Predicting the Academy Awards is serious business. If you come up with the right picks on, say, 22 of the 24 nominations, and you're betting through a Las Vegas bookie or you tossed $5 into your office Oscars pool, the return can be significant.

Is it possible to scan the list of nominees for the 83d Academy Awards - 8 p.m. Sunday on 6ABC - and tap the correct sound-design and visual-effects teams, and pick the best actor (The King's Speech's Colin Firth looks like a lock) and best actress (Black Swan's Natalie Portman)?

For Tony Harvey, risk manager and oddsmaker at bookmaker.com, it's almost a science.

"We basically weigh in all reports from specialized media outlets and film critics, and, based on their predictions, reviews, and a little bit of our own intuition, we calculate the opening lines [odds]," Harvey explains via e-mail. "This represents in entertainment oddsmaking what statistics are in sports."

For Eric Miller, editor and publisher of Magnet, the Philadelphia-based music magazine, it's a matter of dogged research. Miller, who posts his choices on www.magnetmagazine.com and once finished in the top 1 percent among thousands in a Yahoo! Oscars pool, trolls the entertainment and industry sites, reads the papers and blogs, and weighs this year's nominations against recent winners. He factors in the award ceremonies leading up to the Big One: the Golden Globes, the Screen Actors Guild, the Producers Guild, the Directors Guild, the BAFTAs, the critics' prizes. With some niche technical categories or, say, the live-action shorts, "it's more of a crapshoot."

"But then a lot of it is just common sense," Miller adds, noting that it's best to leave your personal faves out of the equation.

"I always tell people that they probably would do better at picking the Oscars if they hadn't seen any of the movies than if they saw all of them, because people get emotionally attached. I have a friend who thinks Javier Bardem's performance in Biutiful far surpasses Colin Firth's. Well, it doesn't matter. You're not picking the best. You're picking who is going to win."

Alexandrea Seminara, manager of the Philadelphia Invitational Furniture Show, hosts an Oscars party every year. And she almost always emerges with the $65 or $75 from the pool. Her friends have even accused her of cheating. "How could I rig the Academy Awards? But they just don't believe it. They think maybe there's some time delay, or I'm getting the answers fed through an earpiece!"

In fact, Seminara, who does try to catch all of the nominated films, evaluates data and tallies lead-up awards just as Miller and Harvey do. She also has her own theories about Oscars voting trends. The fact that Firth plays a stammerer puts him one up on his fellow nominees. "I call it my Charly theory," she explains, in honor of Cliff Robertson's 1969 win "for playing somebody that I guess was mentally challenged. . . .

"Mental, psychological, and physical handicaps always sway the academy."

Another key indicator for the best-picture winner, notes Los Angeles Times reporter Patrick Goldstein, is a best-editing nomination. Not since Ordinary People in 1980, Goldstein calculated, has a film been named best picture without also being nominated for the editing award. This year's five editing nominees: Black Swan, The Fighter, The King's Speech, 127 Hours, and The Social Network. The other five best-picture contenders? Forget it.

"People take this very seriously," says Jason E. Squire, professor at the University of Southern California's School of Cinematic Arts . Squire keeps two lists: the actors and films he expects will win, and the ones he's rooting for. This year, his personal best picture is The Social Network, but he sees academy voters going with The King's Speech.

"It's instinct," he says, "factored in with the idea that the academy still skews a little older, so that has an impact on taste. There's a more traditional bent to the voting membership."

Then there are the marsupial Oscars experts. On Jimmy Kimmel Live! last week, Heidi the Cross-Eyed Opossum - a resident of the Leipzig Zoo - placed a paw on the actress (Portman) and the actor (Firth) she reckons will take home the statuette. That she went around to the back of the nominees' photos and seemed to be licking food off her pick is, perhaps, suspicious.

Friday afternoon, Seminara, who agrees with Heidi (and just about everyone else) that Portman and Firth will win, was still unsure about the best picture. It was down to The King's Speech and The Social Network.

"I actually sometimes go to my cat, who tells fortunes, for the toss-ups," she confesses. "Her name is Miss Cleo. She meows a lot, so what I do is I tell her the two choices, and then if she meows for the one, then that breaks the tie."

The Inquirer's Oscars Coverage

More Oscars coverage is in the Arts & Entertainment section. Also, Inquirer movie critics Carrie Rickey and Steven Rea will offer live commentary of Sunday night's events beginning with the red-carpet arrivals. To read their blogs, "Flickgrrl" and "On Movies Online," and to see additional coverage, including fashion photos and a complete list

of nominees, go to www.philly.com/oscars

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