Oscar day has arrived, after a long, stormy, exhausting awards season.
A new executive team at the top of the Academy promised online voting, overhauled the documentary process, and weathered a number of tempests, from internal grumbling to not-so-shocking revelations about the membership's demographics to a ridiculous final-week publicity stunt from Sacha Baron Cohen.
A revamped system of determining nominees, meanwhile, produced nine Best Picture contenders, more than anybody was expecting, and new campaign rules led to more parties than ever before.
Read more: Will America Watch the Academy Awards?
And a film that seemed like a delightful anomaly when it took Cannes by storm in May, "The Artist," now looks destined to become the first film from a non-English speaking country to win Best Picture, and only the second silent film ever to do so.
(The first happened 83 years ago, at the very first Oscars.)
Also read: 2012 Oscars: Complete List of Nominees
That rocky path has led to the Theater Formerly Known as Kodak – where Billy Crystal, the consensus choice as the classic Oscar host of the last two decades, will try to keep viewers tuned in for three hours and who knows how many minutes.
The Academy's and ABC's surveys show strong interest in Crystal, who has hosted the Oscars eight times before, but not since 2004.
The comic actor is known for his big openings, and AMPAS is confident that they'll get a massive viewership for the show's first half hour – when Crystal will almost certainly appear in one of those films in which he inserts himself into the year's top movies, and certainly deliver a monologue, and probably sing his "It's a Wonderful Night for Oscar" medley of song parodies.
(If he doesn't, he will definitely be involved in music at another point in the show.)
The trick, for the Academy and for show producers Brian Grazer and Don Mischer, is to keep viewers tuned in after that opening.
And the stumbling block is that only one of the nine Best Picture nominees, "The Help," has earned more than $100 million at the domestic box office.
Three others – "The Descendants," "War Horse" and "Moneyball" – are on the high side of $75 million, while "Hugo" and "Midnight in Paris" have topped $50 million.
But "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close" and frontrunner "The Artist" have just topped $30 million and Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life" is at $13 million.
The best Oscar ratings always come when the audience has a rooting interest in movies they've seen, which means the Best Picture lineup (average gross: $66.6 million) is less of a draw than, say, Best Supporting Actress (average $108.1 million, given a boost by two nominees from "The Help" and one from "Bridesmaids") or Best Visual Effects (average $212.7 million).
And overall, there's no "Titanic" or "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" to keep movie fans tuned in – so the pressure will be on Crystal, on Grazer and Mischer, and on things like the special Cirque du Soleil performance to keep viewers from checking out the second half of the NBA All-Star game.
Another potential stumbling block: With his films, songs and monologues, Crystal tends to use up more time than any other host, making it difficult to bring in a Crystal-hosted show close to three hours unless he gives up some of his usual tricks.
The overall rating is an average of each half-hour — and the longer the show goes, the more viewers will head elsewhere or turn off the TV entirely, particularly on the East Coast.
Avid Oscar-watchers, meanwhile, can watch for upsets, and wonder if it's possible for "The Artist" to remain as dominant as it has been during most of awards season, or if the desire for some surprises – any surprises – will lead voters in at least a few unexpected directions.
Unless a huge surprise is lurking when the Best Picture envelope is opened ("The Descendants?" "Hugo?" "The Help?"), "The Artist" will become the first film ever to win the top award from the Oscars, the Independent Spirit Awards, France's Cesar Awards and the British Academy Awards, plus the Golden Globe Award for Best Film, Comedy or Musical.
In fact, just the Cesar/Oscar combo would be unprecedented. No film has ever won both the Cesar for best film (the "Cesar du meilleur film") and the Best Picture Oscar; the closest was "The Pianist" in 2002, which lost to "Chicago" but did win the Best Director Oscar for Roman Polanski.
Only one film has ever won the top award at both the Indie Spirit Awards and the Oscars, "Platoon" way back in 1987.
Nine films have won both the top Oscar and the Golden Globe for Best Film, Musical or Comedy, but only two ("Shakespeare in Love" and "Chicago") in the last two decades, and none in the last 10 years. And the BAFTA Award has a much bigger overlap, coinciding 25 times, including last year's "The King's Speech."
If "The Artist" does win, the film will probably feel at home on the Oscar stage, which one insider described as being very simple, with the look of a "grand old movie house" from the '20s, '30s or '40s, complete with marquee.
It could be an old-fashioned look for an old-fashioned winner – but will today's audience be paying attention?
(Oscar rehearsal photos by Richard Harbaugh/AMPAS)