LOS ANGELES -- Hollywood is in its usual hazy head space when it comes to the Academy Awards race.
The dilemma: Handicapping the players when so many of the potential front-runners have yet to show their game face.
Films such as Ben Affleck's "Argo" and Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman's "The Master" already are proven contenders through rapturous reactions from festival crowds or early theatrical audiences. A handful of summer releases have a shot at best-picture slots -- but that depends on the movies still to come.
Late prospects include Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln," with Daniel Day-Lewis as the 16th president; "The King's Speech" director Tom Hooper's "Les Miserables," the musical adaptation of Victor Hugo's classic that features Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe and Anne Hathaway; "The Hurt Locker" director Kathryn Bigelow's "Zero Dark Thirty," chronicling the hunt for Osama bin Laden; and "The Lord of the Rings" creator Peter Jackson's "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey," the first in his three-part "Rings" prelude.
Jackson's three "Lord of the Rings" films earned best-picture nominations, and the finale won. "The Lord of the Rings" is a heavyweight drama of a fantasy compared to the more playful "Hobbit," which could hurt the new trilogy's chances among Oscar voters, who usually lean toward weightier stories.
But since "Lord of the Rings," academy overseers expanded the best-picture category from five nominees to as many as 10 to bring in a broader range of films, including action blockbusters that often get overlooked for awards.
A big test plays out this season on that effort to make the Oscars more relevant to mainstream moviegoers. Academy bosses cited the best-picture snub of 2008's critical and commercial sensation "The Dark Knight" as a key example for expanding the category.
With reviews nearly as ecstatic as its predecessor's, the Batman finale "The Dark Knight Rises" may have a better shot depending on the number of nominees, which will range from five to 10 based on voting results among the nearly 6,000 members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Or the film may fall victim to the academy's general distaste for fantastical tales. Comic-book adaptations have been money magnets for Hollywood, yet no superhero saga has managed a best-picture nomination so far.
"You don't get into the business of making these kinds of films with any thought toward awards," said Christopher Nolan, director of the current Batman franchise. "If that's what's of interest to you, then if you look at the odds, you're far better off making a very different kind of film."