February 25, 2007 / 1:49 AM / 12 years ago

"Little Miss Sunshine" wins indie film awards

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - “Little Miss Sunshine” won the top prize at the Spirit Awards, the art-house world’s equivalent of the Oscars, on Saturday, a day before the underdog comedy competes in four categories at the Academy Awards.

Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris accept the best Director Award for their direction of the film "Little Miss Sunshine" at Film Independent's Spirit Awards in Santa Monica, California, February 24, 2007. REUTERS/Shaun Best

The movie, which revolves around a family’s cross-country trip to a preteen girls’ beauty pageant, ended up with four awards, but it was a bittersweet moment for the five people who produced it. Only three will get to take home the Oscar if it wins for best picture on Sunday. The group that organizes the Oscars, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, limits the number of credited producers to three.

“We’re very bitter,” producer Albert Berger joked backstage. Along with production partner Ron Yerxa, he will not be allowed to take the podium if the film overcomes the odds to take the coveted Oscar. “Whoever produces the movie should be acknowledged by the Academy,” he said.

The Oscar rule came into effect after five credited producers, including Miramax Films co-founder Harvey Weinstein, crowded the stage in 1999 to claim the best picture Oscar for “Shakespeare in Love.”

“Little Miss Sunshine” was a low-budget — $7.7 million — crowd pleaser that took five years to make. The film’s writer, Michael Arndt, said he was originally fired from the project when it spent three years at one studio, Focus Features, but then rehired. It eventually landed at art-house studio Fox Searchlight, and sold more than $58 million worth of tickets at the North American box office.

Arndt took the Spirit for best first screenplay. The film’s other honorees were veteran actor Alan Arkin for his supporting role as a junkie grandfather, and the film’s directors, the husband-and-wife team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, whose day job is making music videos and commercials.

The top acting prizes went to Oscar nominee Ryan Gosling and newcomer Shareeka Epps for the drug drama “Half Nelson.” Oscar-winner Frances McDormand won a Spirit for her supporting turn in the suburban saga “Friends With Money.” The screenplay Spirit went to Jason Reitman, the writer/director of the smoking satire “Thank You For Smoking.”

“Little Miss Sunshine” and “Half Nelson” led the contenders with five nominations each.

The Spirit Awards, in their 22nd year, honor low-budget American films based on such criteria as original, provocative subject matter and degree of independent financing.

There is usually some crossover among nominees for the Spirits and Oscars, but little common ground among the winners because the Oscars generally favor big studio films.

Gosling, who will compete for the best actor Oscar for his turn as a drug-addicted high-school teacher, downplayed his chances.

“I better not win. I got a lotta money on it,” he joked.

“Little Miss Sunshine” was the only film nominated for both the best feature Spirit and the best picture Oscar. Arkin, who beat co-star Paul Dano for the Spirit, will also compete for an Oscar, as will “Sunshine” scribe Arndt, and 10-year-old title heroine Abigail Breslin.

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