With films such as "Avatar," "The Hurt Locker," "Up," "Precious," "Up in the Air," "An Education" and "Inglourious Basterds" already viewed as safe Oscar bets there has been lots of speculation about which pictures will fill the last two to three slots in the Academy's new ten nominee Best Picture system.  Following the holiday break, a somewhat surprising wild card entry has appeared on the scene: "The Messenger." 

Oren Moverman's moving portrait of a returning Iraq soldier who has to deal with the difficult task of being assigned to notify the kin of fallen servicemen wasn't one of the major discoveries at last year's Sundance Film Festival, but throughout the year buzz slowly grew on the drama. More importantly, praise for performances for stars Ben Foster, Woody Harrelson and Samantha Morton.  However, without a major indie studio behind it how could it really make a mark?  In past years no, but 2010 is a whole new ball game.

Surprisingly, distributor Oscilloscope Pictures (founded by the Beastie Boys Adam Yauch) has worked with the film's producers to fashion quite the underdog campaign.  Harrelson has already landed Golden Globe, Indie Spirit and SAG nominations for Best Supporting Actor and Indie Spirit nominee Morton is considered a possible "surprise" contender in the Oscar race for Best Supporting Actress. Foster hasn't gotten quite the same love, but all three have worked hard to promote the  picture.

Now, while "The Messenger" has only made a disappointing $654,000 since opening in November (it could have done more in as many as 50 theaters), the film's Academy screener campaign appears to be a huge success.  Whether its through word of mouth or longtime vet Harrelson's participation, reliable sources are telling Awards Campaign that Academy members are talking up "The Messenger" and many plan to vote for it in their ten.  This would be a somewhat shocking result considering the films theatrical returns, but the lack of other suitable contenders make it a much easier selection for most members.  That's not to slight the critically acclaimed flick, but if "Nine," "The Lovely Bones" or "A Serious Man" were more liked  they would certainly have trumped it.

Granted, today's PGA nods and the continuing threat of "The Blind Side" may make "The Messenger" an eventual woulda, coulda, shoulda if it was given an even more prominent release campaign, but at this point "The Messenger" may end up being the biggest surprise of Oscar nomination morning on Feb. 2.  And yes friends, the big reveal is finally less than a month away.

In other awards season news...

- More big stars are headed to this year's Golden Globes.  The HFPA announced that Gerard Butler, Mel Gibson and the legendary Sophia Loren are set to appear on NBC's Jan. 17 telecast.  Look for complete coverage of the Globes as it happens on HitFix.

- The industry's publicists don't just work on other award shows, they have their own prestigious event (are you surprised?).  The most competitive award is handed out to the best overall publicity campaign of the year and while those nominees haven't been announced yet the ICG did reveal their contenders for their equivalent of a "best publicist" award. The Les Mason award nominees for 2010 are Warner Bros.' Barbara Hannegan and Maureen O'Malley, longtime Oscar consultant Tony Angellotti of the Angellotti Co., freelance publicist Vivian Boyer, Stan Rosenfield of Stan Rosenfield Associates and unit publicist Deborah Wuliger.  Additionally, the org also recognizes valuable members of the press.  This year's nominees include the LA Times' Geoff Boucher (deserves a better outlet) and Susan King (one word: survivor), USA Today's Anthony Breznican (great guy, great writer), Scott Mantz of "Access Hollywood" (uh..) and Sharon Waxman formerly of The New York Times and now of The Wrap (old habits die hard).  And yes, we can only dream of one day have the pleasure of being able to say "It was an honor to be nominated" in the same category. And yet, have any of these media mavens won a prestigious Hollywood Reporter Key Art Award?  I think not! (a great door stopper if nothing else.) 

- The nominees for the USC Scripter Award were announced today.  A possible precursor to Oscar's Best Adapted Screenplay Award, it's hard to get excited about the annual honor because the WGA nominees are much more influential.  However, you can't knock that the Scripter winner was also the winner in the same Oscar category the last two years.  This year's nominees, which include the original author and the screenwriter, are:

"Crazy Heart"
Scott Cooper, screenwriter; Thomas Cobb, author.

"District 9"
Neill Blomkamp, screenwriter and author; Terri Tatchell, screenwriter.

"An Education"

Nick Hornby, screenwriter; Lynn Barber, author.

"Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire"

Geoffrey Fletcher, screenwriter; Sapphire, author.

"Up in the Air"
Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner, screenwriters; Walter Kirn, author.

"Up in the Air" is probably the leading candidate to win here (it doesn't hurt Reitman went to the school either), but the most surprising inclusion is "Crazy Heart."  If "Heart" can eventually land an Oscar nod in this category, Fox Searchlight will be thrilled.  The Scripter winner will be announced at a gala ceremony Feb. 6 on the USC campus.  Assuming the award isn't put on probation by the NCAA (we kid Trojans, we kid).

As the season heats up, look for breaking awards season news and commentary daily on Awards Campaign.  For the latest, follow @HitFixGregory on Twitter.