Will ‘Fruitvale Station’ follow ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’s’ path to Oscars?

After launching to immediate accolades at Sundance, “Fruitvale Station” had a successful run on the festival circuit before its summer release. Now, it’s quietly building momentum on its way to possible Oscar nominations. Sound familiar? “Beasts of the Southern Wild” had a similar run last year.

In fact, the trajectories of the two films are so alike it’s eerie.

“Beasts” succeeded by doing respectable business in June, out of the way of later Oscar contenders, and then creeping back into the conversation later in the awards season. It was the right kind of film for that strategy, inspiring not only respect but strong passion from its fans, who kept it alive at the end of the year: a handful of Spirit Award nominations here, a few breakthrough director prizes there. By the time the Oscars came around, it was the little indie that could, and it did. Few anticipated it would do as well as it did at the Oscars, reaping bids for Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, and Actress, but we probably should have.

Now “Fruitvale Station” finds itself in the same position. It was released around the same time (July 12, compared to June 27 for “Beasts”) and made about the same amount of money ($16 million domestically, compared to $12 million for “Beasts”). Their Metacritic scores are almost identical (85 for “Fruitvale,” 86 for “Beasts”). The films have performed so similarly you’d think they were handled by the same people, but they weren’t: “Beasts” was distributed by Fox Searchlight, while “Fruitvale” was released by the Weinstein Company.

An early release is a double-edged sword: you can avoid fighting for attention during the crowded fall months, but you risk being forgotten by the time year-end awards come around, or you get out in front so fast you burn out; pundits and awards-voters lose interest and look elsewhere.

But “Fruitvale” is now inching its way back into the public consciousness just like “Beasts” did. The advantage of having a young filmmaker like Ryan Coogler and an up-and-coming lead actor like Michael B. Jordan (watch our interview with Jordan here) is that the film has had various breakthrough awards all to itself. Coogler and Jordan won such prizes at the Gotham Awards and the National Board of Review. The NY Film Critics Circle, NY online critics, and Boston online critics have also honored Coogler for his feature directing debut, and our racetrack odds put the film way out front for Best First Feature at the Spirit Awards.

The film was also just ranked among the top 10 of the year by the American Film Institute. So while we all debate whether “12 Years a Slave,” “American Hustle,” or “Gravity” will win Best Picture, “Fruitvale” has consistently been making a case for itself as a possible nominee. And though it’s a small film, it’s the kind that will likely generate passionate support, thanks in part to its powerful subject matter, which coincides with the outrage surrounding the recent Trayvon Martin murder trial.

The SAG and Golden Globe nominations have come and gone and “Fruitvale” was nowhere to be found on either list. But even though those awards are important Oscar proving grounds, remember “Beasts” wasn’t eligible at SAG, and didn’t get any Globe nominations either, so “Fruitvale” remains very much alive for Oscar nominations next month.

So is it a shoo-in? All things being equal, it should expect Picture, Director, and Screenplay nominations just like “Beasts” did, but of course all things are never equal. “Fruitvale” is competing against different films, and it may be an even tougher crowd. Also, there are other social-justice films in the mix, like “12 Years a Slave” and “The Butler,” and though I’d hate to think they’d split the vote – as if voters are required to settle on one token “black” film – I’m not sure how many old white academy members will have all three on their ballots.

Will “Fruitvale Station” do as well as “Beasts of the Southern Wild” did? Predict Oscar’s Best Picture below:

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