HOLLYWOOD - The Oscars return to Hollywood on Sunday, as nominees from top contending films including “CODA,” “The Power of the Dog” and “Belfast” gather in a futuristic, glittering ballroom for the movie industry’s biggest night.

After a year away from the Dolby Theatre due to the pandemic, the 94th Academy Awards are back in the heart of Tinseltown, where A-listers who have passed strict Covid-19 testing protocols will walk the red carpet in their finest gowns and tuxedos once again.

Dark, psychological Western “The Power of the Dog” had looked set to earn Netflix its much-coveted first best picture statuette, but the race has been flung wide open in the past few weeks.

“CODA” -- an uplifting drama from Apple+ TV about an eccentric deaf family, and their musical daughter who can hear -- has surged in popularity, and is now tipped by many industry insiders as the favorite. Either would be a historic first best picture win for a streaming service.

Kenneth Branagh’s childhood-inspired “Belfast” cannot be ruled out -- even if its director is one of several nominees whose presence at the Oscars was thrown into doubt by a positive Covid test last week. “It’s a two- or three-horse race,” said Variety film awards editor Clayton Davis, who has witnessed “big momentum” for “CODA.” “People have had a very rough last two years. And ‘CODA’ is positive, it’s feel-good. And I think voters are in a feel-good mood.” “It’s a very tight race,” agreed Hollywood Reporter awards columnist Scott Feinberg. While Jane Campion’s “The Power of the Dog” is adored by many, it is “a bit more polarizing” and “not everyone’s cup of tea” -- a handicap, as Academy voters are asked to rank all 10 best picture nominees.

“CODA,” which began life as an indie drama, benefits from being perceived as “the underdog,” an Academy voter said.

“Some Academy members I speak to are still reluctant to vote for a Netflix film as a best picture. But then here comes Apple, a streaming service as well,” said the voter, who spoke on condition of anonymity, noting the “twist of irony.” In a year when big-budget blockbusters finally hit reopened movie theaters and rival streamers amped up their libraries with star-packed new films, the acting categories are being contested by some of the biggest names in the business.

Will Smith is the strong favorite for best actor for his turn as the father of Venus and Serena Williams in “King Richard.” Feinberg called the best actress race “truly one where any of the five nominees could win,” but said Jessica Chastain’s portrayal of a real-life televangelist in “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” was the “likeliest” to strike Oscars gold.

Davis agreed that was the “smart money,” but said there was “a lot of love for Penelope Cruz,” who could spring an upset for Spanish drama “Parallel Mothers.” Kristen Stewart, Nicole Kidman and Olivia Colman are also vying for the statuette.

Troy Kotsur -- one of several deaf actors in “CODA” -- and former Broadway dancer Ariana DeBose of “West Side Story” are favorites in the supporting categories. Campion is well-placed to become the third woman to win best director -- just a year after Chloe Zhao became the second -- and sci-fi epic “Dune” could win the most Oscars overall due to its dominance in technical categories.

The ceremony will take place beneath sweeping, fluorescent blue arches and thousands of sparkling crystals and LEDs, described by designer David Korins as a “fun and electric and exciting... picture of the future.”

But television network ABC will hope for a return to the higher ratings of years past. The 2021 gala was watched by a paltry 10 million viewers -- a 56 percent decline from 2020, which was already a record low. Efforts to win back viewers include a new “fan favorite” prize voted for online by the public -- introduced after popular blockbusters such as “Spider Man: No Way Home” and Bond flick “No Time To Die” received only a handful of nominations. And several attendees plan to use Sunday’s red carpet interviews to speak out against a controversial decision to pre-tape the bestowing of awards in eight categories. The pre-announced winners of best sound, best score and other less starry Oscars will have their speeches edited into the broadcast. But still, the perceived snub has been controversial in the industry.

“I understand that the Academy are working under tremendous pressure, but I think that they made a mistake,” Denis Villeneuve, director of “Dune,” told AFP.

The extra time will be allocated to longer musical performances and comedy skits from hosts Amy Schumer, Wanda Sykes and Regina Hall.

Beyonce will perform her nominated track from “King Richard,” lending the gala much-needed stardust, while the latest 007 theme will be performed by fellow nominee Billie Eilish.

The Oscars televised ceremony begins at 5:00 pm (0000 GMT today, Monday).