Sean Penn, Viggo Mortensen, Sofia Coppola and pint-sized Whale Rider star Keisha Castle-Hughes and may soon be able to watch Oscar contenders from the comfort of their own couches. Rob Schneider, on the other hand, will still have to schlep to the cinema.

The first cluster of names was on the list of 127 lucky Hollywood types invited to join the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences this year--i.e., the people who get those free DVDs so they can cast informed Oscar votes without having to go see a movie in a yucky public theater.

Schneider? Not so much.

For years, the Academy has been shrouded by secrecy, with its membership and voting procedures kept tightly under wraps. This year, however, the organization publicized its invite list for the first time, partially in an effort to quell the notion that the 6,400 folks who vote on the Oscars are a bunch of doddering old fogies, completely out of touch with today's notion of entertainment.

"That's a very mistaken impression," Academy President Frank Pierson told Daily Variety. "Most members are active [in the Industry] and continue to be active for years and years."

Indeed, this year's invite list is well populated by fresh faces, including Castle-Hughes, 14, Scarlett Johansson, 19 and Maggie Gyllenhaal, 26.

Another change the Academy is making this year is to pare its list of names down to the best of the best. While invitations have been issued to potential new members twice a year in the past, this group will be the only invitees to join the Academy in 2004.

"This remarkably accomplished group is a slightly smaller one than we've extended invitations to in recent years," Pierson said. "It reflects a decision to slow the growth of the Academy somewhat, and to become even more selective in our membership process."

Each branch of the academy was asked by the Academy to "give us your most impressive candidates," rather than letting candidates who met the minimum requirements squeeze into the nomination pool, Pierson said. This year's selections were culled from a pool of 348 submissions.

The stricter guidelines mean that Sofia Coppola should feel especially honored--she was asked to join by both the writers and directors branches. If she accepts an invite, the Oscar winner (for Lost in Translation) will have to choose which branch she'll join.

Another recent Oscar winner, Penn, will have to decide whether to join an organization he once derided. Penn told E! Online in 1997 that Academy members don't "even know how to find their butt with their hands. So, what does their opinion mean? It don't mean anything."

Among the other actors asked to join this year include recent Oscar nominees Shohreh Aghdashloo (House of Sand and Fog), Ken Watanabe (The Last Samurai) and Patricia Clarkson (Pieces of April). The rest of the actors making the cut: Paul Bettany, Keith David, Hope Davis, Bill Nighy, Audrey Tautou and Treat Williams.

Other directors on the list: Fernando Meirelles (City of God), Miguel Arteta (The Good Girl) and Gurinder Chadha (Bend It Like Beckham).

But what about Schneider, star of Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo?

The actor had actively campaigned for an Academy seat, but was ultimately rejected last summer after a committee of his better respected peers decided he had not yet turned in a "strong performance, comic or otherwise, that showcases additional strengths."

Schneider, less than thrilled with the rejection, responded in a manner unlikely to further impress the selection committee.

"Dear [Academy executive director] Bruce Davis and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences," his reply began. "All I wanted was the free DVDs! Jesus Christ! That's the only reason anybody joins the Academy, for the free DVDs!"

If that's the case, chances are that 127 invitees are tuning up their DVD players right now in eager anticipation of award show season.

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