LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Hollywood's awards season reaches its apogee on Sunday at the 87th Academy Awards, where "Birdman" and "Boyhood" are locked in a 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 Theater, where first-time host Neil Patrick Harris will guide a show heavy on humor, magic and music from big names like Lady Gaga.
Hours before Hollywood's A-list celebrities were due to walk the famous red carpet, a plastic tent remained in place for possible rain showers.
News crews from around the world, in tuxedos and gowns, set up for a telecast that will be seen by hundreds of millions of people in 225 countries and territories.
Meryl Streep will be vying for an Oscar for a record 19th time, in the best supporting actress category. But most, including several of the favorites, are first-time contenders.
"It's been a long journey up to here," said Pawel Pawlikowski, director of "Ida," Poland's nominee for best foreign-language film. "Of course, it would be nice to win as well, but I'm not going to collapse if we don't."
In a sign of how the Oscars might be split, the Film Independent Spirit Awards for small-budget movies on Saturday crowned Alejandro G. Inarritu's 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.
While both Linklater and Inarritu have been nominated for Oscars before, 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.
CRITICISM OF ACADEMY
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 of 43.7 million viewers.
Forty percent of American adults 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.
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 reward performers with long careers with their first Oscars.
Eddie Redmayne is front-runner for best actor for his portrayal of physicist Stephen Hawking in "The Theory of Everything." But there might be an upset from Keaton, whose "Birdman" role had him working in very long takes.
"I had no idea how precise we had to be, and how difficult, but you know there's no other way to do it, it's the only way you could make this movie," Keaton said after winning his Spirit Award Saturday.
Julianne Moore, nominated five times in her career, should win her first best actress for her role as a woman with early onset Alzheimer's in "Still Alice."
(Additional reporting by Jane Ross; Editing by Sandra Maler and Frances Kerry)