LONG READ: Stars to reunite at never-before-seen Oscars

Los Angeles, United States: It will be an Oscars like no other, televised live from a train station, celebrating films few saw in theatres and reuniting Hollywood's A-listers for the first time in more than a year as a result of Covid-19.

Chloe Zhao, whose film "Nomadland" about migrant Americans wandering the West in vans is tipped to win the best picture and is nominated for five more Oscars, is among the nominees scheduled to emerge from long seclusion on Sunday to participate in Tinseltown's biggest night.

"We want to see our friends! We have a lot of friends nominated this year, and we're really excited to see them," Zhao said of the 93rd Academy Awards.

But while the nominees enjoy a much-needed catch-up, the usual high-wattage glamour of the stars parading in couture gowns and jewels will be more subdued, with organizers promising only a "teeny-tiny red carpet."

The guest list is strictly restricted, with even studio executives forced to watch on television, and the majority of the Hollywood press corps will be absent – something stars with a more nervous disposition will appreciate.

"I do think there's going to be some more freedom" for the attending nominees, Variety journalist Marc Malkin told AFP.

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However, celebrities have apparently been advised they should remove their masks when on tape, despite the fact that the pandemic is raging around the world "There would be an awkwardness of 'how much are we supposed to be excited about?' Do we exchange hugs? Should we not embrace?" he continued.

'Up in the air' 

"Nomadland," which has dominated the majority of the award shows leading up to the Oscars, joins Sunday as one of the clearest best picture frontrunners in years.

Zhao is also expected to become just the second woman and first person of color to win the Golden Globe for best director.

With movie theatres closed for the entire year and blockbuster material postponed, her film, including rivals "Minari" and "Sound of Metal," captured the pandemic zeitgeist with its breathtaking portrayal of society's isolated margins.

Contenders such as "Promising Young Woman" and "The Trial of the Chicago 7" tapped into #MeToo and anti-racism protest themes that felt more topical than ever, but those films remain outsiders for the night's grand prize.

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The acting races, in which it is possible that all four awards will go to people of color, promise to be tenser after years of #OscarsSoWhite protests.

According to Deadline awards columnist Pete Hammond, the best actress is "up in the air" because all five finalists, including "Nomadland" star Frances McDormand, Viola Davis ("Ma Rainey's Black Bottom"), and Carey Mulligan ("Promising Young Woman"), have received awards for their work.

Although the late Chadwick Boseman is expected to win just the third posthumous acting Oscar in history for his lead role in "Ma Rainey," one Academy voter told AFP that Anthony Hopkins' performance as a dementia sufferer in "The Father" might generate a "surprise."

Daniel Kaluuya is expected to win best supporting actor for "Judas and the Black Messiah," while Youn Yuh-Jung ("Minari") from South Korea is the one to beat for supporting actress.

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A win for "The Trial of the Chicago 7" or "Mank" would give Netflix its first-ever best picture streaming win; a win for "Sound of Metal" would do the same for rival Amazon.

Although neither of those results is possible, Netflix is expected to win the most awards on the night as a result of technical categories and the documentary "My Octopus Teacher."

'Possibility' 


The Oscars are arriving two months later than the commuter trains at their Union Station venue; producers believe the live ceremony would have been "impossible" without the two-month break.

The display will have a significant physical presence as a nod to the previous year's unusual circumstances.

Honorary awards and musical performances will be presented at a Hollywood theatre and the Academy's new film museum, while Europeans unable to fly will congregate at "hubs" in London and Paris.

The main event, however, will be the distribution of golden statuettes at the 1930s-built station, which is notable for its Spanish colonial and Art Deco stylings.

The location was chosen for its grand scale and outdoor courtyards, where white tents sheltering everything from Covid testing booths to catering had recently been built, much to the chagrin of onlookers who had just arrived to catch a train.

Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh, the show's co-producer, has characterized the Covid-mandated adjustments as an "opportunity" for a show unlike "anything that's been done before."

The event will be filmed in the style of a feature film rather than a television program. Harrison Ford and Brad Pitt will be among the A-list presenters.

"We're ready," the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences tweeted early Sunday.

However, due to the lower profile of this year's winners, pandemic-era screen fatigue, and a downward trend, the Oscars are likely to receive the same low ratings as other recent award shows.

"It would be a wonderful day for the Academy if it only drops 50 percent," Hammond told AFP. "It's just the way it's going."

Oscars more diverse as a pandemic, protests shake up Hollywood

Experts claim that thanks to long-brewing industry shifts as well as Covid-19's transformation of Hollywood, this year's Oscars may set new standards for diversity.

After much criticism for its mostly white, male membership, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has dramatically reformed its membership in recent years, accepting large batches of new Oscar voters each year that better represent society's diversity.

"I think that this Oscars will be forever remembered as the one where changes in the voting body made six years ago in the wake of #OscarsSoWhite has delivered on a promise by the Academy to reform itself," Black US actor Dwayne Barnes ("Menace II Society") wrote in a column for industry site Deadline.

While it's difficult to link those changes to this year's Oscar nominations, the current Oscar race is strikingly different from previous years.

Last year, Cynthia Erivo ("Ma Rainey's Black Bottom") was the only non-white actor among the 20 nominees, but this year, the late Chadwick Boseman ("Ma Rainey's Black Bottom"), Black British actor Daniel Kaluuya ("Judas and the Black Messiah"), and South Korean star Youn Yuh-Jung ("Minari") are the clear frontrunners for acting awards.

Viola Davis, Boseman's co-star, is in a crowded field for best actress, while Chloe Zhao ("Nomadland"), a Beijing native, appears to be a shoo-in for best director if she can beat out Emerald Fennell ("Promising Young Woman").

The #OscarsSoWhite movement was initiated on social media in January 2015 to protest and draw attention to the Academy's annual awarding of the vast majority of white candidates.

The Academy's 6,000 graduates were 93 percent white and 76 percent male at the time.

By this summer, the prestigious organization had met its target of doubling the number of women and non-white participants, with one-third of women and 19 percent of "underrepresented minorities" in attendance.

"It took a few years to take hold, but there is every reason to hope that the change (in the crop of nominees) is... not a one-time occurrence," wrote Barnes.

'Perfect storm' 


In addition to #OscarsSoWhite, the #MeToo campaign, which was sparked by sexual harassment allegations against disgraced Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, has led to demands for more female representation in the film industry as a whole.

The campaigns' effects have grown in recent years, but in 2020, they clashed with a sudden and unexpected change: Covid-19.

The coronavirus pandemic has forced movie theatres to shutter and postpone Oscar-baiting blockbusters like Steven Spielberg's "West Side Story" and the sci-fi blockbuster "Dune," both directed by white men.

"They really shook the tree, and this year for the first time, because Covid knocked out a lot of the big movies... that left sort of a bare field," said Sasha Stone, founder of the Awards Daily site, which has analyzed film awards since 1999.

She noted that the "whittled down array" of films in contention "happened to be filmed by filmmakers of color and women," and that "nobody had to worry about the opening weekend" box office figures for films without star power.

She told AFP, "It turned into the perfect storm."

During pandemic lockdowns, the meteoric rise of streaming services "is definitely a part of" the overall leap forward of representation, as television "has become far more diverse more quickly than film," according to Darnell Hunt, a professor of social sciences at the University of California, Los Angeles who focuses on race, media, and culture.

"The streamers really took off in terms of their audiences," Hunt said. "It definitely helped present to the Academy a far more diverse slate of films than they're used to seeing." Hunt is the lead author of UCLA's annual Hollywood Diversity Study.

'The salad' 


With California reopening as vaccines become more widespread, Hollywood could take on a more familiar appearance next year, with a less diverse slate of nominees.

Hunt, on the other hand, does not anticipate a full return to "business as normal... as it was before the pandemic."

"The signs are pointing in the right direction," he told AFP, noting that in addition to membership changes, the Academy is bringing in eligibility criteria for best picture candidates involving minimum representation of minorities, women, and LGBTQ cast and filmmakers.

"I think all of those things collectively bode well," Hunt said.

Of course, it remains to be seen if improvements to the Oscars would have a significant effect on how the film industry as a whole work.

Stone cautioned that awards like the Oscars are becoming more "separate from box office anyway now, because they've become so niche," and that blockbusters as a whole will likely remain less diverse.

"If male directors make more money, then they'll keep getting hired for the superhero movies. And if white actors are drawing more money, they'll keep getting hired for the superhero," she said.

Oscar nominations can help films to make money and studios to burnish their image, but ultimately "it's like how McDonald's has the salad," she said.

"McDonald's sells Big Macs all over the world, but they have this salad that makes them seem like they care about health.

"That's what the Oscars are to Hollywood -- the salad."

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