The Oscars may not be until February, but the race is heating up with each passing weekend of new releases. Every week ScreenCrush will analyze the Oscar race using predictions, critical reactions, and box office numbers to gauge which titles will be the most remembered come awards season.

Last week I looked at Mad Max: Fury Road’s Oscar chances, which seem slim, though possible with the right marketing tactics. Before that, I predicted which films will end up nominated in the top categories based on the buzz following the fall film festival season. But now it’s time to determine whether the unexpected and the underdogs have what it takes to enter the race.

This past weekend saw the opening of three big studio films in wide release, with a handful of limited releases shining even brighter. Of the wide releases, Steven Spielberg’s Cold War drama Bridge of Spies has the merit and names to get Best Director and Best Picture nominations, along with ones for Tom Hanks as lead and Mark Rylance as Supporting. Guillermo del Toro’s harshly received gothic romance Crimson Peak will likely only get recognition in the Costume and Production Design categories, while the third major release and top opener of the weekend, Goosebumps, is more box office fodder than Oscar fare. But it’s the little guys and festival favorites that are already garnering the most Oscar buzz: Netflix’s Beasts of No Nation and A24’s Room. Can Netflix and the up-and-coming indie distribution company make it all the way to the Academy Awards?

Will Netflix Get Its First Oscar Nomination?

The Cary Fukunaga child soldier drama tells the story of a young West African boy initiated into a platoon of child soldiers. So far, Beasts of No Nation has received positive reviews, with a current Rotten Tomatoes score of 90 percent and a Metacritic score of 78. But the film is an entirely new beast when it comes to film distribution. Last Friday, the drama debuted exclusively on Netflix while simultaneously opening in Landmark theaters. (AMC, Regal, Cinemark and Carmite boycotted it for the immediate streaming competition, while others saw the Landmark release as a PR stunt for Netflix and chance to qualify for Oscar eligibility.) Opening in a weekend packed with new releases, and with other awards potentials like The Martian and Steve Jobs still playing, it may seem like Beasts will easily get swept under the rug and forgotten. But despite its largely unknown cast (besides star Idris Elba), and only opening on 31 screens for an incredibly low $50,699 gross, Fukunaga’s film will still have life on Netflix, possibly giving it a greater advantage than other limited releases.

Every time Netflix subscribers log in they will have the chance to watch Beasts of No Nation, a film that will probably never expire from the streaming site. If audiences don’t make it out to see Beasts in the theater, or if they don’t live near a Landmark, they can access the film at any time. Netflix executives said they believe the low box office numbers won’t hurt their awards chances, with one rep telling Deadline that they’re “happy” with the film’s streaming metrics from the weekend (metrics Netflix declines to release). It seems likely that more Academy voters will have the option to watch Beasts at their own leisure leading up to awards season, rather than racing to theaters or awaiting awards screeners.

Netflix

Yet beyond the box office and streaming debates, Beasts of No Nation remains an incredible film. Regardless of how it reaches audiences, it’s a powerful and effective drama worthy of awards recognition. I already championed Abraham Attah, the first-time young Ghanian actor who stars in the film, after I saw Beasts at the Toronto International Film Festival and am still hoping he becomes this year’s equivalent to Quvenzhané Wallis with a Best Actor nomination. Although more young women tend to make the cut when it comes to young actors getting nominated (the last male was Hayley Joel Osment in 2000), I think Attah’s multifaceted performance could sway the voters in his favor. As for Elba, his villainous Commandant is a compelling mix of charisma and malevolence that could earn him a Supporting spot.

While the Best Picture and Director races are overcrowded this year, Beasts may have a shot at both. That’s also not to mention that a Best Pic nomination would help diversify the race and save us from The Whitest Oscars Ever 2.0. If Fukunaga doesn’t get in for directing, he might also get recognized for his adapted screenplay (though that race is overflowing, too) or his cinematography. Whatever happens, Netflix has a pretty solid chance to get an invite to the Oscars this year. While it may not win the top awards, a nomination for Beasts would signal an important shift in the film industry. Could more daring, challenging films partner with Netflix in the future to find their niche audiences online while qualifying for awards in a limited theatrical run? Netflix might just change the model of film distribution and the Oscar race. But speaking of distribution, there’s another company out there that might finally get some Oscar notice.

Will A24 Finally Make It to the Oscars?

A24 Films is well on its way to becoming a household name, at least in households that pay attention to movies. Although only three years old, the company has already garnered significant attention, thanks to releases like Spring Breakers and The Bling Ring. David Ehrlich wrote for Slate that the distribution company might just save the future of film with its audacious slate of some of the year’s most compelling titles. In 2015 the company has released sci-fi indie Ex Machina, James Ponsoldt’s The End of the Tour, and Amy, the latter of which will likely earn the company a nomination (and possibly a win) for Best Documentary Feature. But this past weekend saw the opening of A24’s latest release, Lenny Abrahamson’s Room, which follows a young woman and her five-year-old son forced to live in a garden shed by her captor.

A24

The film has been praised by critics with a Metascore of 82 and a 95 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, and has been garnering Oscar buzz since its Toronto debut. It won the TIFF People’s Choice award, which is a solid predictor of the Academy’s Best Picture winner. In previous years, TIFF winners 12 Years a Slave, The King’s SpeechSlumdog Millionaire and American Beauty all went on to win the Oscar, while TIFF winners The Imitation Game, Silver Linings Playbook and Precious all got Best Picture nominations. Room is no doubt a shoe-in for one of the top slots in the category, but it would be surprising if it beat out current Best Picture frontrunner Spotlight, as well as Carol, The Danish GirlThe RevenantSteve JobsBrooklynInside Out, The Hateful Eight, The MartianYouth and Joy, all of which have potential to enter the race. But A24 is also sure to get recognition in the acting categories.

So far the lead actress race looks to be dominated by Cate Blanchett, who will likely earn a nomination for either her charged turn as 60 Minutes producer Mary Mapes in Truth or her fantastic role in the upcoming romance drama Carol. But Blanchett is facing some competition from Room’s Brie Larson. The actress gives a captivating performance as Ma, one that will no doubt tug on the heartstrings and tear ducts of Academy voters. Larson might also be joined as a nominee by her Room co-star Jacob Tremblay. The 9-year-old actor is one of the most vital parts of the tense drama and might end up competing against the likes of Michael Keaton, Idris Elba, and Benicio Del Toro for Best Supporting Actor. That’s also not to mention Room will likely get nods for Best Adapted Screenplay and Cinematography. Just as IFC got Boyhood to the Oscars last year with eight nominations, A24 might fill those shoes, even if just partially, with Room.