By Mary Milliken
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Hollywood's awards season reaches its apogee on Sunday at the 87th Academy Awards, where "Birdman" and "Boyhood" will battle for best picture and veteran actors are likely to grasp their first golden Oscar statuettes.
The film industry's biggest night will serve up its share of suspense as three top honors - best picture, best director and best actor - are proving hard to predict, even for the most seasoned experts.
But those nail-biters will come at the tail end of the three-hour ABC telecast from Hollywood's Dolby Theatre, where first-time host Neil Patrick Harris will guide a show heavy on humor, magic and music from big artists like Lady Gaga.
In a sign of how the Oscars might be split, the Film Independent Spirit Awards for small-budget movies on Saturday crowned show business satire "Birdman" as best feature and its star Michael Keaton took best male lead. Richard Linklater won best director for his coming-of-age tale "Boyhood," made over 12 years with the same actors.
"I am proud to belong to this species in extinction," said "Birdman" director Alejandro G. Inarritu, of the smaller films that are proving hard to make in a Hollywood bent on big film franchises.
While both Linklater and Inarritu have been nominated before for Oscars, they have never won.
Together, "Birdman" and "Boyhood" have made $62 million at the North American box office, compared to $310 million for the most commercially successful of the eight best picture nominees, Iraq war drama "American Sniper" from director Clint Eastwood.
The dearth of blockbuster movies at this year's Oscars could diminish the number of people who tune in to watch the biggest non-sports televised event in the United States.
Last year with host Ellen DeGeneres and her selfie that broke Twitter, the Oscars pulled in its largest audience in 14 years.
Around 40 percent of Americans plan to tune in to the awards telecast, according to the annual Reuters/Ipsos Oscars poll. Forty-five percent said they most enjoy seeing who wins, followed by 22 percent who like to see their favorite celebrities.
The Oscars are also one of the world's biggest fashion moments as Hollywood's leading ladies parade down the red carpet in elaborate gowns and jewels in a fierce competition among top designers and fashion houses.
But the famously fair Los Angeles weather may not make things easy. Oscar organizers ordered that plastic tarps be placed over the arrivals area on Saturday and the forecast Sunday pointed to rain at red carpet time.
The Oscars are determined by 6,100 members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, a body that has taken its knocks this year for nominating no actors of color in the acting races.
Civil rights groups have called a boycott of the Oscars to protest the lack of diversity and will demonstrate before the ceremony.
But experts believe the Academy, where actors are the largest voting bloc, will ultimately reward performers with long careers with their first Oscars.
Keaton, coming back from a sagging career, could beat best-actor favorite Eddie Redmayne, who has swept up awards for his painstaking portrayal of physicist Stephen Hawking in "The Theory of Everything."
Julianne Moore should take best actress for her role as a woman with early onset Alzheimer's in "Still Alice" and Patricia Arquette is favored to win best supporting actress as the struggling single mother in "Boyhood."
J.K. Simmons, a character actor with a long resume, is set to win the best supporting actor trophy for his monstrous music teacher in "Whiplash."
(Additional reporting by Jane Ross; Editing by Sandra Maler)