Filmmaking is not for the faint of heart – or the shallow of pocket. After all, busting blocks at the box office doesn’t come cheap; movies that are specifically made for the big screen tend to have the most astronomical budgets. They’re not necessarily the best ever made and it seems sometimes the quality of the movie is inversely proportional to its actual worth. But, chances are, you have seen at least half of the movies in this list in the theater. Adjusted for inflation, here are the top 10 most expensive movies ever made.
10. Titanic (1997)
Director: James Cameron
Cost of production: $200 million USD
The cost to construct the Titanic set was somewhere between $120 to $150 million alone (in 1997 dollars). For that amount of money, you might feel ripped off with anything less than the “ship of dreams.” Remember that grand staircase scene, where the water comes crashing in as Rose and Jack try to escape? It only had one shot, because the set and furnishings were so hugely expensive to produce there was no room for error. And then there were the reams of other convincing special effects – in one apparently uninterrupted shot, we saw the ship from bow to stern, with flags flying and smoke coiling from its stacks, and on the deck hundreds of passengers strolling, children running, servants serving, and so on.
And it paid off. Titanic made its huge production costs part of its marketing campaign, promoting the rich value of the movie like none other at the box office; it went down swimmingly (pun intended). Despite it’s $294 million price tag, Roger Ebert described the film as “value for money” – every cent of that budget spent on production flickers on screen.
What else could you buy for that: 4,444,444 life jackets at $45 USD each.
9. King Kong (2005)
Director: Peter Jackson
Cost of production: $207 million USD
No stranger to behemoth budgets thanks to Lord of the Rings, Jackson’s lavish take on the ’30s classic initially had a budget of $150 million, but it climbed higher and higher. Most of the money was spent on Kong himself. What’s more, King Kong gradually became substantially longer than Universal had anticipated and the extra length (mostly due to special effects needed for a convincing 25-foot computer animated gorilla) increased the budget by a third.
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The film – given its longer length – was a cinematic risk, requiring the studio to reach for the kind of long-term audience that made hits out of three hour movies like Jackson’s Rings trilogy. Long movies receive far fewer showings per day and therefore, for King Kong to break even at the box office, it was imperative that the film did well. Luckily, when it was released in 2005, the movie made a total of $550 million, becoming the fourth highest film on gross revenue in Universal Pictures history. And the special effects really were fantastic. Unfortunately, when the humans started talking things started to go a little bit off track…Jack Black, really?
What else could you buy for that: Over six Empire State buildings at $40,948,900 USD each to construct.
8. Avatar (2009)
Director: James Cameron
Cost of production: $237 million USD
It’s a well-known fact that movie studios like being creative with their accountancy, to limit the amount of tax they have to pay – the bigger the costs, the lower the tax bill. Avatar was no different. After a directorial run-up lasting 12 years, Cameron took an almighty leap into the third-dimension with his digitally-created new world, hiring WETA for special effects and using super-sleek 3D which took the medium of cinema to the next level. No surprise then, that this movie didn’t come cheap. Ninety hours went into the production of every single frame for the movie, of which there were a whopping 24 per second, creating cutting-edge CGI like none ever seen before.
Let’s not forget the fact that creating a new language and teaching it to over 100 actors, hiring big names and fantastic, well-established scriptwriters, and producing the technology for 3D glasses added to the already huge production costs. And to think that we once hyperventilated with astonishment at the realness of Jurassic Park’s dinosaurs.
What else could you buy for that: 15,810,540 gallons of blue body paint at $14.99 USD a pot
7. Spectre (2015)
Director: Sam Mendes
Cost of production: $245 million USD
Apparently, James Bond not only likes his martini shaken, not stirred, but also a colossal film budget. Due to the very nature of the series, filmmakers need to become more elaborate with their set pieces. In turn, producers reportedly had to make $650 million USD at the box office (after marketing expenses) just to break even. At the time, only one Bond film, Skyfall, had ever achieved such a feat.
What else could you buy for that: 1,225 Aston Martin’s at $200,000 a piece.
6. Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies, The Dark Knight Rises
Directors: Joss Whedon, David Yates, Zach Snyder, Peter Jackson, Christopher Nolan
Cost of production: $250 million USD
Avengers: Age of Ultron, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, The Hobbit: Battle of Five Armies and The Dark Knight Rises share the title at number five. As we learned from all six huge spectacles, they don’t come cheap. The budget of of Age Of Ultron ballooned after the cast threatened to quit if their contractual demands (read: money) weren’t met, so Marvel had some serious work cut out for them if they wanted all the big names back on board for the Avengers sequel – all of whom were reportedly looking for $5 million on the table and a cut of the post-release profits.
On top of that, there were the far-flung international locations, the drone cameras used for some of the filming, and the CGI to make the titular villain with all the nuances that Whedon wanted to capture. Everyone knows that increased CGI is never a substitute for clean writing, but given that Age Of Ultron brought in almost $1.3 billion at the worldwide box office, that doesn’t seem to matter.
White it’s not really surprising that Warner Bros. was willing to put up as many millions as were needed to bring the Harry Potter series to the big screen, the fact that The Half-Blood Prince was the most expensive of the series is. It was the least favoured film by fans and critics alike (yerp, money doesn’t always make a film better), but rumor has it that director Yates initially tried some pretty experimental stuff with the movie, before being forced to scale it back post-production so as not to anger hardcore HP fans.
What’s more, by 2009, the franchise’s stars had already become huge names in Hollywood and their salaries reflected just that. Still, $275 million for a Harry Potter film is probably one of the safest investments Warner Bros. could have made – and the results prove it: $302 million domestic and $632 million overseas for a worldwide total of $934 million.
What else could you buy for that: 280,000 drone cameras at $1000 USD each.
5. Spider-Man 3 (2007)
Director: Sam Raimi
Cost of production: $258 million USD
When Spider-Man was released in 2002, it almost singlehandedly laid the groundwork for the current superhero boom. But, then they just started throwing money at the franchise…And unfortunately, making expensive, flagship superhero sequels is no small or simple feat. Production for the movie dragged on into late summer where it had been scheduled to conclude in June, pushing up the costs dramatically. On top of that, there was the huge cost of CGI, the web-slinging set pieces, the star salaries and – of course – the marketing and promotion campaign costs.
After Spidey 2 had a hard time convincing fans that an ageing arachnid fan was still living in a single bedsit and popping round to his Aunt May’s house for some home-cooking before climbing into the old red-blue Spandex for the evening, the studio probably didn’t have much of a choice on the whopping marketing budget. And, unfortunately, despite Spider-Man 2 costing $250 million to produce and Spider-Man 3 even more, the critical reception just didn’t pay off.
What else could you buy for that: 7,325,000 bungee ropes, at $40 USD a go.
4. Tangled (2010)
Director: Nathan Greno, Byron Howard
Cost of production: $260 million USD
Tangled was so expensive mainly because of how long it took to get the story right. It took about ten years of multiple aborted attempts at the movie, each of which got pretty far in before they scrapped everything and started again. Much of the budget included redesigning versions of previously-attempted flick Rapunzel, dating back to 2000, that were never produced. What’s more, extensive research was done to develop the animation process that allowed the CGI to evoke some of the qualities of traditional hand-drawn Disney characters – animating all of that blonde hair must’ve been quite the ordeal.
An entertaining if rather forgettable Disney animation that in no way earned its colossal budget, Tangled eventually bagged a profit when it was released in international theaters, but it’s still pretty mind-boggling how much cash they spent on this one.
What else could you buy for that: 2,810,000,000 crayons for $0.10 USD each.
3. John Carter (2012)
Director: Andrew Stanton
Cost of production: $263 million USD
The cost of John Carter was – with no better way to say it – ridiculous. It left Disney somewhere around $200 million out of pocket, making it the company’s biggest flop of all time. The personal cost of the film also wasn’t so small. Rich Ross – the former chairman of Walt Disney Studios – decided to resign just a month after the movie was released, while Disney lost the rights to produce the rest of Edgar Rice Burroughs Inc’s back catalogue after refusing to produce any John Carter sequels (Disney probably had the right idea on that one…).
What’s more, director Stanton began shooting the movie with Taylor Kitsch as the eponymous lead. But, thanks to various problems in post-production, Stanton was forced to shoot much of the movie twice – which, of course – soon saw the budget spiral out of control. In fact, John Carter would’ve had to make somewhere around $600 million just to break even. It didn’t even come close. Poor Stanton… Nobody wants to discover their own limitations on such a global stage.
What else could you buy for that: 16,941,176 leather loincloths at $17 USD a shred.
2. Waterworld (1995)
Director: Kevin Reynolds
Cost of production: $271 million USD
Kevin Costner lived on a trimaran in the middle of the ocean, that was once Earth before all the ice caps melted and dry land became a distant memory…Much like Hollywood blockbusters that cost less than $200 million USD. The Costner-starring flick of 1995 was the most expensive movie ever produced, at the time. Costner invested over $20 million of his personal funds into the film for which shooting took place aboard a gigantic 400-foot diameter atoll, specifically built for the production somewhere off the coast of Hawaii. The spectacular, 1000-ton floating set – over a quarter of a mile in circumference – also swallowed a lot of the movie’s budget given that it required aerial filming via seaplanes and helicopters. Not to mention the fact that whoever was on weather lookout duty at the time failed spectacularly in their job – the proof for which came in the form of three huge hurricanes that sank the entire set.
Despite Waterworld’s futuristic setting, critics were by-and-large unimpressed by the wet performances. In fact, it’s probably the most famous flop in recent film history; the post-apocalyptic movie took just $88 million at the US box office, despite it’s crazy production spend.
What else could you buy for that: 2,084,615 inflatable four-person dinghies at $130 USD each.
1. Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011)
Director: Rob Marshall
Cost of production: $397 million USD
Despite the very agreeable box office returns, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides was no cheap date. 2007 and 2006’s Gore Verbinski-directed Dead Man’s Chest and At World’s End cost $263 million and $341 million, respectively, with On Stranger Tides landing a slot as the most expensive long shot – with Jack Sparrow and Barbossa’s quest to find the elusive fountain of youth costing nearly $400 million.
Regardless of the huge production costs (Depp’s payment was an estimated $55,000,000…Well, hey, someone has to pay for that accessorising) the box office-busting Pirates of the Caribbean flicks have been the most extraordinary cash cow, and since the first time we saw Johnny Depp parading around with beaded dreads and guy-liner in 2003, the Disney execs behind the franchise have been simultaneously wading around in gold up to their armpits.
What else could you buy for that amount: 24,812,500 kohl eye pencils at $16 USD a pop.