LOS ANGELES – No matter who wins Sunday, Hollywood can both brag about an unusually daring crop of Academy Awards films and hang its head in embarrassment that hardly any came from the studios that dominate the movie business.
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The Oscars are as establishment as it gets in the entertainment world. So it's a triumph of art over commerce that low-budget, fierce dramas such as the cowboy romance "Brokeback Mountain," the ensemble tale "Crash," the Truman Capote story "Capote" and the Edward R. Murrow saga "Good Night, and Good Luck" are the awards darlings this time over the escapist blockbusters that often rule.
"It doesn't have anything to do with the budget of the film. It has to do with the scope and scale of ambition and the skill that people brought to it to realize that ambition," said James Schamus, a producer of best-picture front-runner "Brokeback Mountain."
"None of these films is small in what they're trying to accomplish," he said.
Those films — along with their fellow best-picture nominee, the assassination thriller "Munich" — had rung up $230 million in domestic grosses as of a week before the Oscars. Last year's best-picture nominees tallied $315 million and together drew the smallest audiences among key Oscar contenders in 20 years.
What the Oscars signal this time is dissatisfaction with the big movies into which the studios pour most of their money. In the eyes of the 5,800 industry professionals who vote on the Oscars, dark character stories were more deserving than the usual studio crowd-pleasers.
Oscar attention always draws more people to see nominated films, and that has been especially helpful for this year's best-picture contenders, most of which have not had the benefit of huge marketing budgets.
"Munich" was the only best-picture nominee to emerge from a big studio. The others were independently produced or came out of studio-aligned arthouse banners such as Focus Features and Sony Pictures Classics.
The beauty of the academy "is it points to things that aren't necessarily something that audiences would generally go to," said George Clooney, a triple nominee as supporting actor in the oil-industry thriller "Syriana" and for directing and co-writing "Good Night, and Good Luck."
Artistic triumph though they may be, the Oscars themselves may suffer for it, at least in TV ratings. Generally, the fewer people who have seen the key nominees, the fewer who tune in to watch the Oscars.
With last year's modest box-office lineup at the Oscars, 42.1 million people caught the show, down 1.4 million from the previous year, when "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" was the big Oscar draw. The biggest Oscars audience was 55.2 million the year king of blockbusters "Titanic" ruled the ceremony.
As of last weekend, 36.4 million people had seen this year's five best-picture nominees in theaters, compared to 173.8 million the year of "Titanic." "Crash" already is out on home video, adding millions more viewers to this year's best-picture field, but still leaves the ceremony at risk of becoming a ratings dud.
Tom O'Neil of the awards Web site, theenvelope.com says this year's Oscar show will probably be the lowest rated ever, but it shouldn't matter.
"If we judge the success of the Oscars by the number of people who watch them, then we're as guilty as Hollywood studios who judge the success of movies by how many people see them," he said.
Still, ABC and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences are trying to maximize the show's appeal, loading up on A-list celebrities as Oscar presenters, including Jamie Foxx, Jennifer Lopez, Nicole Kidman and Tom Hanks.
The marquee players provide name recognition for an Oscar show whose acting nominees are heavy on less-familiar performers such as David Strathairn of "Good Night, and Good Luck" and Amy Adams of "Junebug."
Academy president Sid Ganis said first-time host Jon Stewart should help lure viewers, as well as the cultural phenomenon over the gay love affair in "Brokeback Mountain."
The Oscar drama itself also may entice movie fans to tune in. There are acknowledged favorites in most key categories, including "Brokeback Mountain" director Ang Lee, "Capote" star Philip Seymour Hoffman as best actor and Reese Witherspoon as country singer June Carter in "Walk the Line" as best actress.
But none of the front-runners look like slam-dunks, and dark horse winners could walk away with any of the top Oscars.
Some awards watchers feel "Crash" could pull an upset over "Brokeback Mountain" for best picture. The best-actor lineup is particularly strong, with any of the other four nominees a potential spoiler for Hoffman. For best actress, Witherspoon faces serious competition from Felicity Huffman as a transsexual preparing for a sex change in "Transamerica."
Win or lose, a number of top nominees will be on stage as presenters, including Clooney. It will be the first trip to the Oscars for Clooney, who turned down invitations to present awards in the past because he only wanted to show up if he were nominated.
"I didn't want to feel like I was trying to force my way into the film community," he said. But now that he's been nominated, Clooney joked: "I'll show up at every awards show."