With the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences adding the new "Outstanding Achievement in Popular Film" category to the Oscars ceremony, it's only natural that filmgoers might wonder what other "popular films" might have stood a chance had the category existed prior to this year. The Academy has been known to shy away from a certain pedigree of movies - namely within the action-adventure, science fiction, and fantasy genres - but quite a few overlooked movies could have stood a chance at winning Oscar glory had this new category been around.
The Academy Awards (or Oscars) are the cinematic equivalent of the Super Bowl or World Cup. They've been honoring excellence in cinema for the past 91 years, not only celebrating the technical craft of filmmaking, but the subjective art of storytelling, whether with actors, screenwriters, or cinematography. Now, adding the first new category since 2001's Best Animated Feature, the Academy will officially celebrate "popular films," though they have yet to specify the requirements necessary for what makes a movie qualify as "popular." Still, there will presumably be strict parameters for what it takes for a movie in this category to win. For example, just because Alice in Wonderland was one of the highest grossing movies of 2010 doesn't necessarily make it Oscar-friendly by default.
So, as the Academy looks to the future, let's look to the past. Most mainstream tentpole movies are no strangers to Oscar snubs, so it's only right to determine which of those movies might have actually had a chance had the current Board of Governors implemented this new category back when they were released. Assuming The Dark Knight would rule the roost for the 2008 release year, we're starting with 2009...
2009 - Avatar
Seeing as the Academy made one of its most aggressive category changes in 2009, allowing up to ten Best Picture nominees, as opposed to the usual five, it's fitting to start here. It's a year that was populated with major blockbusters - or "popular films" that were also "outstanding achievements," according to the Academy - including Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Up, Star Trek, and Inglourious Basterds (which did, actually, get plenty of Oscar love, including a Best Picture nomination and a Best Actor in a Supporting Role win for Christoph Waltz). However, the defining "popular film" of 2009 was undoubtedly James Cameron's long-awaited 3-D game-changer Avatar.
Not only did Avatar become the highest-grossing movie of all time, grossing nearly $3 billion worldwide, it introduced a new wave of 3-D movies (thanks to innovative 3-D technology, courtesy of Cameron himself) and even its own theme park in Disney World. If that's not considered an "outstanding achievement" by Academy standards, then this category is really anyone's game.
Avatar was actually nominated for Best Picture but lost out to The Hurt Locker. Under the new category, Avatar probably would have won the Popular Film category, and may have been nominated there instead of Best Picture altogether.
2010 - Inception
2010 was ripe with sequels and popular IP's, with movies like Toy Story 3, Alice in Wonderland, Iron Man 2, The Twilight Saga, and Harry Potter rounding out the top five movies in the domestic box office. So, it's only natural that a movie as creative and original as Christopher Nolan's Inception would stand out and - given this new category - literally earn the popular vote.
The Academy has a hit-or-miss relationship with Nolan. They're happy to nominate him from time to time, but actually giving him the gold isn't something they're wont to follow through with - until Inception, at least. With eight nominations and four wins (notably for Wally Pfister's cinematography), Inception would no doubt earn the popular vote with the Academy had it existed back in 2010.
2011 - Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 2
As hard as Warner Bros pushed for Harry Potter at the Oscars, the Academy just wasn't biting. From a technical standpoint, the series did a fairly commendable job racking up nominations (twelve in total out of eight movies), but never managed to crack the Best Picture category. However, had the "Popular Film" category existed when Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II was released, the movie stood a massive chance at earning the series its first and only Oscar.
It would have likely competed with movies like Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Bridesmaids, and maybe even something like Super 8 or X-Men: First Class, but this is one situation where the Academy would likely understand the value of the franchise, its effect on pop culture (like Avatar, it also spawned its own theme park), and how hard Warner Bros tried to give this series some Awards-friendly credibility.
2012 - Skyfall
Hollywood was fully stocked with major tentpoles in 2012. It marked the beginning of two major franchises (The Hunger Games and The Hobbit), as well as the end for two others (Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy and The Twilight Saga), and even assembled the MCU for the very first Avengers movie. And even though some of those movies might have had a shot at being nominated for the Outstanding Achievement in Popular Film category (namely The Dark Knight Rises, The Avengers, and The Hunger Games), the one movie that had the best odds at not only being nominated, but winning, was the latest entry in one of the longest-running film franchises of all time: Skyfall.
Not only a box office titan, but a critical darling, Skyfall also had the benefit of having a slew of Oscar winners in front of - and behind - the camera, including director Sam Mendes and stars Judi Dench, Javier Bardem, and Ralph Fiennes.