Oscar outlook: Nine films were nominated in Oscar's best picture race, but that doesn't mean there are nine equal contenders.

In fact, reading the Oscar tea leaves suggests that a handful of those nine best picture nominees have considerable advantages over the others. That's thanks to the nature of their other Oscar noms and their success to date with other awards givers, including Saturday's Screen Actors Guild (SAG) awards and Sunday's Producers Guild of America (PGA) awards.

Only three of the nine nominees have the magic combination of best picture, directing and film editing noms that typically translates into Oscar gold – "American Hustle," "Gravity" and "12 Years a Slave."

Sunday's PGA awards brought a stunning surprise -- a tie for the guild's equivalent of best picture between "Gravity" and "Slave," the first tie in 25 years of PGA awards. A PGA win is considered a prime victory on the road to Oscar gold since 17 winners of the guild's 24 awards presented since 1990 (not including Sunday's 25th award) have gone on to win best picture Oscars. This match-up has taken place for each of the past six years.

One of the reasons the PGA vote is considered a strong bellwether for the Oscars is that both groups use the same "preferential voting system." Despite various explanations over the years as to how this complex method of determining winners actually works, it still remains a mystery to many Oscar watchers, myself included.

Between the SAG and PGA votes, Oscar's best picture race is now shaping up as a battle between three very different films -- "Hustle," a big studio dramatic comedy driven by an all-star ensemble cast; "Gravity," a big studio special effects driven sci-fi thriller with only two actors on screen; and "Slave," a small indie historical drama driven by social significance and an important true story.

Here's a look at the pros and cons for each of Oscar's nine best picture hopefuls, listed here alphabetically.

(1) "American Hustle" (Columbia) is one of this year's strongest best picture contenders and to some Hollywood handicappers it's the film to beat. With 10 Oscar noms, it leads the pack -- tied with "Gravity" and just one nod ahead of "12 Years a Slave," the other films insiders regard as frontrunners.

Films that generate the most Oscar noms typically benefit in the final vote from having support from many Academy branches. In fact, over the years the film with the most noms is said to have won best picture about two-thirds of the time. Films with fewer noms haven't resonated with as many voters and must struggle to win over more voters before final ballots are marked.

Noms: Actor (Christian Bale), Supporting Actor (Bradley Cooper), Actress (Amy Adams), Supporting Actress (Jennifer Lawrence), Costume Design, Directing (David O. Russell), Film Editing, Picture, Production Design and Original Screenplay.

Pros: "Hustle" not only has four acting noms, but also has nominations for directing and film editing. Those noms are very important for a best picture contender because only four films have ever won best picture without a directing nom and only nine films have ever won best picture without a film editing nom. Yes, it can be done, but it's not easy to pull off.

With four acting noms, it's clear that the actors' branch – the Academy's largest block of voters – really likes "Hustle." That's no surprise since SAG voters gave "Hustle" their ensemble cast award Saturday, the guild's equivalent of best picture. The SAG ensemble winner has matched the best picture Oscar winner in nine of the last 18 years, including 2013's winner "Argo." One of the exceptions was 2012 when SAG voted for "The Help" while the Academy chose "The Artist."

Among "Hustle's" key awards or noms are four Golden Globe wins -- best picture–comedy or musical, actress–comedy or musical (Amy Adams), supporting actress (Jennifer Lawrence) and actor– comedy or musical (Christian Bale); 10 British Academy (BAFTA) noms, including best picture, director, actor, actress, supporting actor and supporting actress; a Directors Guild of America (DGA) nom for Russell; and a Writers Guild of America nom for best original screenplay.

 "Hustle's" resonated not only on the awards front, but also at the boxoffice with a domestic gross through Sunday of $116.4 million. That's the kind of commercial success Academy voters typically like to see from best picture contenders.

David O. Russell is a high profile filmmaker and that always helps with Academy voters. "Hustle" is his third directing Oscar nom, following "Silver Linings Playbook" in 2013 and "The Fighter" in 2010. He's also been Oscar nominated twice for screenwriting – adapted screenplay in 2013 for "Playbook" and now for original screenplay for "Hustle."

Cons: It's hard to be a frontrunner and keep the momentum going. Oscar's final voting begins Feb. 14 and ends Feb. 25, so there are still many weeks of campaigning to get through. Because "Hustle" is part-drama and part-comedy -- a "dramedy" in Hollywood speak – it could suffer from the Academy's tendency to applaud more socially significant movies and not honor comedy. "Hustle's" strongest competitor for best picture,"12 Years a Slave," is clearly the kind of "important" socially relevant drama that Oscar often prefers.

"Hustle" was dealt an unexpected blow Sunday when the PGA announced a tie for its top award between "Slave" and "Gravity." While that certainly wasn't good news for "Hustle," it came on the heels of the film's big feel-good SAG victory Saturday.

(2) "Captain Phillips" (Columbia) has six Oscar noms, including best picture, but not including a best directing nod for Paul Greengrass (a best directing Oscar nominee in 2007 for "United 93") or a best actor nom for Tom Hanks (a two-time best actor Oscar winner in 1994 for "Philadelphia" and in 1995 for "Forrest Gump"), which could mean choppy waters sailing into the Oscars. On the other hand, it did score a best film editing nod, which is typically very helpful.

Noms: Film editing, picture, sound editing, sound mixing and adapted screenplay.

Pros: "Phillips" has nine BAFTA noms, including best picture, directing, film editing and lead actor (Hanks) and many British Academy members are also Academy members voting for the Oscars. It has a DGA nom for Greengrass although he was snubbed by the directors' branch (as was the case last year with Ben Affleck), and a best adapted screenplay WGA nod. "Phillips" has done well at the boxoffice, grossing $105.7 million through Sunday.

Cons: Films nominated for best picture that don't have directing noms are considered "orphans" in the race. "Phillips's" lack of acting noms suggests little support from the actors' branch. Although Hanks and Barkhad Abdi received SAG noms for lead actor and supporting actor, they didn't win and SAG didn't give "Phillips" an ensemble cast nod. It had a PGA nom, but didn't win.

(3) "Dallas Buyers Club" (Focus Features), which has six Oscar noms, got a big boost from its strong SAG showing with best lead actor and supporting wins going to Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto.

Noms: Actor, supporting actor, film editing, makeup & hairstyling, picture and original screenplay.

Pros: It's definitely helpful to have success with SAG given the actors' strength in the Academy. McConaughey and Leto also won Golden Globes, so they've been making acceptance speeches that Oscar voters have most likely seen. "Dallas" also has a WGA nod for original screenplay. "Dallas" is the kind of socially significant drama that resonates with Academy members.

Cons: No directing nomination or DGA nod for Jean-Marc Vallee ("The Young Victoria"). It had a PGA nom, but didn't win.

(4) "Gravity" (Warner Bros.) has 10 Oscar noms and leads the pack, tied with "Hustle." It's been regarded as a prime Oscar contender since it opened last Oct. 4. Last weekend saw Warner Bros. put it back in theatres for an Academy run, adding 789 locations for a total of 944. Although this was its 16th week in release, "Gravity" grossed a healthy $1.95 million, bringing its domestic cume to an enviable $258.4 million.

Noms: Actress (Sandra Bullock), cinematography, directing (Alfonso Curaron), film editing, original score, picture, production design, sound editing, sound mixing and visual effects.

Pros: "Gravity" has both directing and film editing noms to go with its best picture nod. Its boxoffice success is exactly what the Academy likes to see from a best picture winner. Curaron won the best director Golden Globe and is a DGA nominee. The film received a PGA nod and won in a tie with "Slave." It has 10 BAFTA noms, including best picture, director, actress, film editing and original screenplay so there could be crossover support from British Academy members who also are Academy members and vote for the Oscars.

Cons: With only two actors appearing in the movie, its potential for acting noms is obviously limited (and George Clooney's role didn't really position him for serious supporting actor consideration). Bullock received a SAG nom, but lost to "Blue Jasmine's" Cate Blanchett. "Gravity's" strong technical and visual effects profile could work to Curaron's benefit but leave Academy members thinking that directing was the most important aspect of the film to honor. Its 3D presentation could make it seem less "important." No PGA nom.

(5) "Her" (Warner Bros.) has five Oscar nods, but isn't a directing, acting or film editing nominee, which puts the quirky romantic drama at a disadvantage. On the other hand, it's had its share of supporters throughout the awards season and Oscar voters are known for surprises.

Noms: Original score, original song ("The Moon Song"), picture, production design and original screenplay.

Pros: "Her" won best film and director (Spike Jonze) in the National Board of Review vote and tied with "Gravity" for best film from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. Jonze won the Golden Globe for best screenplay. It also received a WGA original screenplay nod.

Cons: Joaquin Phoenix didn't get SAG or Oscar noms for best actor and although Scarlett Johansson's voiceover performance was much admired she didn't get supporting actress consideration. It's tough to win best picture without acting branch support and directing and film editing nods, but in a race where frontrunners like "Hustle" and "Slave" could cancel each other out, a less likely contender with passionate support from some Academy branches could emerge. It had a PGA nom, but didn't win.

(6) "Nebraska" (Paramount) with six Oscar noms turned out to be a much strong contender than many awards gurus anticipated earlier in the season. In particular, Bruce Dern's wins to date have greatly elevated the small drama's profile.

Noms: Lead actor (Dern), supporting actress (June Squibb), cinematography, directing (Alexander Payne), picture and original screenplay.

Pros: Bruce Dern started the ball rolling last May by winning best actor at the Cannes Film Festival. Since then he's also taken top acting honors in votes by the L.A. Film Critics Association and the National Board of Review. Dern originally appeared to face stiff competition from another veteran actor, Robert Redford ("All is Lost"), but as the awards season progressed Dern's prospects soared while Redford failed to receive an Oscar nom.

June Squibb received a SAG nom, but lost to "Slave's" Lupita Nyong'o. She also was a Golden Globe supporting actress nominee, but lost to "Hustle's" Jennifer Lawrence. The film received a WGA original screenplay nod. It's got a directing Oscar nom, but isn't in the DGA race. Its three BAFTA nods are for actor, original screenplay and for its black white cinematography.

Cons: Dern was a SAG lead actor nominee, but lost to McConaughey. "Nebraska" isn't a film editing nominee. Nonetheless, its strong set of Oscar noms gives it surprise potential if the race is as tight as many observers believe it is right now. It had a PGA nom, but didn't win.

(7) "Philomena" (The Weinstein Company) may only have four Oscar noms, but it also has the benefit of being Harvey Weinstein's best picture contender. Oscarologists know it's smart never to underestimate Harvey's ability to turn underdogs into Oscar winners.

Noms: Actress (Judi Dench), original score, picture and adapted screenplay.

Pros: Its four BAFTA noms include best picture and actress. While Dench lost to "Jasmine's" Blanchett in the Globes and SAG races, she's raised "Philomena's" profile considerably by that TV exposure and probably prompted more Academy members to see the film than would otherwise have been the case. The Harvey Factor is always very important – e.g., the best picture wins for the British historical biographical drama "The King's Speech" in 2011 and for the black & white silent romantic comedy drama "The Artist" in 2012.

Cons: No directing (Stephen Frears, an Oscar nominee in 1991 for "The Grifters" and in 2007 for "The Queen") or film editing noms puts any best picture nominee at a disadvantage. Its screenplay wasn't eligible for a WGA nom because the film wasn't produced under WGA jurisdiction. No PGA nod.

(8) "12 Years a Slave" (Fox Searchlight Pictures) has nine Oscar noms – one less than "Hustle" and "Gravity" -- and is considered the frontrunner by many Hollywood handicappers. As is true of "Hustle," "Slave" has a fantastic set of noms to work with.

Noms: Actor (Chiwetel Ejiofor), supporting actor (Michael Fassbender), supporting actress (Lupita Nyong'o), costume design, directing (Steve McQueen), film editing, picture, production design and adapted screenplay.

Pros: With directing, film editing and three acting nods, "Slave" has the right kind of Academy branch support. It's had key wins in the Golden Globes (best picture – drama), SAG Awards (supporting actress) and the Broadcast Film Critics' Critics Choice Awards (best picture, supporting actress and adapted screenplay). In their 18 year history, the Critics Choice Awards have mirrored the best picture Oscar 12 times.

"Slave" has 10 BAFTA nods, including best picture, directing, film editing, actor, supporting actor and supporting actress). It received a PGA nomination and won in a tie with "Gravity." McQueen is a DGA nominee and if he were to win in the DGA or Oscar votes he'd be the first African-American director to do so. A milestone victory like that would generate broad media coverage that would help drive "Slave" at the boxoffice for months and attract a much broader audience than it's reached thus far.

"Slave" is the kind of socially significant film Academy members often gravitate to when they think about what kind of statement they're making to the world about the American movie industry by choosing a best picture.

"Slave's" boxoffice success is notable for a small indie drama. Through last weekend it had grossed an impressive $40.6 million. Fox Searchlight just put it back in theatres for an Academy run, adding 647 locations for a total of 761. The picture took in a healthy $1.5 million in its 14th week of release.

Cons: Its screenplay wasn't eligible for a WGA nom because the film wasn't produced under WGA jurisdiction. "Slave's" onscreen brutality could make it tough for some Academy members to watch, but as its awards profile has grown so has interest in seeing it.

(9) "The Wolf of Wall Street" (Paramount) has only five Oscar noms, but is one of the highest profile contenders in the best picture race.

Noms: Actor (Leonardo DiCaprio), supporting actor (Jonah Hill), directing (Martin Scorsese), picture and adapted screenplay.

Pros: With directing and two key acting noms, "Wolf" has a lot going for it. Scorsese, who's also a DGA nominee, won the best directing Oscar in 2007 for "The Departed," that year's best picture winner. Leonardo DiCaprio, who starred in "Departed," just won the Golden Globe for actor in a musical or comedy for "Wolf." The film received a WGA nod for adapted screenplay.

Through last weekend, its fourth in theatres, "Wolf's" domestic cume was a solid $90.3 million.

Cons: No film editing nomination. "Wolf's" very hard R rating reflecting its heavy emphasis on sex and drugs could be a problem for some Oscar voters since the Academy's membership is an elderly and socially conservative group. "Wolf's" four BAFTA noms do not include best picture (but do include key noms for directing, film editing, screenplay and actor). It had a PGA nom, but didn't win.

Bottom line: Oscar's best picture race isn't a level playing field, but sometimes there are surprises inside those sealed envelopes.