By Bob Tourtellotte
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - When the curtain comes up on Sunday's Oscars in Hollywood, producers of the movie awards show will be less worried about who wins which trophy than they will be about how many people tune-in on television.
The world's top film honors are in jeopardy of losing their status as the second most-watched TV event in the United States behind professional football's Super Bowl if they can't lure more than 40 million viewers, which will be difficult given that silent movie "The Artist" is this year's big picture.
The Grammys lured an audience of 39.9 million to TV earlier this month, one day after Whitney Houston died. That was the Grammys biggest audience since 1984 and well over the 26 million who tuned in to the music industry's top honors last year. If the Oscars can't beat 40 million, they will drop to No. 3.
Only twice since 2002 have the Oscars, which are given out by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, drawn an audience over 40 million, and that happened in years when two major blockbusters, "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" and "Avatar," competed for best film.
This year, the expected big winner is black-and-white, silent movie "The Artist," which is picked to take home best film by most industry pundits and comes into the night with 10 nominations, second only to Martin Scorsese's "Hugo" with 11.
"It's unbeatable," Dave Karger, movie writer for Entertainment Weekly magazine, told Reuters about "The Artist." And that is a problem for the academy and the ABC TV network that airs the program because typically more viewers tune in when major box office hits compete for awards.
French film "The Artist" has wowed critics with its tale of a Hollywood star in the era of silent movies whose career is fading just as talkies are taking over the industry. However, the romance has failed to draw huge numbers to box offices with only about $30 million in U.S. and Canadian ticket sales.
"The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" and "Avatar" had ticket sales in the hundreds of millions by the time they competed for Oscars. Last year's best film winner, British film "The King's Speech," was no blockbuster when it entered the show, and the Academy Awards drew only 37.6 million viewers.
SPOTLIGHT ON SHOW
So heading into Sunday's telecast, Oscar producers are hoping a return of popular comedian Billy Crystal to host the program will lure viewers. He hasn't appeared since 2004 when "Return of the King" won best film.
And last week, a supposed controversy began brewing when the academy was reported to have banned comic actor Sacha Baron Cohen's "The Dictator" character from Oscar's red carpet. By the end of the week, however, Oscar producers had reversed their ban and the episode looked more like a publicity stunt to create drama than a real controversy.
Aside from hosts and promotional stunts, it will be the movies, stars and awards that truly draw movie fans to the show, and that is where the real drama lies. Yes, "The Artist" seems destined to win, but civil rights drama "The Help" has a lot of support and could prove to be a major surprise victor.
The category of best actress features a too-close-to-call race between Viola Davis playing a maid in "The Help" and Meryl Streep portraying former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in "The Iron Lady."
"We have a real race. It is neck and neck," said veteran Oscar watcher Tom O'Neil of awards website Goldderby.com.
The category of best actor is dramatic in that American actor and "The Descendants" star George Clooney, who is well-liked in Hollywood, goes up against French actor Jean Dujardin, the star of "The Artist."
For a long time, Clooney seemed to have the upper hand, but Dujardin has won most every time the two have been pitted against each other. Still, Clooney is well-liked in Hollywood.
The categories for supporting actor and actress appear locked for Christopher Plummer, playing an elderly gay man in "Beginners" and Octavia Spencer as one of the black maids in civil rights drama "The Help."
Wins by both could make Oscar history. At age 82, Plummer would be the oldest winner ever at the Academy Awards, and if both Spencer and Davis take supporting actress and lead actress, respectively, then it would be the first time two African American women have won those categories in the same year for the same movie.
The race for director, widely tipped to go to "Artist" maker Michel Hazanavicius, could see a surprise by "Hugo" and Scorsese, Woody Allen with "Midnight in Paris" or Alexander Payne for "The Descendants."
Finally, Iranian film "A Separation" goes up against Israel's "Footnote" in the category for foreign language film, bringing world politics into the movie industry awards.
So, along with Billy Crystal and Sacha Baron Cohen, film fans have a lot to look forward to on Oscar night. But the question remains, will they tune in to see it.
(Reporting By Bob Tourtellotte; Editing by Sandra Maler and Eric Beech)