Have you ever wondered what goes into the cost of making a movie? Specifically, a blockbuster of epic proportion that incorporates massive set pieces spanning across the globe with A-list talent and stunning visual effects. In short, it’s not cheap to make a movie of this scale. There was once a time when $200 million was considered an expensive film. Now, $200 million is the standard as studio budgets continue to increase past $300, even $400 million.
Superhero movies are typically associated with massive budgets due to the high volume of CGI. However, more studios are increasing budgets for films they believe could be billion-dollar earners and kick off a successful franchise. Below are the 10 most expensive movies of all time.
*Budgets have not been adjusted for inflation.
10. Justice League — $300 million
In today’s age, superhero films are expensive due to their visual effects, CGI characters, and large set pieces. Justice League was no different, but the film’s production experienced numerous problems with the script while filming. Warner Bros. was upset with the negative reception to Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, even though the film made a profit and grossed over $873 million worldwide. The studio tried to change Justice League’s script during the middle of filming, which is never a good sign.
Zack Snyder (Rebel Moon), the creative force behind the DCEU and director of Justice League, stepped down during post-production after the tragic death of his daughter. Joss Whedon (Avengers) was hired to finish the film, and the studio allowed Whedon to write and direct additional scenes and reshoot a significant portion of the film. This proved costly, as the budget ballooned to nearly $300 million, with over $20 million used to digitally remove Henry Cavill’s (Man of Steel) mustache. Justice League tanked at the box office, grossing over $657 worldwide. Fans hated the film so much that they mobilized online and created the #ReleaseTheSnyderCut campaign, which worked and led to Zack Snyder’s Justice League, a four-hour director’s cut that was released on HBO Max in 2021.
9. Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End — $300 million
The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise’s biggest strength, shooting on location, is also its costliest decision. At World’s End filmed in Singapore, the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, Palmdale, Niagara Falls, and Molokai. Shooting at sea and filming in large tanks that require an ungodly amount of water is a necessary expense during filming. There were also multiple battle sequences across large set pieces to coordinate. Additionally, it took over five months to implement visual effects.
Johnny Depp (Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl) was at the peak of his star power, which meant the actor needed to be paid like one, earning an estimated $55 million paycheck before backend points. The budget reached $300 million, but the investment paid off as At World’s End became the highest-grossing film of 2007, with $960 million worldwide.
8. Avengers: Infinity War — $325 million
Crafting a decade-long story takes a lot of time, and it costs a lot of money. Avengers: Infinity War was the beginning of the end for the Infinity Saga, kicking off the swan song for a storyline that began in 2008. Unlike previous Avengers films, Infinity War featured more Marvel characters than ever, notably adding the Guardians of the Galaxy, Spider-Man, and Thanos, who made his first non-cameo appearance in the MCU.
The addition of more actors means more money spent on above-the-line talent, inflating the budget to north of $300 million. Though most of the filming took place from January 2017 to July 2017 in Pinewood Atlanta Studios, real locations were used in New York City, downtown Atlanta, and Scotland. $325 million is a small price to pay to become the first superhero film to gross over $2 billion worldwide.
7. Fast X — $340 million
It has been over 20 years, and Vin Diesel (F9) is still fighting to protect his family as Dominic Toretto in The Fast Saga. However, family values are expensive in the franchise as the upcoming 10th film, Fast X, is rumored to have an estimated budget of $340 million. The three main areas of spending for the franchise are global locations, practical action sequences, and talent fees. Fast X is a globe-trotting adventure, filming scenes in Rome, London, Turin, Lisbon, and Los Angeles. Fast X relies on practical action. In other words, the expensive cars, tanks, and helicopters onscreen are real and not the product of a greenscreen.
The A-list cast and legacy members of the franchise also command high salaries, as nearly one-third of the budget (around $100 million) goes to the actors. Diesel is rumored to make $20 million for his work on the film, which will only increase with backend points. Fast X also ran into directorial problems when Justin Lin (Fast Five) left one week into production on April 25, 2022, after rumored clashes with Diesel over the script and film’s direction. Universal paid $1 million per day to pause production before Louis Leterrier (Now You See Me) was hired on May 2 as Lin’s replacement.
6. Avatar: The Way of Water — $350 million
In the 40-plus years that James Cameron (Avatar) has worked as a director, there are two guarantees. The first lesson is to never bet against Cameron because his films always deliver. The second lesson is if there’s any filmmaker who can handle expensive budgets, it’s Cameron due to his track record of generating a sizable profit. Cameron has three of the four highest-grossing films of all time: Titanic, Avatar, and Avatar: The Way of Water. All three had budgets north of $200 million, and all three grossed over $2.2 billion worldwide.
The Way of Water became Cameron’s most expensive film of all time, with an estimated budget of $350 million, although that number is probably higher. The Way of Water incorporated new technology to capture underwater and live-action scenes. The Way of Water was shot alongside the third film and parts of the fourth film, inflating its budget. Also, COVID paused production, which raised production costs throughout Hollywood due to new protocols and testing implementation.
5. Avengers: Endgame — $356 million
The ending of the Infinity Saga came to its epic conclusion in Avengers: Endgame. Like Infinity War, Endgame included a large cast, with over 60 actors billed. Not all salaries are created equal, however. The original Avengers, including Chris Evans (Ghosted), Chris Hemsworth (Thor: Love and Thunder), Scarlett Johansson (Black Widow), Mark Ruffalo (Spotlight), and Jeremy Renner (Hawkeye), made an estimated $15 million. However, Robert Downey Jr. (Iron Man), the first actor to lead an MCU movie, pulled in a rumored $75 million for his involvement in Endgame.
If those numbers are accurate, over $150 million of the rumored $356 million budget went to six actors. Filming took nearly six months and included a battle scene with nearly every character alive in the MCU taking on Thanos’s army. Endgame became the peak for superhero films, as it became the highest-grossing film of all time for about two years before Avatar regained the top spot.
4. Avengers: Age of Ultron — $365 million
Considering their importance within the MCU and the number of actors involved in the productions, it’s surprising to learn that Infinity War and Endgame are not the most expensive Avengers films. That title belongs to Avengers: Age of Ultron, considered the worst of the four Avengers films. For starters, the villainous Ultron, played by James Spader (The Blacklist) is a motion-capture character, and his army is a swarm of CGI robots. The entire final battle relies on visual effects since it takes place on the floating city of Sokovia.
Unlike most Marvel films today, which are almost entirely shot on a studio stage, Age of Ultron was filmed in multiple locations around the world in addition to the stage, including South Korea, Italy, Bangladesh, England, and New York. Age of Ultron also changed how Marvel pays its top talent, as the cast threatened to quit if their salary demands were not met. Downey, who made considerably more than his counterparts, stood up for his fellow Avengers and helped negotiate a higher rate for his costars, paving the way for higher salaries in future MCU projects.
3. Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides — $379 million
One of the most expensive films on this list is one of the oldest, as 2011’s Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides had an estimated production budget of $379 million. Without franchise staples Keira Knightley (The Boston Strangler) and Orlando Bloom (Carnival Row), Disney backed up the brinks truck for the Depp, who made a whopping $55.5 million for his work as Captain Jack Sparrow.
On Stranger Tides copied a page from Avatar‘s playbook by shooting predominately with 3D cameras, which is more costly than standard shooting. Plus, shooting in four locations (Puerto Rico, California, Hawaii, and the United Kingdom), filming at sea, and shooting over 1,000 visual effects expanded the budget to $379 million. Yet, fans still loved seeing the swashbuckling pirate as the film grossed over $1 billion worldwide.
2. Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker — $416 million
On paper, a blockbuster film that grosses over $1 billion worldwide on a $416 million budget is a win. For Lucasfilm, however, The Rise of Skywalker did more damage than good in the long run. Parting ways with a director is somewhat common. When Colin Trevorrow (Jurassic World) parted ways with Episode IX, it was a cause for concern, but it wasn’t time to panic.
Lucasfilm then brought in J.J. Abrams to write and direct what became The Rise of Skywalker. However, the final product seemed more interested in retconning The Last Jedi than telling an original Star Wars story. No Star Wars movie has come out since The Rise of Skywalker, and the next film is not scheduled to be released until 2025 at the earliest.
1. Star Wars: The Force Awakens — $447 million
The most expensive film of all time comes from Lucasfilm in 2015’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens. In 2012, Disney bought Lucasfilm, and the first film under this new ownership was The Force Awakens. I don’t want to say that money wasn’t an issue when it came to the budget, but Disney could not afford to miss on their first Star Wars movie. Therefore, the company was willing to spend big to ensure it would succeed.
Most of the filming was on stages built at Pinewood Studios in England. Iceland, Abu Dhabi, and Ireland were also used as locations, adding to the massive cost of production. The Force Awakens tried to incorporate more practical effects instead of CGI. The result was a monumental win for Lucasfilm, as The Force Awakens is one of only six films to gross over $2 billion worldwide.