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And the winner of the 76th Annual Academy Awards is ... New Zealand.

And the winner of the 76th Annual Academy Awards is ... well, ask a Kiwi.

There's a New Zealand connection to nearly half of this year's major nominations through such Academy darlings as "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World," "Whale Rider," "The Last Samurai," and of course, "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King."

Impressive enough in its own right for a land 7,000 miles from Hollywood and with the population of South Carolina, the feat has been especially notable for a culture to which movie-making has come late. Not to mention that the country's cosmopolitan savvy was only relatively recently likened to "a one-horse town where somebody had shot the horse."

Not so today. New Zealand's favorable exchange rate against the greenback, its spectacular natural scenery, and the existence of a small but dramatically growing movie business has seen Hollywood's moguls, always in search of the new best thing, beating a path to its verdant doors.

"What we're talking about here is a country that's made the mountain come to Mohammed," says John Dybvig. An American-born acting coach, Mr. Dybvig has seen his fortunes rise with the local movie business over the 20 years he has lived and worked in New Zealand. He notes that much of the country's recent successes have been forged largely on its own terms.

Today, many of the same countrymen refer, without irony, to their capital, Wellington, as "Wellywood," which probably suits many of this year's Oscar nominees just fine, too.

New Zealand actors had the lead roles in "Master and Commander" and "Whale Rider" (Russell Crowe and the young Keisha Castle-Hughes respectively), with the latter title also having being shot entirely on location here. "The Last Samurai" was filmed on New Zealand's North Island, as well, and local movie industry figures were involved in most aspects of its production, including the film's award-nominated costume design.

Looming above them all, much as a number of eye-popping effigies based on its characters have been hoisted high above strategic locations here in Wellington, is the "The Return of the King."

Directed by Peter Jackson, a self-taught film-maker who first came to the craft as a spare-time activity while working as a platemaker at a local newspaper, the trilogy is recognized as the breakthrough work that finally clued the entertainment world into what Ian Pryor, a local film critic, describes as the culture's "freshness, its innovative energy and unpretentiousness" as a movie-making capital.

As a matter of fact, New Zealand's scenically bedazzling locations had already been shown to good effect by Mr. Jackson in a number of earlier works, most notably his giddy matricidal feature, "Heavenly Creatures," from 1994, which garnered an Oscar nomination for best screenplay, and quirkily showcased the agrarian region of Canterbury. That film followed hard on the gothic heels of "The Piano," directed by Jane Campion, another local, who was probably the first to bring the country's wild beachfronts and weird-looking forests to a wider international audience."

But it was "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy that finally clued Hollywood into the fact that the country also represented a "tremendously cost-effective place to do business," says Mr. Pryor, the author of a just-published biography of Jackson.

Instead of the galloping fees for computer-generated images typically charged by such Hollywood giants as Industrial Light & Magic, which asks upwards of $100,000 per effects shot, Jackson showed how the severing of a goblin's head, or creation of a jabbering hobbit could be achieved at $18,000 a pop. That's a much cheaper proposition than even Canadian film directors were prepared to offer, and in a country boasting almost all of Canada's natural attractions, but more affordably squeezed together - and without the attendant controversy that's increasingly swirled around American movie studios whenever they farm out major work to the north.

The catch for New Line, the backers of the Rings project, was that they had to entrust the $250-million venture to the Kiwis running the show out of Jackson's custom-made production house in Wellington. At its height in 1999-2001, the operation was one of the country's largest hirers, employing a 300-strong crew, 50 actors with speaking parts and more than 15,000 extras.

Jackson's lavish spending has moved Wellywood beyond its shoestring-budget past. Prior to "The Lord of the Rings," the production costs for most New Zealand films ran significantly less than one million dollars. Just this Thursday, the government announced that "The Last Samurai" pumped $135 million into the local economy.

Part of the reason why New Zealand's 4 million residents have come to embrace Jackson's success as their own, says Pryor, is that almost everyone here now knows somebody involved in one of his films, or one of the other films to have been made on their coat-tails. Pryor himself is a good example of the no degrees of separation: He started his career as a film critic in the same newspaper building Jackson used to shoot plates.

Dybvig, the transplanted American, worries a little about what this might mean from next week, irrespective of how well the Kiwi connection holds upon Oscar night. "I mean, after you've all done so well, where do you go from here?" he asks.

In Dybvig's case, he will shortly be working as actor Tom Sellick's double on the CBS cable movie "Ike: Days of Thunder," a wartime drama that is being shot in New Zealand. More prominently, Jackson has already begun work here on his next big-budget feature, a remake of "King Kong," while Ms. Castle-Hughes, the star of "Whale Rider" and the youngest-ever nominee for best actress, has signed on for a role in "Star Wars: Episode lll," due for release next year, to which she has promised to bring a contemporary Kiwi flavor. Middle Space, perhaps?

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