The uncertainty stretched the contenders' campaigns through Tuesday, the deadline for the 6,028 academy members to turn in their ballots. Interviews with dozens of academy members suggest there is no clear favorite among the top three contenders, with the outcome likely hinging on which one lands the most second- and third-place votes.
The academy uses a preferential voting system, with members ranking each of the nine nominees one through nine. Movies with the fewest first-place votes are eliminated, with their ballots shifted to next highest-ranked film. The reallocating continues until one movie owns 50 percent plus one of the voting.
This system, which the academy adopted when it expanded the best picture category in 2009, rewards movies that enjoy a broad consensus.
It's one reason why many pundits think the crowd-pleasing outer space survival story Gravity will prevail over 12 Years a Slave, a harrowing look at a free man sold into slavery in pre-Civil War America that includes numerous scenes of brutal punishment.
"I still have friends who haven't watched" 12 Years, says one voter who spoke on condition of anonymity. (The academy frowns on members speaking publicly about films in contention.)
The three studios in the hunt have spared no expense to keep their movies in academy members' minds. The campaign spending has at least equaled the record amount last year when the deep-pocketed backers of Argo, Lincoln and Life of Pi spent $10 million and upward on campaigns, consultants say.
Most of the year, movie ads are designed to sell tickets at the box office. But the big ads for Oscar-nominated films running in major media outlets during the 12-day Oscar voting window were aimed squarely at academy members who read those publications.
The rewards for the winner go beyond bragging rights. A best picture Oscar helps sell more tickets if the movie is still in theaters, and DVDs down the road.
It also cements the legacy of film and filmmaker, much as a Super Bowl victory does for a winning quarterback. (Ask Peyton Manning.)
"It'd be nice, sure," American Hustle director David O. Russell says, musing on an Oscar win. "But you see that shelf over there," he adds, pointing to a rack of DVDs bearing his name in a Santa Monica video store where he was attending an event. "To me, that's almost as heavy as an Oscar."