Ron Howard, "A Beautiful Mind"
Oscar history: Howard's never been nominated before, even though his "Apollo 13" was in the running for best picture and he won the Directors Guild of America award for directing it.
In his favor: Howard is extremely well-liked and successful. He's provided employment and profits for many academy voters in a wide variety of commercially viable movies.
Working against him: If "Beautiful Mind" wins for best picture, voters might decide to honor another director to spread the wealth around.
Robert Altman, "Gosford Park"
Oscar history: Five nominations, the other four being for the classic movies "MASH," "Nashville," "The Player" and "Short Cuts."
In his favor: An Oscar for Altman, 77, would be tantamount to a lifetime achievement award.
Working against him: Altman is, and always has been, outspoken and critical of the Hollywood establishment, which has earned him as many enemies as admirers.
Peter Jackson, "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring"
Oscar history: The New Zealand native's first time at bat.
In his favor: "Lord of the Rings" has been Jackson's personal passion for the past decade. The scope of the achievement -- and its worldwide box-office success -- is every director's dream come true.
Working against him: He has two-thirds of the "Rings" trilogy yet to come. Voters may take a wait-and-see attitude before honoring him.
Ridley Scott, "Black Hawk Down"
Oscar history: Two previous nominations, "Thelma & Louise" and last year's "Gladiator."
In his favor: He was overlooked last year for reviving a long-dead genre (the sword-and-sandal epic). Honoring him for the even more stylistically challenging "Black Hawk" could be a way of recognizing him for both achievements.
Working against him: "Black Hawk" didn't get a best picture nomination, and its graphic footage and documentary style might make it difficult for some voters to warm up to.
David Lynch, "Mulholland Drive"
Oscar history: Two prior nominations, for the groundbreaking "Blue Velvet" and the memorable "The Elephant Man."
In his favor: Lynch has managed to work within the system while making films that are daring both in content and style.
Working against him: While critics were over the moon for "Mulholland" (the film won numerous critics groups' awards), its roots as a failed TV pilot could work against Lynch with academy voters, as could its out-there sensibility.