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Last week, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced that for the first time in history, they would be working on crafting a category solely focused on achievement in popular film. Naturally, this drew the ire of the internet and film community, as this seems to be a move that rewards box office grosses over actual achievement. However, where some see a dark cloud over an already chaotic awards ceremony, there's also an interesting potential for a thought experiment.
For this hypothetical scenario, let's use the prism of history to see how this potential category could have played out in the last 10 years of Best Picture history. Operating on the popular presumption that this "Popular Oscar" is going to be a Best Picture-adjacent category, we can apply this assumption to the last decade of films that were nominated, minus one notable exception. The results are rather interesting, and definitely worth discussion, so here we go with 10 years worth of alternative Oscar history, as we retroactively hand out the awards for "Best Achievement in Popular Filmmaking."
2008 - Juno
While No Country For Old Men's Best Picture win feels like one of those wins that satisfied both the artistic and somewhat popular tendencies that Oscar voters tend to try and steer for, if there WAS an award for "Best Achievement in Popular Filmmaking," you can bet that Juno would have won it. A film that not only dominated the pop culture landscape during its awards qualifying run, but also brought Diablo Cody and Jason Reitman together for the first time, the indie hipster romantic dramedy built probably the most vocal fan base of all the films nominated that year. Also, the Best Original Screenplay win for Cody's script kind of tips towards the odds being in this one's favor.
2009 - The Dark Knight
In the context of this list, we've stayed mostly with the losers who were nominated for the highest honors of their year: Best Picture. And yet, when it comes to 2009's class of notables, none cast quite as impressive a shadow as The Dark Knight. Considering this is the film that, if you wanted to trace this issue to a starting point, began The Academy's various actions in the name of popularity, it's a no-brainer addition to the pack. This is the textbook case of a movie so popular that when "serious" awards bodies don't pay it enough attention, they're decried as too traditional. Christopher Nolan's best Batman movie is a true blend of artistic merit, and blockbuster thrills, sealing the deal on this film's hypothetical win in spades.
2010 - Avatar
When you're the biggest cinematic money maker of all time, the eyes of the world are going to be on you like a hawk. Already having done that once with his critical, commercial, and awards juggernaut Titanic, James Cameron somehow did it again when Avatar was released to the public. Now, while there's been debate about the story's originality, there's no question that the technical marvels that were on display. Plus, the film's IMAX 3D presentation helped revolutionize theatrical distribution. The way movies were made, and seen, was changed for the better, and with audiences flocking in droves to see it for themselves, no other film that year could match its appeal.
2011 - Inception
On this alternate timeline, Christopher Nolan is a previous "Best Achievement in Popular Filmmaking" winner, having already cemented his legacy after scoring on this award with 2008's The Dark Knight. We're guessing he would have won his second round in this very category with Inception. With another mix of blockbuster spectacle, seen through the prism of high art and concept, the box office juggernaut would have gone from its summer run into a very golden end, all thanks to Leonardo DiCaprio and his band of mind thieves.
2012 - The Help
The "Best Achievement in Popular Filmmaking" category would have been hard pressed to find another film as qualified for the win as The Help. Not only was it the highest performing nominee at the domestic market for 2012's top honors, but it also would have been a big win for diversity, with the female-centric story about race relations occupying a Goldilocks zone of Oscar prestige and public consciousness. Seeing as the film already had one nomination for Best Picture, and three nominations in the acting field, it would have been an easy trophy to hand out, in the name of awarding the film on its total merits, and public support.
2013 - Lincoln
It might surprise you to see that Steven Spielberg's Lincoln could beat something like, say, Django Unchained in the award for "Best Achievement in Popular Filmmaking." Or at least, it would until you break down the fact that Spielberg's long-gestating adaptation of Team of Rivals actually outgrossed Quentin Tarantino's spaghetti western tribute by a solid $20 million. Of course, it also helps that Spielberg is a known name with The Academy (moreso than Tarantino, even), and with Daniel Day Lewis' win for Best Actor clearly showing the film as an Oscar voter favorite, not all the fake blood in the world could have triumphed over this tale of the human spirit and political wrangling.
2014 - The Wolf Of Wall Street
2014 is one of those easy years to peg in this hypothetical category, as The Wolf of Wall Street would definitely have brought home the "Best Achievement in Popular Filmmaking" prize, as this Scorseseian madhouse of highly quotable nature was making waves with audiences as a raucous adventure through late stage Capitalism and excess that was just too fun to go home empty handed. It's hard to tell if Leonardo DiCaprio could have benefitted from this sort of attention, but it's not hard to see that the infamy and fond regard the film had gained through awards season paying off.
2015 - American Sniper
Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) was a pretty surprising winner for the Best Picture honors at 2015's Oscar ceremony. Some folks scratched their heads, while others cheered out of supportive surprise. And yet, it felt like all the buzz surrounding that year's crop of films couldn't drown out the American public's slow, but eventually tremendous warming to Clint Eastwood's American Sniper. The tragic but inspiring true story of Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) and his life in and out of combat, its success at the box office, as well as the pedigree of Eastwood's directorial career, would have given this film a clear shot to winning the popular Oscar trophy.
2016 - Mad Max: Fury Road
If there are two films that highlight the more beneficial side to having an award like "Best Achievement in Popular Filmmaking" exist, The Dark Knight is the first, and Mad Max: Fury Road is the second. A huge winner in 2016's technical awards, capping off director George Miller's post-apocalyptic epic with a popular Oscar could have really blown the doors open for genre filmmaking at The Oscars. Considering the films that have preceded this most obvious winner, it wouldn't be a category of ill repute, and at this point the audience would probably be paying more attention to the popular pick rather than the Best Picture-crowned winner. Though, if anyone at Miller's age can make a film so progressive that it get the internet to agree it should have won, as well as a film so technically kick-ass that it makes most blockbusters look like LEGO fan films, then surely that's worthy of great notice.
2017 - La La Land
Right about now, Warren Beatty would have been vindicated, as his mistakenly reading La La Land as the Best Picture of 2017 would have merely been a swapping of envelopes between it and the real Best Picture of that year, Moonlight. While director Barry Jenkins' film would have still taken that top prize, Damian Chazelle's ode to jazz and Jacques Demy would have most definitely taken the popular trophy of the year. No other film would have come close to winning the hearts and minds of the world so effectively that for a time, everyone not only expected it to win Best Picture, they would have totally been chill with it. With Moonlight and La La Land firmly at the top of the ranks this time out, the two sides of the Oscar voting pool's rationale would be on full display, and all would have been right with the world.
2018 - Get Out
Here's an interesting thought: would The Shape of Water still have won the Best Picture prize if like "Best Achievement in Popular Filmmaking" was in play? The result we ended up getting would have probably still held in this alternative universe, but it would have more than likely still been a toss up between it and writer/director Jordan Peele's Get Out winning in the popularity race. Through almost a decade of this hypothetical history, The Academy would still more than likely not be over its genre bias, which would still result in the very Old Hollywood / progressive fable storytelling of Guillermo del Toro and Vanessa Taylor's successful script taking the top prize. But this is that third film that epitomizes the best case scenario of this category, as Jordan Peele's film would have two top notch Oscars under its belt, further emboldening him and his collaborators in future endeavors.