'Little Miss Sunshine' wins the pre-Oscar beauty contest

It only cost $8m (£4m) to make, but Little Miss Sunshine has become a serious contender for an Oscar after emerging as the surprise winner at an influential Hollywood awards ceremony.

The film won best picture award at the Producers Guild of America over the weekend. It follows the Hoover family as they take to the road to get their seven-year-old daughter, Olive (played by Abigail Breslin), into the Little Miss Sunshine beauty contest. The story depicts sexualised little-girl monsters strutting their stuff in the competitive world of wannabe babes.

The nomination from the Producers Guild of America - an association made up of film and television producers - has previously been echoed at the Academy Awards, where the Oscars are handed out. It has predicted the eventual best-picture Oscar 11 times in the past 17 years - although not for the past two years.

Last year, the Guild chose Brokeback Mountain while the Academy eventually went for Crash and the year before it went for The Aviator, the story of Howard Hughes' life featuring Leonardo DiCaprio which lost out to Million Dollar Baby on Oscar night.

However, many of the Guild's members also belong to the Academy of Motion Picture Art and Sciences, which awards the Oscars. The Oscar winners will be announced on 25 February during the 79th annual Academy Awards.

Little Miss Sunshine has been a commercial and critical hit - earning $60m in the US so far. At Saturday evening's ceremony it was up against much more expensively produced movies - including cultural drama Babel, crime thriller The Departed, musical Dreamgirls and The Queen, starring Helen Mirren.

In other awards given out by the Producers Guild, Cars was named the year's best animated movie. NBC's The Office - the US adaptation of Ricky Gervais's BBC sitcom - won the award for the best television comedy series. The non-fiction television award went to CBS's flagship news show, 60 Minutes.

Abigail Breslin, star ofLittle Miss Sunshine, has previously appeared in two movies - Keane and The Santa Clause 3. The film is directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris - both of whom are established in music television and commercials. This is their first film feature.

Little Miss Sunshine also stars Alan Arkin as Olive's grandfather, a heroin-snorting womaniser, Greg Kinnear as his son Richard, an uninspiring motivational speaker, and Paul Dano as his grandson Dwayne, the proud possessor of a "Jesus Was Wrong" T-shirt who reads Nietzsche and has taken a vow of silence until he qualifies as a pilot. Toni Collette plays Richard's wife, Sheryl, who is forced to look after her suicidal brother Frank (played by Steve Carell), a gay literary genius in meltdown.

It was released by Fox Searchlight, a unit of Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation.

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