John Cameron’s 2009 Avatar sits near the top of the list of the most expensive films ever made, but even higher on the list of the highest-grossing movies in history. As much as the movie’s cultural relevance is debated, there’s no question whatsoever that it was a big investment that paid off handsomely.
Of course, that’s not always a one-to-one relationship: High risk sometimes equals high reward, but movie history is littered with big-budget flops. Though we often think of the modern blockbuster era as having begun with Star Wars, it really started with the big period epics of the 1960s, when studios were desperate to make movies that could compete for viewer attention with the free stuff they could get on television. Some of those movies saved their studios (Ben-Hur), while others put them out of business (The Fall of the Roman Empire). It’s not much different now, except that studios are generally better at managing risk (it’s why Disney would rather make sure-fire Marvel movies than just about anything else).
In honour of the release of the trailer for the long-gestating, very expensive, Avatar sequel, let’s take a look back at other notoriously expensive blockbusters, and gauge whether they justified those eye-popping price tags.
A couple of notes on methodology: When budget estimates vary wildly, it’s generally considered appropriate to assume the lower end number is closer to the truth, which I’ve mostly done. When I haven’t, I’ve noted why — as in the case of 1963’s Cleopatra, as the studio was clearly lying about what it cost. My numbers come from Wikipedia, with lots of cross-referencing to make sure everything makes sense. I’ve used the Consumer Price Index to calculate inflation. Bear in mind that budgets are always estimates: studios don’t necessarily make those numbers public. Advertising costs and other ancillaries can push budgets even higher, but are generally not included in a film’s budget, and gauging a film’s degree of profitability, is a fool’s errand. Which is all to say that the best, most thorough analysis of a film’s cost still involves a lot of guesswork.
Honorable mention: Foolish Wives (1922)
Adjusted budget: $US19 ($27) m
Though it doesn’t rank among modern blockbusters, Universal put a lot of faith in Austrian-American director Erich von Stroheim by offering the former horse wrangler the largest budget to that date, eventually billing Foolish Wives as the first “million dollar movie.” Notoriously, Von Stroheim never had trouble burning through a budget, and the movie actually cost a bit more.
Was it worth it? Yes. It did very well (if not spectacularly) at the box office, and remains an impressively directed and idiosyncratic epic.
Honorable mention: Ben-Hur (1925)
Adjusted budget: $US65.5 ($94) m
As with Foolish Wives, the 1925 original doesn’t rank on a current list of movies with the biggest budgets, but it holds an unconquerable record as the most expensive film of the silent era.
Was it worth it? Definitely. It was the box office champion until the release of Gone With the Wind. And though it might be heresy to say so, I often find the 1959 remake to be an overlong slog interrupted by an impressive chariot sequence. I’ll take this version instead.
Honorable mention: Duel in the Sun (1946)
Adjusted budget: $US78 ($112) m
Still nowhere near cracking a modern list of high-budget movies, the all-star production (Gregory Peck, Jennifer Jones, Joseph Cotten, and Lillian Gish) represents another stopover on a road that leads to ever increasing movie costs. Though there’s some controversy about the numbers, this was the first film of the sound era to conclusively outspend Ben-Hur (Gone With the Wind came close).
Was it worth it? The film pulled in well over three times its budget at the box office, which definitely qualifies as a win. Its troubled production history shows in the finished product, but it remains a fascinating blend of well-meaning social commentary and some deeply disturbing plot turns.
Honorable mention: Ben-Hur (1959)
Adjusted budget: $US151 ($217) m
Charlton Heston navigates gay subtext in a chariot.
Was it worth it? Unquestionably. It held the top spot at the U.S. box office for six months, saved MGM from oblivion, and remains one of the biggest money-makers of all time. It’s also one of only three films to have won 11 Academy Awards. On the downside, it convinced studios that big-budget epics were the way to fight menace of television, a mindset that mostly ended in tears (see Cleopatra, much further down this list).
Honorable mention: Mutiny on the Bounty (1962)
Adjusted budget: $US182 ($261) m
An all-star cast lead by Marlon Brando, a beloved novel, and nautical adventure. What could possibly go wrong?
Was it worth it? An early warning about the dangers of throwing cash at the screen in the face of TV (and about Brando’s increasingly troubling behaviour on set), Mutiny looked to have everything going for it until it didn’t. It did reasonable box office business, but still lost millions thanks to cost overruns.
20. Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)
Adjusted budget: $US290 ($417) m
The Star War that launched a thousand flame wars comes in at the low end of post-Lucas SW budgets, with only Rogue One being made for less.
Was it worth it? It’s the second cheapest modern Star Wars movie, but also the second most successful, making between $US1.3 ($1.8) and $US1.4 ($2) billion dollars at the worldwide box office. So it was a bargain.
19. Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019)
Adjusted budget: $US291 ($418) m
The gang is back, hunting for the key to a map to a thing that leads to a whatever.
Was it worth it? Not really. There were far better ways to cap off this trilogy (and the retroactively named Skywalker Saga), and the movie’s 52% Rotten Tomatoes score puts it at the rock-bottom of live-action Star Wars projects. It still made over a billion dollars, which is perfectly good money — but the film’s rather poor reception threw a wrench into Disney’s plans for future SW films, leading to a number of projects that have been delayed or outright cancelled. After five years of annual Wars, the next movie is…TBD.
18. Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)
Adjusted budget: $US296 ($426) m
The I.P. Strikes Back.
Was it worth it? Revived Star Wars in live action? Made over $US2 ($3) billion for Disney? True. All of it.
17. Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018)
Adjusted budget: $US297 ($427) m
Much of the budget here was eaten up in behind-the-scenes mishegoss (as much as 75% of the movie was made twice under different directors), resulting in the most expensive Star Wars film of all.
Was it worth it? Nope. I have a soft spot for this one, but less than $US400 ($555) million gross on a $US300 ($416) million budget is the kind of return that will have had Mickey in a very foul mood indeed.
16. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)
Adjusted budget: $US297 ($427) m
The one where Jesse Eisenberg gives Holly Hunter a jar of pee.
Was it worth it? It was not. The movie started out strong, and did decent global business, but dropped off quickly on poor word-of-mouth. The couple hundred million dollars it’s estimated to have earned in profit is OK, but not great at this level. What’s more, the poor response and mixed box office results threw a giant monkey wrench into Warner’s plans for a Marvel-esque shared universe.
15. Avatar (2009)
Adjusted budget: $US299 ($430) m
James Cameron’s most successful film wasn’t even his most expensive.
Was it worth it? Adjusted for inflation, Avatar is the second-biggest box office champ of all time, having earned around $US3.3 ($4.75) billion, so yeah. It’s also the subject of one of Disney World’s premiere attractions — so, though it’s sometimes dismissed, it’s an unqualified success.
14. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2006)
Adjusted budget: $US302 ($434) m
There’s a lot of PotC from here on out.
Was it worth it? Sitting near the top-grossing film franchises, Pirates has collectively made boatloads of money for Disney. Dead Man’s Chest, the second film, pulled in the most, even though it comes in at the lower end of budgets for these things.
13. Waterworld (1995)
Adjusted budget: $US306 ($440) m
At the time of its release, Waterworld’s budget was all people were talking about.
Was it worth it? Yes and no…but mostly no. It made its money back, eventually, and represents an ambitious attempt at big, high-concept science fiction at a time when studios weren’t doing a ton of that. But it didn’t do well enough to be considered an unqualified success, and it’s not quite interesting enough to have earned true cult status.
12. John Carter (2012)
Adjusted budget: $US311 ($447) m
The Edgar Rice Burroughs cinematic universe, sadly, was not to be.
Was it worth it? Not even a little bit (and I’m speaking as someone who liked the movie). Disney reportedly claimed a $US200 ($278) million loss on the film, making it one of the biggest money-losers in film history (pre-COVID, anyway).
11. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009)
Adjusted budget: $US316 ($454) m
Snape takes centre stage.
Was it worth it? Yes. It had a significantly higher budget (by $US100 ($139) million or so) than any other Harry Potter movie without making any more money than any other Harry Potter movie. Still, the billion dollar (give or take) box office is nothing to turn up your wand at, even if the return here was a hair less than the others in the series.
10. Tangled (2010)
Adjusted budget: $US3.3 ($4.75) m
Disney’s gorgeously animated Rapunzel remix.
Was it worth it? Yes, but barely. It did decent business at the box office (and Disney knows how to make money in the aftermarket), but at that price — which climbed higher and higher when development stalled and restarted several times throughout production — it would’ve needed to do much better to be considered an unqualified success. Frozen, by comparison, was made for way less money and made much more.
9. Justice League (2017)
Adjusted budget: $US332 ($477) m
I doubt we’ll ever entirely untangle Justice League’s finances, given it’s a movie that was really made three times: first under Zack Snyder, then (notoriously) by Joss Whedon, and then again by Zack Snyder, who finished off his original cut for an additional $US70 ($97) million or so. Keeping that last streaming version out of the picture, it’s still the case that the movie cost a lot of money, and it cost a lot more to rework it into a form that audiences weren’t thrilled with.
Was it worth it? It was not. The movie lost money, everyone involved seemed to have a terrible time making it, and audiences were disappointed. The later Snyder cut smoothed things out, but at a massive additional cost.
8. Spider-Man 3 (2007)
Adjusted budget: $US337 ($485) m
Spidey goes emo in the conclusion of Sam Raimi’s Spider-trilogy.
Was it worth it? Sure. Even though it cost more, and it was far less well-received, its box office was very much in line with the earlier Raimi films. Not that it made enough to ward off a complete franchise reboot, however, with Sony electing to go back to the beginning with Andrew Garfield rather than let Tobey Maguire suit up a fourth time.
7. Titanic (1997)
Adjusted budget: $US338 ($486) m
Was it worth it? Oh my yes. The sixth most expensive film of all time is also still in the top five money makers even, having earned somewhere just shy of $US3.5 ($5) billion. Granted, it’s had three rereleases, but the overwhelming majority of that money was made right out of the gate.
5–6. Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame (2018/19)
Adjusted budget: $US351 ($505) m (Infinity War) $US377 ($542) m (Endgame)
Shit’s going down in the 616.
Was it worth it? They did nearly $US5 ($7.2) billion at the box office between them, and Endgame alone ranks with the top five highest-grossing films of all time. So, yeah. Marvel’s doing fine.
4. Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (2007)
Adjusted budget: $US392 ($564) m
The conclusion of the Pirates series, until they made more.
Was it worth it? Filmed back-t0-back with Dead Man’s Chest, this third Pirates movie cost a bit more and earned a bit less, but it did well enough to keep the franchise going for at least two subsequent films.
3. Cleopatra (1963)
Adjusted budget: $US416 ($598) m
Estimates of Cleopatra’s cost vary significantly, with the studio at the time putting the total at around $US35 ($49) million. Publicity about cost overruns was hurting the film’s press, and given that 20th Century Fox was in damage control mode, I’m inclined to put the movie’s costs at the higher end of estimates.
Was it worth it? Yes, but only barely, and only thanks to its legacy. A lot of the budget was wasted on avoidable behind-the-scenes problems, but an awful lot of money still made it to the screen. Because it cost so much to make, it took a couple of years and a TV deal to actually earn money, but it was still the top-grossing film of 1963 and received nine Academy Award nominations, including one for Best Picture. Though it gave an awful lot of studio execs nasty headaches, the results remain pretty impressive.
2. Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
Adjusted budget: $US417 ($600) m
James Spader strikes.
Was it worth it? Though it was the most expensive, and remains the lowest-grossing of the Avengers movies…it still made boatloads of money. So yes.
1. Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011)
Adjusted budget: $US456 ($656) m
Though slated as a lower-budget return to the series following the conclusion of what was intended as a trilogy, the fourth Pirates film shot well past its frugal origins to find a spot solidly on top of the list of the most expensive films ever made.
Was it worth it? Yes, but barely. At that price, even the movie’s billion-dollar box office likely left a relatively thin profit margin.