Yesterday I asked several industry people the following: “What does your gut tell you what the most popular Best Picture contender might be? Put another way, which Best Picture contender seems to have the most respect combined with the least amount of negatives? Could that film be American Hustle, which is apparently gaining in esteem despite the fact that it’s not as good as Silver Linings Playbook or The Fighter? Or Dallas Buyers’ Club? Or Gravity or Philomena?”

It goes without saying the old-fart contingent won’t be embracing The Wolf of Wall Street, which is the only high octane rocket-fuel movie out there — the only one that takes a flying leap off the high-diving board and goes “yeaahhh!”

It’s basically 12 Years A Slave, American Hustle and Gravity at the top. Or is that old news now? Slave “is universally acclaimed and a chance for Academy to say ‘we get it,'” says a journalist friend. The “gradual climber” seems to be Hustle but the more correct term is probably “incher,” as in inching along. Two marketing friends are telling me that the 70-plus softies really like Philomena. A director friend says he’s only hearing about 12 Years A Slave and Gravity. Saving Mr. Banks, Wolf of Wall Street, Dallas Buyers Club and Nebraska are all in. Maybe Her, maybe August: Osage County, maybe…who knows?

Brand new development: a new “sympathy for Steve McQueen” vote might be forming in response to last night’s Armond White heckling incident during the N.Y. Film Critics Circle awards in NYC.

The bottom line is that there’s no big dog in the race. Preferences are all over the map. Nobody seems to know anything. More than a few people are saying “I’m waiting to be knocked out or fall in love…where is that film? I haven’t seen it yet!”

On top of which the old farts haven’t seen half the films they’ve been sent in the mail. Those who’ve managed to pop them into their DVD players, I’m hearing, have either turned them off or fallen asleep after 30 minutes. (For the 137th time the Academy needs to get rid of the deadwood or at least weight their ballots so they don’t count as much.)

I’m also hearing that the membership has been so slow to send in their ballots (the deadline is Wednesday) that Academy staffers, I’m told, are actually calling people to say “c’mon, where’s your ballot?”