This very day, (counting from the original U.S. release date) Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s infamous “Cleopatra” turns 50, thereby outliving by over a decade the last pharaoh of Ancient Egypt herself. As a film, “Cleopatra” has many claims to fame — the first teaming of subsequent real-life spitfire couple Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor; a multi-Oscar-winning epic of dubious historical accuracy; a film whose slimmest cut runs a whopping 192 minutes. But mainly, it is still known for being very, very expensive to make.
We’ll get a little more into the numbers below, but suffice to say for now that “Cleopatra” was not the first time that a film’s budget became a talking point. In fact, all throughout film history, teeth have been sucked and slow wolf-whistles sounded at the seemingly inexcusable price of making X or Y film. And it sure wasn’t the last either — just a pit stop in a continuum that’ll likely never end, because as much as we might have a tendency to believe we’re living in the End Times and nothing could possibly get bigger, badder or crazier than it is right now, we also kinda love to see things crash through those limits, be they ever so profligate and seemingly wasteful. Is such chatter detrimental to a film’s box office? In some cases it seems very likely (“Heaven’s Gate”). But there’ve been many other occasions (especially in more recent times) when it feels like the increased chatter around a film’s enormous budget has done the opposite and made people curious to see whatever spectacle is on offer that could possibly ever in a million years have cost so much (“Titanic,” “Avatar”).
We’ve got a little sampler for you here of just 5 of those films spanning from the near future right back to the early decades of the 20th Century when, quaintly enough, a million dollars seemed like a lot of money (and of course it was; it probably would have bought you a couple of solid gold homburgs and a dinner with Diamond Jim Brady). In the meantime here are the 5 we’ve picked — not so much a list of notable big-budget flops (because we already did that more comprehensively here), and more a quick rundown of some of the films that challenged whatever the prevailing budget benchmark was at the time — sometimes winning, and sometimes not — in the great gambling house that is Hollywood.
Note: We’ve done our best to be as accurate with figures as we can, but with studios often gunshy about revealing the bottom line, and with wide mysterious margins of error as to whether or not marketing and/or distribution costs are or should be included, it can be a minefield.
“A Daughter of the Gods” (1916)
Why are we talking about it? The first film to cost $1 million dollars (approx $21m adjusted)
Why so pricey? The labor of 20,000 men, set building, underwater scenes and, um, mosquito proofing were mostly to blame for the grotesque cost overruns on this silent film. That and the fact that on the Kingston, Jamaica set, over 220,000 ft of film were shot (40+ hours if our math is right). In fact, the final bill was so egregious that producer William Fox (who had just set up a lil’ mom-and-pop film corporation bearing his surname) demanded director Herbert Brenon’s name be removed, which it was, until Brenon successfully countersued and his credit was reinstated.
How did it do? It fared well, as far as can be told. The 3-hour long film (gotta use as much of that footage as possible, we guess) is now officially classified as lost, as only catalogue records of it remain. Yet those records do speak of something that should have had significant box office appeal (and the Vancouver Daily Sun sure liked it): a fantasy story with sultans and fairies and witches, ‘Daughter’ also featured the first-ever nude scene by a major star (proto-Esther Williams aquatic actress –“aquactress”? — Annette Kellerman, though her long hair apparently kept things tasteful). Additionally, it boasted an orchestral score (played live in the theaters) by composer Robert Hood Bowers that was apparently one of the most notable up to that point. And it certainly didn’t negatively impact on Brenon’s career either — he has more than 120 directing credits to his name, including, topically enough, the 1926 Warner Baxter and William Powell-starring version of “The Great Gatsby.”
“Ben Hur” (1925)
Why are we talking about it? The most expensive film of the silent era — $3.967m (approx $51,388,000m adjusted for inflation)
Why so pricey? There’s no such thing as a sure thing in showbiz, but as near as you get might be “Ben-Hur.” Based on a novel that ousted “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” as the bestselling American novel ever (a title it retained until Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone with the Wind” hit bookstores in 1936, though it has re-overtaken it in the rankings since), even the play of “Ben-Hur” broke records, running for 25 years until 1922. All of which is to say, producer Louis B. Mayer knew a potential cash cow when he saw one and wasn’t afraid to invest in the production accordingly — gotta speculate to accumulate after all. And so from the lavish set-pieces like a naval battle and, of course, a chariot race to recasting roles (including the lead) and a director changover that took place while already on location in Rome, delays and cost overruns happened all over the place. Not just that, but the property had already been the subject of a defining piece of copyright legislation, when the producers of a 1907 15-minute long partial adaptation were successfully sued for not securing the film rights to the novel (which had never really been the practice up until then). When it came to the 1925 film, the rights were actually held by the play’s producer Abraham Erlanger, who insisted on a hefty profit participation deal as well as creative approval over every aspect of the film.
How did it do? It did remarkably well, but not straight off the bat: the prejudicial deal he’d done to get the rights (and an early example of Hollywood creative accounting perhaps) meant that somehow despite taking $9m worldwide on release in 1925, MGM posted it as a net loss of nearly $700,000. It did however end up in profit profit after a rerelease in 1931 with an added musical score, and long before that it had done a publicity job for MGM that was almost beyond value: at a swoop it helped establish the studio as a major player. You may have heard of them since. They made a few movies.
Why are we talking about it? It cost $44 million to make, which sounds like chump change till you adjust for inflation to give a modern day equivalent of $325 million — which vies for the largest amount ever spent on a single film depending on how you split out the back-to-back shooting costs of “Pirates of the Caribbean” installments 3 and 4. It nearly bankrupted 20th Century Fox. Additionally Elizabeth Taylor was given a then-record breaking $1m deal to star, though estimates now suggest that due to various addenda to her contract (salary: $125,000 per week for sixteen weeks; $50,000 weekly after sixteen weeks; plus 10% of the film’s gross; $3,000 per week living expenses plus food and lodging; and first-class tickets for herself, three adults, and three children, plus exorbitant delay fees) she would have pocketed closer to $7m overall. Not bad for a film that was a colossal flop and only crossed into profit decades later after home video, re-releases and TV rights years after the majority of the players in the production saga were dead.
Why so Pricey? Where to begin? As with a few of the films on this list, an early change in director and cast was the first sign that things were going to go wrong, when in 1960 original choice Rouben Mamoulian (who apparently favored Dorothy Dandridge for the lead role, which makes this a what-might-have-been? situation for African-American representation in Hollywood film) dropped out to be replaced by Joseph L Mankiewicz. Mankiewicz himself would later be fired and rehired, while original Caesar actor Peter Finch and original Mark Anthony (Stephen Boyd — just imagine, there could have been a “famous Boyd/Taylor romance” instead!) had to leave because delays were impacting on their commitments elsewhere. All of which amounted to a production on which more than 3 1/2 times its original $2m budget had been spent before a single frame of usable film had been shot. But once final cast and crew were assembled, the problems didn’t stop — Taylor became seriously ill and production was halted, then moved. Building the sets, moving the production, and even the laborious editing process (the intended cut was 6 hours long, and only after extended hassle and negotiation was it pared down to a lean, mean 3 1/4 hours) — all ran many tens of times the amount they were orignally budgeted at, but even so it’s not like the production values are consistently excellent: in fact, as time wore on and the money dwindled, certain big battles scenes had to be drastically scaled back, and the results show in the finished film, especially alongside the earlier, no-expense-spared footage.
How did it do? Financially, the hole that it had dug itself into proved just too large to escape from, even with massive public interest. Nominated for 9, the film won 4 Oscars — Costume Design (indeed Taylor held the Guinness World record for most costume changes, at 65, for 5 years) Art Direction and Cinematography and Visual Effects, but critical reception was lukewarm, with many singling out the film’s lack of dramatic urgency as a particular flaw. Still, audiences, attracted especially by the promise of onscreen sizzle between Burton and Taylor who had begun their highly public and mutually extra-marital affair on set, flocked to see it, and it was the number one box office movie 1963. Yet because the film was so excessively expensive to make (and remember in ‘63 the average ticket price was 86¢), simply being number one was not enough to fill the Nile Delta-sized hole in the Fox coffers, It wasn’t until ABC paid $5m for two showings of the film in 1966 that it actually went into (marginal) profit.
“Terminator 2: Judgement Day” (1991)
Why are we talking about it? It was the first film widely believed to have cost more than $100 million to produce at the time of its release.
Why so pricey? If subsequent years have proven the golden rule that we should Never, Ever, Bet Against Cameron, back in 1999, he’d had hits — “Aliens” made $130m off a reported $18.5m budget, “Terminator” made $78m from $6.4 — but his last film “The Abyss” while profitable, hadn’t really offered the same kind of return on its $70m budget. So taking a flier on the first $100 million+ budget was hardly the no-brainer it might seem in retrospect, especially with Cameron presumably having to pitch some of the film’s most sellable aspects (the groundbreaking CGI of the T2000, for example), off a few doodles on the back on a cornflakes pack (ok, we’re being overly flippant, but he wouldn’t have had a whole lot of existing examples, outside of the rather underperforming ‘Abyss’ of how he was going to make it all work so spectacularly). But obviously, the guy can inspire faith, because the studio stumped up this unprecedented amount — 3.5 times the average amount that a studio film cost to make back then, and hell, we remember even our tiny childhood minds being blown back then by the sheer staggering hugeness of the number — 100 million. Of course rumour has it, in addition the massive CGI budget and the cost of your standard explosions, practical effects, cast and crew, set builds and apocalyptic futurescapes,$12m of that went on basically the highest value card in Hollywood Top Trumps — a Gulfstream Jet for star Arnold Schwarzenegger.
How did it do? Of course it had a lot going for it: it was a sequel to an already successful film, featuring the world’s biggest action star in an iconic role. But aside from that, its hefty price tag was offset by presales for TV, home video and worldwide netting over $80m before it even opened. And then it did open, and raked in five times its budget to become the highest grossing film of 1991, the record holder for highest profit increase from original to sequel, and the benchmark to that date in James Cameron’s career. And for once, critical and general opinion aligned with a largely positive reaction, especially to how the film’s scale and visual bombast for once did not engulf or overwhelm the storytelling. $100m well spent.
“World War Z”
Why are we talking about it? Because it’s a highly publicized potential white elephant, costing, if the more hysterical reports are to be believed up to $400 million to make and market. Our own guesstimate (because marketing and distribution costs are hard to gauge) is probably a little more conservative, and subtracting potential marketing, but straying a little north of the studio’s own official reports, we’re thinking maybe $220m ish for production alone. That number might not stagger compared to say, the ‘Pirates 3’ budget (currently judged to be the all-time most expensive at $300m-ish), or even the adjusted “Cleopatra” budget, but it does suggest that the production is around $100m over its initially mooted $125m. That, coupled with many, many reports of a fractious and troubled set (this Vanity Fair article details all that very well, we summarized its main points here), has caused a sort of perfect storm of negative advance word of mouth around the film.
Why so pricey? To be honest, a $200m-ish budget these days for an apocalypse movie featuring a megastar lead, cities falling and hordes of zombies swarming all over the world, actually doesn’t seem so outrageous (with the proviso of course that all Hollywood movie budgets these days seem to happen in a weird stratosphere that mortals like us find it hard to relate to). The real question for us is why make that story out of Max Brooks’ clever, tight bestseller, thats greatest asset to our mind was the economy with which he told the story as a series of personal recollections/found documents, that are individually compelling but build up as a patchwork to give a great suggested sense of the scale of the disaster. It could even have been a faux-documentary. But fine, who are we to reason against Brad Pitt’s Plan B shingle who, after winning the stand-off bidding war for the rights against DiCaprio’s Appian Way, saw in this material the potential for his first franchise lead (‘Oceans’ movies, which are ensembles pieces anyway, aside)? Whatever the reasoning, mid-shoot changes to the script by newly hired writer Damon Lindelof necessitated an extra seven weeks of shooting, to get to a more coherent ending. And with a sense that the tail was wagging the dog when it came to crucial points of deviation from the book’s story (like the excision of any reference to China being ground zero for the zombie plague so as to not to scare off the huge Chinese market, and the general toning-down of the film’s political aspects to be more summer-PG13-tentpole-audience friendly) basically the narrative that evolved around the production was that it was basically selling the original concept up the Swanee to make the film look kind of like everything else. And doing that expensively.
How did it do? Only time (or perhaps Google) will tell, — just another couple of weeks really. Our review is here however, and while our critic had many issues with the film, he was fairly sanguine about its chances at pulling in enough of a crowd this summer to not be judged an unmitigated disaster. For ourselves, we’re looking forward to this time in a couple of years when the numbers are tallied and the wounds somewhat healed, to hear from the participants what really went on and what really went wrong. Because even if it’s a smash hit, there are more perspectives (Marc Forster‘s and Brad Pitt‘s, for example) that we’d love to hear, away from the inevitable junketeering.
If this short list proves one thing it’s that it’s a mug’s game to suggest there might ever be an outer limit, even a psychological one, to what someone will someday pay to get a film made. So tune back in in 2025 when we’ll revisit it after James Cameron’s Cloned Brain In A Jar becomes the first director to spend $1 billion on a single film. As much as we’ll probably roll our eyes and wonder aloud at how many hungry mouths that money could feed, chances are as soon as we’re done mopping the outrage from our brows, we’ll be queuing up to pay the $40 5-D OrgaZmorama surcharge and giving it all the Oscars. And if not, well, impoverished producers can take heart from moral of the “Cleopatra” story — like politicians, prostitutes and buildings, even ruinously expensive movies can become respectable with age; a remastered version is doing the festival rounds as we speak.