Every year, movies are continually one-upping each other in an attempt to be the biggest film of the year. Most achieve this through popular actors, more elaborate scenes, better scripts, and creative marketing. Plus, it feels as though movies are constantly growing larger in scope. It’s important to note that many studios do not include their marketing costs along with their production costs. This means that it’s possible for a studio to spend more on marketing than they do on production.
Taking up numbers 15 through 18 of the most expensive films are three separate movies from the Star Wars universe. In 2015, Disney released the first film in what would become a third Star Wars trilogy. The film, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, cost the studio around $274 million. Its sequel, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, came out just two years later and had a similar cost of $268 million. With casts that included both new names and iconic actors such as Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher, it makes sense that its cast made up a significant portion of the cost. Plus, the Star Wars films have always been elaborate in scope and reach with boundary-pushing special effects. Just a year later, Disney released a prequel film, Solo: A Star Wars Story, as part of their plan to expand the Star Wars universe. The film cost $275 million to produce.
Like many of Cameron’s works, Avatar is a relatively simple story that uses huge sets and innovative technologies to tell its tale. With an adjusted cost of $277 million, the film saw massive success and may single-handedly be responsible for the years-long trend of movies releasing in 3D. The film pushed the boundaries of what CG and 3D technologies could accomplish, creating an elaborate world full of unique flora and fauna while transporting viewers into the scene. And if the film wasn’t expensive enough, Cameron plans for at least four more Avatar films with a combined budget of well over a billion dollars.
In 1995, one of the most controversial films of all time opened to the public. Waterworld, starring Kevin Costner, is one of the most notorious flops in movie history. The film ended up costing $172 million, which is roughly equal to $283 million when adjusting for inflation. Unfortunately for the studio, this was about $75 million over their initial budget. Most of this was in set costs, with the largest culprit being a 1,000-ton floating island off the coast of Hawaii. The island had a circumference of almost a quarter-mile and required almost all of the steel in the Hawaiian Islands. As a result, the producers had to begin shipping steel from California, dramatically inflating costs.
Another Disney film, John Carter was a 2012 science fiction film based on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars. Though original documents stated the film had a budget of $250 million, recent findings suggest the film may have actually cost over $300 million. From the beginning of production, the film had everything in it that suggested it would be a blockbuster: huge sets, iconic actors, and impressive visual effects. Despite this, the movie was a flop and earned significantly less than the film cost. Original plans included two sequels, but due to the poor box office returns, Disney canceled all plans to move forward with the franchise.
When discussing film franchises, it’s hard to ignore one that began from a universe that many people hold close to their hearts. The tenth most expensive film ever made, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince was the sixth film in the Harry Potter franchise and cost $292 million. Interestingly, none of the other Harry Potter films come remotely close to this film’s budget. While many of the costs remain a mystery, there are some theories as to why this is. When the movie launched in 2009, leading actors Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson had each become mainstream actors in their own rights. It appears that many of the main actors in the film had their contracts come up for renegotiation, meaning that each of them would earn significantly more as the studio couldn’t release them without public outrage.
With a budget of just about $300 million, Tangled places ninth on the list of most expensive films, but it begs the question of why an animated film required such costs. Disney character animator and executive producer of the film Glen Keane wanted Tangled to feel like a classic hand-drawn Disney film but in 3D. As a result, he and many other artists worked to combine computer animation styles with hand-drawn ones. The advancements in technology cost the studio a significant amount. Additionally, the film had been in production since at least the year 2000, having started and stopped several times. This resulted in additional costs in the writing, storyboarding, and design departments.
At the height of Marvel Studio’s success, DC Comics made the decision to try and compete with their own franchise. Building off of the Man of Steel series, DC moved into Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Despite the incredibly popular actors in the film and its elaborate visual effects, the film is only number 15 on the list of most expensive movies. It was the follow-up film, Justice League, that makes the top 10. Costing $307 million, DC and Warner Bros. set Justice League to be the Marvel-killer. Starring Ben Affleck, Gal Gadot, Henry Cavill, and Henry Cavill, a huge amount of money went to its actors and production staff, though its visual effects took the majority of the budget.
With releases a decade apart, both Titanic and Spider-Man 3 had costs of $312 million after adjusting for inflation, placing them as the sixth most expensive films. Spider-Man 3 was the end of the Sam Raimi Spider-Man films and was the largest in scope of the three films. Much of its budget went to its talent, which included Tobey Maguire, Topher Grace, Kirsten Dunst, and James Franco.
James Cameron is no stranger to huge blockbusters with gigantic budgets, and Titanic was a record breaker in many ways. The set alone cost $30 million, which included a 90% scale replica of the actual Titanic. Surrounding the set was a gigantic 17-million gallon water tank that cost the studio almost $40 million. Add in A-list actors like Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, and it becomes understandable how the film’s expenses grew so large.
With the release of Avengers: Endgame, Marvel Studios has planted a firm exclamation point at the end of this stage of their decade-long film franchise. It should come as no shock to anyone that the film cost an extraordinary amount at $356 million. Shockingly though, Endgame is only the fourth most expensive film using numbers adjusted for inflation, with its predecessor Avengers: Age of Ultron taking the second slot with $386 million. Its direct prequel Avengers: Infinity War sits just below Endgame on the list, with a cost of $316 million.
At the top of the most expensive films is the fourth installment of the Pirates franchise: Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. With a staggering cost of $410.6 million, it should have been a struggle for the film to earn its money back. However, the film earned a worldwide box office gross of over a billion dollars, easily surpassing its costs. In terms of where most of the money went, visual effects took the largest chunk. Additionally, sources state that lead actor Johnny Depp took home around $55 million for his role of Jack Sparrow, while a production staff of 895 people earned roughly $18 million. The third installment in the franchise Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End is the third most expensive film and had a cost of $362 million.