Ever wondered how much money goes into making your favourite blockbuster movies? With the multi-million dollar salaries of the onscreen talents and crew members to promotions, marketing, CGI and post-production costs, most of these movies have exorbitant budgets that can exceed US$100 million. No surprise then, that superhero and fantasy movies with an A-list cast often find a place in the list of most expensive movies ever made.
Although most major studios and companies refrain from giving an official statement on the costs, ballpark estimates calculated by professional researchers and expert writers/journalists are available to the public. However, some production houses do provide official numbers.
While independent films can be created on a shoestring budget, major studio films including Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, Avengers: Age of Ultron and Justice League have had whooping production budgets.
Here are some of the most expensive movies ever made at the global level
Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (USD379 million, 2011)
The fourth instalment of the popular Pirates of the Caribbean series follows Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp), who sets sail in hopes of locating the legendary fountain of youth. He encounters a beautiful and mysterious pirate from his past, Angelica (Penélope Cruz), while on this mission. She convinces him to chaperone her on a trip to the Queen Anne’s Revenge, the ship of the notorious Blackbeard (Ian McShane). They embark on this journey while combating several obstacles including Jack’s rival Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), who also seeks the youth fountain.
The American fantasy swashbuckler film is one the most expensive movies ever made in history. The cost includes filming in four different geographical locations, high-end 3D cameras and other equipment used, fees of the actors and post-production.
Additionally, the logistics behind filming the movie with the sea in background naturally increased the cost of production. Also, actor Johnny Depp was paid nearly USD 55 million, which drove up the costs. Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides ended up being the third highest-grossing movie of 2011.
Avengers: Endgame (USD350 million, 2019)
In this epic 2019 Marvel movie, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Junior) finds himself stuck in outer space without food or water. As his oxygen supply begins to diminish, he contacts Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) to signal for help. Meanwhile, the rest of the Avengers – Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Captain America (Chris Evans) and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) plan to gather their previously defeated allies to bring down Thanos (Josh Brolin), the evil demigod who destroyed the entire universe.
The two-part culmination (Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame) of the Infinity Saga remains Marvel Studios’ most hefty investments, collectively raking in over USD 4.8 billion as returns at the box office. Both movies are part of the top five worldwide highest-grossing films of all time. It is worth noting that Downey Junior earned around USD 75 million from Avengers: Endgame.
It retained the title of the world’s highest-grossing movie ever made from 2019 to 2021, until a re-release of James Cameron’s Avatar dethroned the film and claimed the top spot.
Justice League (USD 300 million, 2017)
The fifth instalment of the DC extended universe, follows the escapades of Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) who seeks the help of his newfound ally, Diana Prince/Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) to fight some common enemies. Inspired by Superman’s (Henry Cavill) selfless act, the duo scout an assembly of metahumans to combat the looming threats and save the world before it is too late.
The dynamic league of heroes including Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman (Jason Momoa) Cyborg (Ray Fisher) and The Flash (Ezra Miller) unite to save the planet from a catastrophic disaster.
Director Zack Snyder exited Justice League during post-production in 2017 due to personal reasons, only to be replaced by Joss Whedon. This led to widespread reshoots and massive overhead costs, driving up the film’s already ballooning budget. The 2017 Justice League released to poor reviews and disappointing box office returns, despite its humongous budget.
Fans then campaigned for Snyder to return to the franchise and release the original parts that were snipped from the 2017 movie by Whedon. Warner Bros. finally gave in to the fans pleas and released Zack Snyder’s version via HBO MAX in 2021. It then became the fourth most streamed movie of that year. The superhero movie grossed around USD 658 million against an estimated USD 300 million budget.
Solo: A Star Wars Story (USD 275 million, 2018)
The film follows young Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich), who plunges into a massive heist with a group of galactic smugglers and a 190-year-old Wookie named Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) in search of hyperfuel. Solo gets embroiled in underworld activities and meets individuals who change his life along the way.
Owing to its disorderly production and costly reshoots, the second Star Wars movie, Solo: A Star Wars Story is the most expensive Star Wars film ever made, leaving behind The Force Awakens.
The original directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller, were replaced by Ron Howard in the middle of shooting. Howard decided to reshoot major portions of the film as per his artistic vision, which added another three months of production to the scheduled six months, further increasing the costs. This ambitious re-filming cost the movie, not just monetarily, but with respect to the cast too. Michael K Williams, who was supposed to play Dryden Vos, was replaced by Paul Bettany since he could not fit the new schedule owing to other commitments.
The filmmakers were allotted a budget of USD 275 million, but earned a disappointing USD 393.2 million worldwide. Despite having big stars including Emilia Clarke and Ehrenreich, this movie couldn’t impress Marvel fans.
John Carter (USD 264 million, 2012)
The film chronicles the adventures of John Carter (Taylor Kitsch), when he is transported to the wildly diverse red lands of Mars known as Barsoom. As the responsibility of handling the civil unrest in the battling kingdoms rests upon his shoulders, he learns about his superhuman capabilities. During this he also stumbles upon the absconding Princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) and rescues her.
With mediocre box office returns, the 2012 science fiction movie infamously cost millions of dollars to Disney and failed horribly. The sci-fi action movie, inspired by the epic Barsoom series by Edgar Rice Burroughs, was all set to be a lavish, high-budget and CGI-heavy project, aimed at competing with other big league franchise movies but couldn’t.
Disney’s John Carter promptly became a cautionary tale in Hollywood, proving that while remakes, reboots and acquisitions are safe investments, trying to establish brand new franchises is no easy feat.
Tangled (USD 260 million, 2010)
This is one of the most expensive animated movies ever made. The 2010 movie is a modern adaptation of the classic tale of Rapunzel (voiced by Mandy Moore), the long and golden-haired princess. Unaware of her real identity, the princess is held captive in a tower by an evil old woman, Mother Gothel (voiced by Donna Murphy), who pretends to be her mother, only to make use of her magical hair to retain her youth forever.
When Rapunzel turns 18, she yearns to escape the dreadful tower and explore the world outside. When a kind hearted thief Flynn Rider (voiced by Zachary Levi) accidentally stumbles upon her tower while running from the police, she convinces him to help her escape.
The movie spent six years in production utilising a combination of computer generated imagery, non-photorealistic renderings and hand drawings, which increased the costs considerably. The highly acclaimed film earned close to USD 592 million at the box office worldwide.
Beauty and the Beast (USD 255 million, 2017)
This Disney classic follows the life of a village girl Belle (Emma Watson), who ventures to rescue her clockmaker father held captive by an arrogant prince (Dan Stevens), cursed to live as a horrific beast until he learns to love. Belle takes her father’s place as the beast’s prisoner. As she spends time with the enchanted prince, Belle begins to discover his sensitive side and campaigns to save him.
With Disney foraying into remaking all their classic animated films into live action movies with star-studded casts, it is no wonder that the making of the Emma Watson starrer film cost USD 255 million. Beauty and the Beast earned close to USD 1.3 billion at theatres worldwide.
Driving up the production cost even more was Watson, who charged USD 3 million upfront for her contribution to the film. She is believed to have made an extra USD 15 million owing to its high box office earnings.
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (USD 250 million, 2009)
As Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) enters his sixth year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, both the wizard and muggle worlds are in shambles due to the lawless death eaters. Voldemort’s army becomes more powerful and threatens people with an aim to take over the Ministry of Magic. With fear abounding and a war looming, even Hogwarts is not the safe haven it once used to be.
The cost of making Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, the sixth instalment of the Harry Potter series, was the highest with an estimated budget of USD 250 million, making it the most expensive movie from the beloved franchise.
Possible reasons for such high funds can be quite a few. One being that the contracts of the main star-cast were up for negotiation owing to their long association with the franchise and its immense popularity. Most of the scenes in the film also required heavy use of CGI and post-production, which is no cheap business. The box office returns of the movie were USD 934 million.
Avatar (USD 237 million, 2009)
Set in the distant future, Avatar’s plot revolves around Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), who is a paraplegic former Marine officer. He takes his twin’s place and is dispatched on a corporate mission in the alien world of Pandora, native to the highly intelligent beings called Na’vi. During his time here, he falls in love with a Na’vi woman (Zoe Saldana) and finds himself torn between following his orders and protecting his newfound home.
Before Jungle Book, The Lion King or any other live-action remakes were made, James Cameron’s Avatar paved the way for CGI-based movies, making use of groundbreaking 3D visual effects. It was the most expensive movie ever made when it was first released, but was soon replaced by massive blockbuster franchises such as the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The film’s budget was approximately USD 237 million and yielded a return of around USD 2.8 billion.
The Dark Knight Rises (USD 230 million, 2012)
The Dark Knight Rises ends the list of the top 10 most expensive movies ever made, and follows Gotham’s Batman (Christian Bale), who is compelled to return from his eight-year-long exile to save the city from the lunatic terrorist Bane (Tom Hardy). An elusive jewel thief and femme fatale named Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) is potentially the key to stopping Bane, but whose side is she on?
After The Dark Knight garnered critical acclaim and box office success in 2008, there were high expectations from its 2012 sequel The Dark Knight Rises, given its higher budget and the demise of the iconic Joker, Heath Ledger. Director Christopher Nolan had more cash to play with for the sequel, leading the production team to invest in IMAX cameras and on-location shooting sequences for an authentic touch. The movie cost USD 230 million to make and earned over USD 1 billion at the box office worldwide.
(Main and featured image credit: Avengers: Endgame/© Marvel Studios/IMDb)