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Two gay cowboys and a pre-operative transsexual muscled aside an enormous gorilla on Tuesday as Hollywood’s Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced its Oscar nominees.

The big winner was Brokeback Mountain, the ill-fated love story of two Wyoming ranch hands, which led all films with eight nominations including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor.

Other films with reason to celebrate were Crash, which took six nominations including Best Picture, and Trans-america, the offbeat story of a transsexual woman confronting her parents, which was nominated for Best Actress.

Whatever their merits as a cultural barometer, the Oscars, to be announced on March 5, seemed to underline a recent trend in Hollywood as audiences and critics moved away from big-budget blockbusters to smaller, independent fare.

Of the five Best Picture nominees, only one – Steven Spielberg’s Munich, which cost $70m to make – had a sizeable budget. By contrast, King Kong, a special effects-laden extravaganza that cost more than $200m, was shut out in the major categories and instead had to make do with nominations for art direction and sound editing.

In addition to supplying all-important bragging rights, the Oscars represent big business. Munich, for example, which has failed to live up to box office expectations, should see a boost in ticket sales. The nomination could be even more important in the DVD market, where films now generate most of their profits.

“A Best Picture nomination and win will mean several hundred thousand additional DVD sales and higher TV and foreign rights,” says Tom Ortenberg, president of Lionsgate theatrical films, which released Crash.

A Best Picture victory, for example, could be the difference between a brief stay on Wal-Mart’s shelves and a coveted position there for the long-term.

With so much riding on the awards, the studios spend millions of dollars each year to promote their best candidates. The biggest beneficiaries are the ubiquitous Hollywood billboards, newspapers and trade journals such as Variety, which soak up much of the advertising. Universal Pictures shelled out last month for multi-page spreads in the New York Times and Los Angeles Times to promote Munich.

Brokeback Mountain, released by Focus Features, Universal’s specialty division, has generated plenty of free publicity because of its controversial subject matter and its strong critical reviews. With a production budget of just $14m, the film has already earned $51m and counting. Crash has also turned into a bonanza, costing about $7m and grossing more than $54m.

Lionsgate took a novel – and aggressive – approach with its awards season marketing campaign. In an unprecedented move, the studio mailed copies of Crash to each of the 110,000 members of the Screen Actors Guild at a cost of more than $200,000.

“Our strategy was to make the film the most widely available and accessible,” says Sarah Greenberg, the studio’s head of publicity.

In annual ritual, Ms Greenberg and other nervous studio executives crowded into the Academy Theater on Wilshire Boulevard at 5:30am on Tuesday, poised to either call their bosses and wake them with good news or convey disappointment via Blackberry e-mail.

Yet even before the announcements, Ms Greenberg was already laying the groundwork for the next phase of the awards game by trying to manage expectations. “With Crash I feel like we’ve already won,” she said on Monday. “This would just be icing on the cake.”

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