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The Oscars duel between Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln" and Ben Affleck's "Argo" casts a Hollywood legend against a directing young gun -- but it also shows that Tinseltown's studios are in robust health.
Hollywood majors have been edged out of the Oscars limelight in recent years: last year's best picture winner "The Artist" and 2011's "The King's Speech" were both distributed by the New York-based Weinstein Company.
Those two came after 2010's best picture "The Hurt Locker," by mini-studio Summit Entertainment. The last major studio Oscar winner was 2009's "Slumdog Millionaire," by Fox/Warner.
But the 2013 nominees show an impressive return to form. The two frontrunners stem from pure Hollywood aristocracy, in studio terms: "Lincoln" is distributed by Disney and "Argo" by Warner.
And even the serious rivals for the top best picture Oscar are from the majors: "Life of Pi" (Fox), "Zero Dark Thirty" (Columbia), and "Les Miserables" (Universal).
"It's been a good year because a number of the studio movies that have been nominated not only are good movies but have done very well commercially, which is very good for all of us," Oscar-winning producer Mark Johnson told AFP.
Johnson, who won an Academy Award in 1989 for "Rain Man," said this year's Oscars race is one of the least predictable in recent memory, because of the strength of studios.
"I think that it's open because of the movies. Last year and the year before, studio films did not really make it into the Oscars. But this year, 'Life of Pi' is Fox, 'Lincoln' is Disney, 'Argo' comes from Warner.
"It's good for all of us," he said.
Both "Argo" and "Lincoln" have made more than $100 million at the North American box office, as have "Life of Pi" and "Les Miserables" -- commercial success which "The Artist" and "The Hurt Locker" could only have dreamed of.
Jason E. Squire, a writer and professor at the University of Southern California (USC) in Los Angeles, agrees.
"It's a reflection of how healthy the marketplace is," he said, noting how the race has changed during the awards season, with "Lincoln" the early favorite but "Argo" taking a string of top prizes to move ahead in the home stretch.
"It's a healthy industry if you have this kind of horse race. There was a frontrunner, 'Lincoln,' but it's not so much a frontrunner anymore. Now it seems wide open as a race."
US screenwriter and director Richard LaGravenese, who wrote just-released "Beautiful Creatures" and was nominated for an Oscar in 1992 for "The Fisher King," welcomed the competition.
"It's kind of the more interesting year, I think. (...) 'Lincoln' was going to be a slam dunk. It's terrific, I couldn't be more happy about that," he told AFP.
He noted that the 6,000-odd members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, who choose the Oscar nominees and winners, voted earlier than usual, meaning they were less influenced by other awards shows.
"They made us vote so early... We had to vote before the Writers Guild and the DGA (Directors Guild of America) came out. And before the Golden Globes had their ceremony.
"I love how mixed-up it is and so I really have no idea about who's going to win," he said.
Most Oscar-watchers now think Affleck's "Argo," a true story of an audacious CIA mission to rescue six US diplomats from Tehran amid the 1979 hostage crisis, is frontrunner to take the best picture Oscar on Sunday.
Spielberg, who hasn't won a best picture Academy Award since 1994 with "Schindler's List," seems likely to take his third best director prize. Affleck is not nominated in the directing category, in what was perceived as a snub.
Director Sam Raimi, who made the "Spider-Man" blockbuster trilogy, said sharing the top prizes would be good.
"Argo" and "Lincoln" were "both brilliant pictures. I love both of them. I've always been a giant Steven Spielberg fan but it was a great surprise that Ben Affleck is such a brilliant director," Raimi said.
"He keeps getting better and better so it's really going to be a tough competition."