Brow Beat

Here Are the Movies That Might Have Won the Oscars’ “Popular Film” Award the Past 10 Years

Heath Ledger as the Joker in The Dark Knight. He wears smeared, clown-like makeup and holds a playing card.
The Dark Knight. Warner Bros.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced Wednesday that it would create a new Oscars category for the first time in 18 years to recognize “outstanding achievement in popular film” as part of a push to keep the awards “relevant in a changing world.” We don’t yet know what metric the academy will use to determine what makes a film “popular,” but on its face, the announcement seems like an attempt to bring in more commercially successful movies (and thus boost the Oscars’ ratings) without actually putting those movies in the running for the prestigious Best Picture award.


That got us thinking: Which movies would have won the Oscar for Best Popular Film in years past? Here are our picks, which we chose using our own standard: movies that grossed at least $100 million at the box office, found a reasonably large fanbase, and would still appeal to the academy’s tastes.

2009: The Dark Knight

The Popular Film category could do wonders for quality superhero movies that usually aren’t considered prestigious enough for the academy. Christopher Nolan’s Batman movie was nominated for eight Oscars and won two, and yet, despite critical acclaim and a $1 billion worldwide box office, it wasn’t among the five Best Picture nominees in 2009—part of the impetus for expanding the category to 10 nominees the following year.

2010: Avatar

James Cameron’s blockbuster remains the top-grossing movie ever made, earning nearly $2.8 billion at the global box office. That made it the Goliath to the 82nd Academy Awards’ David, a little indie war film called The Hurt Locker that made just $50 million worldwide. Academy members voted for David, but audiences voted for Goliath, at least with their wallets.

2011: Inception

One benefit of opening up the Best Picture category in 2010 was that the academy could begin to nominate movies that might not otherwise have been considered for the night’s top prize. One of the beneficiaries was the excellent Toy Story 3, but since it already won Best Animated Feature, the academy could use the Popular Film trophy to further recognize Inception, which won four other awards but lost the big race to The King’s Speech.

2012: Hugo

OK, so maybe Martin Scorsese’s film wasn’t as “popular” as it should have been—its $185 million gross barely covered its budget—but it was critically adored and nominated for a whopping 11 Academy Awards, so academy voters must have liked it. Filmmakers love films about filmmaking, so Best Picture went to The Artist, but Best Popular Film would have presented an opportunity to honor a second moviemaking movie, this one a family-friendly adventure drama from a beloved director.

2013: Argo

Yes, it would probably have pleased ABC if the academy awarded this one to The Avengers, but this was a year when a surprising number of high-quality “popular” movies were already nominated for Best Picture, including Django Unchained and Life of Pi.* We’re imagining an alternate reality in which Ben Affleck’s Argo took the “Popular” award instead, freeing up Best Picture for a less “popular” underdog that never really stood a chance, like Amour or Beasts of the Southern Wild.

2014 : Gravity

Given that Gravity won Best Director but lost to 12 Years a Slave, it seems safe to assume it’d have enough support to take the top prize in a different category.

2015: Guardians of the Galaxy

OK, fine, we give up. Here’s your Marvel movie Oscar. Giving the Popular Film award to American Sniper would let the Hollywood elite show they’re in touch with red states after all, but James Gunn’s blockbuster has broader appeal and seems like the kind of movie that Popular Film was made for: a superhero comedy that’s beloved but would never get a Best Picture nod.

2016: Mad Max: Fury Road

It didn’t win Best Picture, but it did win the most Oscars of any movie released in 2015, and it was, frankly, the best movie of the year. ’Nuff said.

2017: La La Land

The 2016 Oscars were widely considered a two-horse race between La La Land and Moonlight, and we all know how close La La Land came to winning Best Picture—close enough that when it was mistakenly announced as the winner, no one was even a little bit surprised. The academy could have its cake and eat it too by awarding Popular Film to La La Land.

2018: Get Out

The field of nominees for last year’s Popular Films would probably include Coco, Logan, The Last Jedi, and two of the Best Picture nominees: Dunkirk and Get Out. The academy recognized the groundbreaking Get Out with a Best Original Screenplay award for Jordan Peele, but a Popular Film prize would at least soothe those who believed it should have won Best Picture.

*Correction, Aug. 9, 2018: This post originally misstated the year The Avengers would have been eligible for an Academy Award.