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Oscars 2021: What to watch for at this year's Academy Awards ceremony

Four key storylines that could define the ceremony, including a potentially historic night for "Nomadland" director Chloé Zhao.
Photo illustration with Chloe Zhao, Carey Mulligan, Chadwick Boseman, Yeri Han and Steven Yeun.
Anjali Nair / NBC News

Hollywood’s old guard is grappling with stark questions. Do movie theaters have a future? Do films still have the power to define American popular culture? What will become of all the buttered popcorn?

But the industry will hit pause on that existential crisis Sunday night as it honors some of the finest movies released in 2020 and the early months of 2021, an eclectic crop of small-scale dramas that got a chance to shine in a year without blockbusters.

“Mank,” David Fincher’s ode to Tinseltown’s storied past, leads the pack of contenders with 10 nominations — but “Nomadland,” Chloé Zhao’s portrait of the itinerant life in the American West, is favored to scoop up the best picture prize.

Here’s a look at some of the key storylines at the 93rd Academy Awards, which kick off at 8 p.m. ET on ABC. (We’ll be live-blogging all the top moments and breaking down the big wins.)

Chloé Zhao eyes historic victory

Zhao has dominated awards season, winning best director honors at the Golden Globe Awards, the British Academy Film Awards, the Directors Guild of America Awards and various critics association events.

If Zhao, 39, wins the best director trophy Sunday night, she would make history as the first woman of color to prevail in that category — and only the second woman to win that award, 11 years after Kathryn Bigelow was recognized for the Iraq war drama “The Hurt Locker.”

The best director race this year is notable because, for the first time, two women were nominated in the same year: Zhao and Emerald Fennell, who made her feature debut with “Promising Young Woman,” a candy-colored revenge thriller starring Carey Mulligan.

Zhao could also become the winningest woman in a single year if she sweeps all four categories in which she is nominated: picture, directing, editing and adapted screenplay. (Walt Disney holds the record for most wins by a man in a single year, earning four in 1954.)

Image: Chloe Zhao
Chloé Zhao at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah on Jan. 22, 2018.Taylor Jewell / Invision/AP file

Zhao, who made her feature debut in 2015 with “Songs My Brothers Taught Me” and drew acclaim for the 2017 neo-Western “The Rider,” is widely considered one of the most exciting filmmakers in Hollywood. Zhao’s next project is Marvel’s “Eternals,” which heads to theaters in November.

Melissa Silverstein, the founder of Women and Hollywood, an initiative that advocates for more inclusion in the film industry, said she hopes to be able to say Zhao “won the highest film award in the world.”

“I will say it with the biggest smile on my face knowing that her win will open up doors to so many others to dream they, too, can be the best director,” Silverstein said.

In the acting races, diversity may triumph

The film academy was harshly criticized in 2015 and 2016 for putting up slates of all-white nominees across the four acting categories. But this year the acting contenders are far more diverse, representing a wider array of identities and experiences.

Riz Ahmed (“Sound of Metal”), Andra Day (“The United States vs. Billie Holiday”), Leslie Odom Jr. (“One Night in Miami…”) and Lakeith Stanfield (“Judas and the Black Messiah”) are among the nine performers of color recognized for their work this year.

In a first, actors of color could win all four acting prizes.

That’s what happened earlier this month at the Screen Actors Guild Awards, where honors went to the late Chadwick Boseman (“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”), Viola Davis (“Ma Rainey’s”), Daniel Kaluuya (“Judas and the Black Messiah”) and Youn Yuh-jung (“Minari”).

Chadwick Boseman as Levee in Netflix's "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom."
Chadwick Boseman as Levee in Netflix's "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom."David Lee / Netflix

Oscars for three of those performers would be especially significant.

Boseman would be only the third actor to win posthumously, following Peter Finch for “Network” and Heath Ledger for “The Dark Knight,” and his co-star Davis would become the second nonwhite woman to win best actress, after Halle Berry for “Monster’s Ball.”

Youn, a 73-year-old veteran of the film and television industries in South Korea, would become the first Korean actress to win an Oscar.

Hollywood’s big night, Covid edition

In recent months, awards show organizers adapted to the realities of the pandemic. The producers of the Emmys, for example, put on a mostly virtual show in September: Nominees sat in their living rooms or other remote locations, and winners gave acceptance speeches over Zoom.

But the trio of producers tapped to helm this year’s Academy Awards — Jesse Collins, Stacey Sher and celebrated director Steven Soderbergh — were determined to stage a primarily in-person event without the interference of videoconferencing technology.

The auditorium won’t be packed with hundreds of attendees, but the ceremony will feature nominees and presenters live from Union Station in Los Angeles, the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood and select international locations via satellite, the academy has said.

The producers plan to comply with pandemic protocols, saying in a letter last month they were “treating the event as an active movie set, with specially designed testing cadences to ensure up-to-the-minute results,” including an on-site safety team with PCR testing capability.

Image: 88th Annual Academy Awards - Show
The view of the stage during the 88th Annual Academy Awards at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, on Feb. 28, 2016.Kevin Winter / Getty Images file

“I think the Oscars are going to feel a lot smaller and more intimate this year,” said Dave Karger, a host on Turner Classic Movies and a frequent guest on the “TODAY” show. “It will look and feel very different from any Oscars ceremony that any of us have ever seen.”

The sight of A-list stars decked out in formal attire might bring a welcome sense of normalcy to pandemic-weary viewers, though. The lineup of presenters includes Angela Bassett, Laura Dern, Joaquin Phoenix, Brad Pitt, Reese Witherspoon, Zendaya and “Parasite” auteur Bong Joon Ho.

“In keeping with our awards-show-as-a-movie approach, we’ve assembled a truly stellar cast of stars,” the producers said in a joint statement last week. “There’s so much wattage here, sunglasses may be required.”

The post-game ratings

The producers, for all their efforts to deliver a lively show, face a basic reality: Ratings for awards shows are declining overall.

The ratings for the Grammys in March dropped by 53 percent from last year, to 8.8 million viewers — an all-time low for the music world’s marquee celebration. The viewership for the Golden Globes in February plunged by 60 percent, to a paltry 6.9 million viewers.

Chris Beachum, the managing editor of the awards prediction website Gold Derby, offered a dire forecast: “ABC and the ceremony producers certainly know this will be the lowest-rated Oscars ever.”

Beachum added that the critically acclaimed but little-seen dramas contending for best picture this year are likely not going to attract a large audience. “It will feel more like an Independent Spirit Awards with no blockbusters,” such as “Black Panther” and “A Star Is Born,” he said.

Bad ratings for the telecast could deal yet another blow to a film industry already grappling with shuttered theaters and growing competition from at-home streaming options. But after Hollywood’s roughest year in recent memory, a swanky party might be its own consolation.