Confusion over Covid and awards controversy as Oscars build-up gathers pace

It looks like business as usual, but there are plenty of issues running alongside this year's Oscars build-up, as Arts Editor Nina Nannar reports

It’s two years since they had an in-person event, three years since they had any presenters - the Oscars' organisers are praying that this year marks a proper comeback to business almost as usual.

It feels very much like the usual pre-Oscars run-up, except, of course, for the testing. We’ve been tested and tested and tested again.

For guests at the Dolby Theatre, proof of vaccination and two recent negative PCR tests are required, the second one taken on the day before.

So there’s the anxious wait to see if they do indeed come back negative. And there’s some head-scratching here that for awards presenters and performers, the rules are less strict - only the negative tests are required.

As Elizabeth Wagmeister from film magazine Variety told me, it’s a decision that many are struggling to understand.

'It's still a big question mark': Elizabeth Wagmeister explains the controversy at the awards

Oscar nominees, Belfast director Sir Kenneth Branagh and Ciaron Hinds, one of the film’s stars, both tested positive in the days following the Bafta awards.

It’s unclear where they got Covid - the film awards season is long and packed - but there is panic here that the Oscars get-together could have implications further down the line.

Nonetheless, the usual Oscars preparations are going ahead. I visited celebrity Chef Wolfgang Puck who’s been feeding the Oscars' crowds at the events and the Governors Ball afterwards for years.

He’s doing an international menu alongside the young stars of the Ghetto Gastro kitchen from the Bronx in New York, it certainly all looked sumptuous.

Puck believes in the power of arts and food to bring people together - how to celebrate, I muse, when there is conflict in the world.

He despairs, he tells me, it is impossible to shut it out, but he adds, perhaps only half jokingly, if he could have fed Putin some decent food - Russian food is not so good he says - perhaps it would have changed his mind.

'We want to bring people together... and I think it starts with food': Wolfgang Puck talks about the choice of cuisine

The events in Ukraine have manifested themselves in several protests in Los Angeles in support of its people in the weeks leading up to the awards and another is expected this weekend.

And with Ukrainian born actress Mila Kunis booked as a presenter, after she and her husband Ashton Kutcher led a fundraising campaign for the people in her home country, it is clear that some Oscars guests will use the podium to voice their anger at what is going on.

From issues over diversity and equality and harassment, the Oscars platform has a history of being used to talk issues apart from the winners and losers.

And there may be another protest in the run-up, after a controversial decision by the organisers to award eight of the categories in the hour leading up the actual broadcast - so not live like the rest of the awards.

These will then be edited down to put in the programme. Those categories are those for short film (live action, animated and documentary), editing, music score, hair and make up, sound and production design.

The academy is desperate to keep the show to three hours - it has been losing viewers for many years now. Last year’s was around 10 million, the lowest ever, that was during the pandemic, but the year before was also a record low.

The move has been described as divisive and one that would “fracture the filmmaking community” by effectively relegating some of the categories.

Previous short film Oscar winner Danish director Martin Strange-Hansen, and producer Kim Magnusson who are nominated this year for their live action short On My Mind, told me film lovers are the one losing out.

'They really have to shake it up... and figure out what is going to be the format': Kim Magnusson talks about this year's awards and its future

Another bid to engage viewers comes courtesy of a new category the Fan Favourite Award.

Voted for by twitter users, it's hoped linking up with social media will hold the audience by giving them a chance to participate. And of course there’s the Elephant in the Room.

The biggest box office films of the year are often missing from film awards - this category will perhaps give the biggest one of all Spider Man; No Way Home, a chance for recognition.

As for the award night itself, it is very likely that the streaming service Netflix will take away the ultimate prize Best Film, for The Power of the Dog, a prize it’s long coveted.

And its closest competition is from Coda, that film too from a streaming service, Apple TV+.

So history in the making in Hollywood on Sunday. The hope is the winners will dominate the headlines afterwards, the Oscars are indeed back, but not everything is back to normal.

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