Streaming films like "Mank" and "The Trial of the Chicago 7" will battle with frontrunner "Nomadland" for this Monday's coveted Oscar nominations, setting up the grand finale to an awards season transformed by the pandemic.
With most US movie theaters closed all year due to Covid, the Academy Awards have been delayed to their latest-ever date -- April 25 -- while several big-screen studio blockbusters skipped their 2020 releases entirely, leaving an eclectic field of hopefuls.
Netflix looks set to benefit most. No streaming film has ever won the Academy's most prestigious prize -- best picture -- but Aaron Sorkin's anti-Vietnam War protest drama "The Trial of the Chicago 7" is seen as Netflix's strongest hand.
"Mank" -- David Fincher's reimagining of Hollywood's Golden Age -- and 1920s blues drama "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" are likely to score across major and technical categories for the streaming giant.
Amazon Prime meanwhile has diverse candidates from civil rights play adaptation "One Night in Miami" and "Sound of Metal," about a rock drummer who loses his hearing, to comedy sequel "Borat Subsequent Moviefilm."
Appropriately, with Hollywood's private screening rooms and glitzy film campaign events shuttered, even Oscar voters have been forced to watch nearly all the 366 contenders via the Academy's own online streaming platform.
"We are almost used to streaming now," said one member of the Academy, which has traditionally championed the big-screen experience.
"It's quite incredible what can happen within a year. None of us have really been in a movie theater."
Still, the streaming frontrunners will have to get past "Nomadland," which won top trophies at the prestigious Venice and Toronto festivals, and has swept early award season prizes at the Golden Globes and Critics Choice Awards.
The intimate US road movie comes from Searchlight -- the arthouse distributor now owned by Disney which has steered the likes of "The Shape of Water" and "Birdman" to recent Oscars glory -- and its campaign has featured a number of drive-in screenings.
"I would say 'Nomadland' right now seems to be the de facto front runner," said the Academy member, who also predicted a good year for "uplifting" features such as Pixar's "Soul" and "Borat" thanks to 2020's gloom.
"I heard other Academy members that felt some of the films were too bleak... they were looking more for escapism," added the voter, who asked not to be named.
- 'Fitting tribute' -
Nominations voting closed Wednesday, and the final hopefuls will be unveiled early Monday by Priyanka Chopra Jonas and Nick Jonas, in a live-streamed announcement.
The 93rd Academy Awards ceremony itself will be broadcast live and "in-person" from multiple locations, including the Oscars' usual Dolby Theatre base in Hollywood.
Precise details will depend on local Covid restrictions. But expectations that Los Angeles can start reopening movie theaters at limited capacity as soon as next week have boosted organizers.
"Contagion" director Steven Soderbergh will produce this year's pandemic-struck Oscars, which have a 50-year high number of potential contenders after eligibility criteria was relaxed to admit more streaming titles, and movies released in early 2021.
The large field means few awards watchers have placed any confident bets on the leading acting contenders, with Variety film awards editor Clayton Davis noting that there are many "areas of fluidity."
"Borat" co-star Maria Bakalova has become "a darling of this year's quarantine campaign trail," he wrote, while Frances McDormand ("Nomadland") and Viola Davis ("Ma Rainey") are likely picks too, alongside Carey Mulligan for "Promising Young Woman."
On the best actor side, former winner Anthony Hopkins will be hard to beat for "The Father," but Chadwick Boseman's posthumous turn as a troubled trumpeter in "Ma Rainey" looks nailed on for a nomination -- and possibly more.
"I think it would be a fitting tribute to him, to his career also," said the Academy voter. "Maybe we will reward him, his family, his wife, to give him that honor."
"We're all emotional human beings -- whatever moves us and touches us."