Even if you are an avid movie-goer, chances are you haven’t heard of Keisha Castle-Hughes. But this Sunday night, Castle-Hughes, the thirteen-year-old star of the small New Zealand film “Whale Rider,” is up for an Oscar against such Hollywood staples as Charlize Theron and Naomi Watts.

Although the 76th Annual Academy Awards promises to be the usual star-studded affair, when the cameras flash to the nominees, Castle-Hughes’ face will not be the only one that is not instantly recognizable. Long derided as simply gratifying the Hollywood establishment, this year’s Academy Awards appear to be reaching out to smaller-scale films and more subdued performances, perhaps taking a step toward shedding their reputation of being red-carpet rewards.

This propensity for pandering is most visible in the best picture category. Although in the past few years, with nominations and awards for movies like “The Pianist” and “American Beauty,” the Oscars have begun to recognize smaller-scale pictures, many believe the Academy still sticks to a kind of formula for its best picture pick.

Catherine Brobeck ’06, co-president of the Yale Film Society, said she thinks the Academy has a tendency to be drawn to “epic” movies, which she referred to as “Oscar-bait.” Past winners, such as 1997’s “Titanic” and 1995’s “Braveheart,” do little to dispel this theory. But Film Studies Co-Chairman Dudley Andrew said there has been a small change in nominations lately.

“From 1929 to 1999, I think the Academy Awards — as everyone said — was a popularity prize for the film establishment,” Andrew said.

Andrew pointed to the many nods for Brazilian film “City of God” — which garnered nominations both for best director and best cinematography — as evidence of a slight shift in the Academy. While both Andrew and Brobeck said they had reservations about “Lost in Translation” as a film, they both cited it as a good example of a smaller film that has garnered the Academy’s support with four nominations.

Brobeck also pointed out the noticeable absence of Miramax’s “Cold Mountain” from the best picture nominees. Although many critics insist that “Seabiscuit” (wrongly) took the Civil War epic’s place in the nomination line-up, for some it is a welcome surprise to see the Academy ignore what was clearly intended as an Oscar movie.

Much of the nomination and award process for best picture, however, boils down to the bottom line. Sarah Pillsbury ’74, producer of the Academy-award winning short film “Board and Care,” has been a member of the Academy since 1989. Also the producer of “Desperately Seeking Susan” and “How to Make an American Quilt,” Pillsbury said this year in particular was controversial for the marketing and distribution of films to voters because the Academy considered prohibiting “screeners” — the advance copies of films studios send to voters — in an attempt to curb piracy.

Screeners enable voters to watch as many films as possible at their own convenience. As voters only need to prove that they have seen all the nominees in three categories — documentaries, shorts and foreign films — many Academy members will vote for categories in which they have not seen all the nominees.

Many times, this kind of voting is greatly influenced by the studio’s ad campaigns. In 1998, “Shakespeare in Love” famously won after an intensive marketing campaign by Miramax. Pillsbury said this strategy ultimately “created a lot of resentment” toward Miramax chairman Harvey Weinstein. But many studios learned a lesson from “Shakespeare in Love”: voters are impressionable.

Tom Toro ’04, a movie reviewer for the Yale Daily News, said although he would be watching the awards on Sunday, he did not put too much stock in the best picture winner.

“I have the feeling that whoever wins the awards are going to be the films that had full-page ads in the New York Times leading up to [the show],” Toro said.

But Pillsbury said there is always a chance for an awards-show coup.

“The thing about the Academy Awards,” Pillsbury said. “Is there always have been surprises, as much as it seems controlled by the industry.”

Outside of the controversial best picture category, the Academy seems more willing to take risks with acting nominations. Besides Castle-Hughes and Clarkson, there are a few other acting surprises. Bill Murray and Johnny Depp were both unconventional nominees, for “Lost in Translation” and “Pirates of the Caribbean,” respectively. The Academy frequently overlooks performances as quiet as Murray’s, and Depp has long been an Academy outsider. Diane Keaton is by no means a new face to Hollywood, but her inclusion in the best actress nominees for her role in “Something’s Gotta Give” is novel simply for the film’s status as a comedy. And even though Renee Zellweger practically already has her statuette in hand for best supporting actress in “Cold Mountain,” critics are applauding the acknowledgment of Shohreh Aghdashloo’s nuanced performance in “House of Sand and Fog.”

Because the nominations for acting come from within the acting community itself, this category allows for more “unusual” nominations, Pillsbury said. Giving the example of Patricia Clarkson, who is nominated for best supporting actress for her role in “Pieces of April,” Pillsbury said the acting categories were “more of a meritocracy” than some of the others, though she was quick to point out other factors.

“There’s always some people who are nominated purely for talent,” Pillsbury said. “Though of course if they make a lousy speech, everyone forgets whether they deserve the award or not.”

Now broadcast in over 150 countries, the awards have a viewership of approximately 40 million people.

Toro, who said he was especially pleased about the nominations for “City of God” and Depp, said he will be watching the show Sunday night, but warily.

“Even though the Oscars are fun and entertaining to watch, it’s important for viewers to take them with a grain of salt,” Toro said.

Andrew, who said he sees the awards show as “a mix of celebrity and fashion and real talent,” will not be watching, but he said he will pay attention to the winners come Monday morning.

“I am interested generally in what Los Angeles feels, what Hollywood feels,” Andrew said. “But I’d rather make up my own mind.”

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