LOS ANGELES — The Oscar movies this year may be small, but they're packing a lot of drama.
When the 87th Academy Awards kick off Sunday night at 8:30 EST, the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles will be buzzing with something the Oscars haven't always had in recent years: genuine intrigue at who the night's biggest winners will be.
The Oscars may also have another sight unusual to Southern California: rain. Light afternoon showers are expected, which could dampen red-carpet arrivals (though the carpet itself is under a glass tent).
With a co-leading nine nominations, Alejandro Inarritu's backstage comedy "Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)" flies in with the strongest wind at its back. It topped the acting, directing and producing guild awards, which are often strong predictors of what the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences will vote for.
"Birdman" also won best feature at Saturday's Independent Film Spirit Awards, further boosting its momentum. At the pre-Oscars beachside bash, star Michael Keaton, who won best actor, proclaimed the film "bold cinema" and "a game changer," a judgment shared by many in Hollywood who no doubt recognize something in Keaton's character's out-of-control ego.
But the coronation of "Birdman" is far from assured. Many believe the landmark of Richard Linklater 12-years-in-the-making "Boyhood" will ultimately prove irresistible to academy members. Best director also appears to be a toss-up between Inarritu and Linklater.
Three of the acting winners — Julianne Moore ("Still Alice"), J.K. Simmons ("Whiplash") and Patricia Arquette ("Boyhood") — are virtual locks going into Sunday's show, but best actor will be a nail biter. It could be the young British star Eddie Redmayne for his technically nuanced performance as Stephen Hawking in "The Theory of Everything," or it could be Keaton's career-topper in "Birdman," as an actor trying to flee his superhero past.
But whether suspense will be enough to pull viewers to the telecast on ABC remains to be seen. Host Neil Patrick Harris will hope to continue the recent ratings upswing for the Oscars, which last year drew 43 million viewers, making it the most-watched entertainment telecast in a decade.
This year's crop of nominees, however, is notably light on box-office smashes. Clint Eastwood's "American Sniper" (six nominations including best picture) is the only best-picture candidate to gross more than $100 million domestically. (A runaway hit, it recently surpassed $300 million.)
Possibly worse for the Oscars is that the lack of diversity in the nominees this year (all 20 nominated actors are white) turned off many potential viewers and led some to call for a boycott of the broadcast. Producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron are likely to aim for a telecast more inclusive than the nominees.
Planned performers include Lady Gaga, Jack Black, Jennifer Hudson and Anna Kendrick, as well as Oscar-nominated original songs: Common and John Legend ("Glory" from "Selma"), Maroon 5 ("Lost Stars" from "Begin Again"), Tim McGraw ("I'm Not Gonna Miss You" from "Glen Campbell . I'll Be Me"), Rita Ora ("Grateful" from "Beyond the Lights") and Tegan and Sara with the Lonely Island ("Everything Is Awesome" from "The Lego Movie").
Oprah Winfrey (a co-star in "Selma") will be among the presenters, as will Eddie Murphy, Chris Pratt, Kevin Hart, Ben Affleck, Jennifer Aniston, Scarlett Johansson, Cate Blanchett, Channing Tatum and John Travolta.
Increasingly, ratings are driven by moments that spark social media frenzy, like when Travolta famously mispronounced the name of singer Idina Menzel as "Adele Dazeem" at last year's show. Sunday night, he gets a chance for redemption.
Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP