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Diversity and 'La La Land' Ready for Their Oscar Close-ups

FILE - A giant Oscar statuette at the 88th Academy Awards Nominees Luncheon in Beverly Hills, Calif.

After two straight years of all-white acting nominees and an overhauling of the motion picture academy, the Oscars were poised to trend in a different direction Tuesday.

Barry Jenkin's luminous coming-of-age tale "Moonlight,'' the crowd-pleasing African-American mathematician drama "Hidden Figures'' and Denzel Washington's fiery August Wilson adaption "Fences'' are set to lead a notably more diverse group of contenders when nominations for the 89th annual Academy Awards are announced Tuesday morning, beginning at 8:18 a.m. EST.

Whether fairly or not, the nominations will be seen as a test for the revamped film academy. It will be the first Oscars voted on since academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs ushered in new membership rules and added 683 new members as a way to diversify a predominantly white, male and elderly group, which now numbers 6,687.

Change will be in the air Tuesday morning, regardless of the outcome. Gone will be the traditional pre-dawn reading of nominations before a throng of bleary-eyed reporters and publicists. Instead, the academy has digitized the process and will now stream the nominations on or in a pre-produced program featuring Isaacs, Jennifer Hudson, Brie Larson, Emmanuel Lubezki, Jason Reitman and Ken Watanabe.

One of the morning's big questions is just how many nominations "La La Land'' will land. Damien Chazelle's exuberant love letter to musicals is expected to lead all films and could rival the record 14 nods received by "All About Eve'' and "Titanic.'' It has already set a Golden Globes record with seven wins.

Though "La La Land'' and other likely best-picture nominees such as "Arrival'' and (less certainly) "Hidden Figures'' are knocking on the door of $100 million at the North American box office, it's possible that none of the best picture nominees will have grossed more than $100 million.

After an unlikely awards season run, the smart-aleck superhero "Deadpool'' ($363.1 million) has an outside shot at crashing the party, but, otherwise, this year's top Oscar films appear set to be one of the lowest grossing bunch ever.

The regular business of today's corporate-driven Hollywood is increasingly set apart from the industry's awards season, where smaller, critically adored films like "12 Years a Slave,'' "Birdman,'' "Boyhood'' and "Spotlight'' have recently dominated. Only one major studio - Paramount, which distributed "Arrival,'' "Fences'' and "Silence'' - is even in the running for a best picture nomination. Amazon, however, is all but certain to land its first best picture nomination for Kenneth Lonergan's "Manchester by the Sea,'' which the streaming retailer partnered with Roadside Attractions to distribute.

The dearth of blockbusters will pose a test for host Jimmy Kimmel, who'll be presiding over the Feb. 26 Oscarcast for the first time. While the Academy Awards are still among the most-watched TV programs of the year, ratings have been in decline the last two years. Last year's broadcast, hosted by Chris Rock, drew 34.4 million viewers, an eight-year-low.

Rock's show, which he introduced as "the White People's Choice Awards,'' was rife with Hollywood's diversity debate. This year's - where politics may take over the spotlight - will surely be seen as an improvement. But many have always held that the industry's inclusivity problems are rooted not in its award shows but in its power brokers: executives, agents and producers. Latinos will likely be on the outside of this year's Oscars. And no woman is considered in the running for best director.

Yet this year's most competitive category is best actress, where Emma Stone ("La La Land''), Natalie Portman ("Jackie''), Amy Adams ("Arrival''), Meryl Streep ("Florence Foster Jenkins''), Annette Bening ("20th Century Women''), Isabelle Huppert ("Elle''), Ruth Negga ("Loving'') and Taraji P. Henson ("Hidden Figures'') will be whittled down to five.

While once seen as a sure-thing, Nate Parker's Nat Turner drama "The Birth of a Nation'' saw its Oscar fortunes collapse when rape allegations from 1999 against Parker resurfaced. And yet the fortunes of another actor-director previously shunned by Hollywood may be turning. Mel Gibson's World War II drama "Hacksaw Ridge'' is hoping for a best picture nomination.