The highest grossing films are usually also among the most expensive. But while James Cameron’s epic sci-fi film ‘Avatar’ is considered the most profitable of all time, it was not the costliest to make. Today’s box office charts have been largely dominated by 21st-century big-budget adventure films that required a nine-digit production budget and months of filming before they were officially released to cinemas. In fact, on production costs alone (excluding marketing expenses), only seven of the world’s 50 biggest earning blockbusters are cheaper than $100 million and they are all animated features. When ranked based on inflation-adjusted prices, however, a few films from the older decades made the cut.
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1. Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End
Year released: 2007
Budget: $341 million
At nearly three hours long, At World’s End is the third installment of the Disney swashbuckler saga that made Johnny Depp even more popular. Most of the production budget went to its cutting edge special effects as well as its actors’ whopping talent fees. It was praised for its performances, musical score, action scenes, and ambitious visuals.
Year released: 1963
Budget: $340 million
This 1963 film underwent several casting and directorial changes, had to rebuild new sets, forced to move to a new location, and suffered many other filming problems. In the end, its total overheads ballooned to more than $31 million (from an original budget of just around $2 million)—a massive amount at the time and almost bankrupted 20th Century Fox. Total theatrical earnings reached $57 million but it was not enough to turn a profit.
Year released: 1997
Budget: $294 million
Highly controversial and having received criticisms even before it was released, Titanic managed to silence critics and eventually became the first film to break into the $1 billion mark and won 11 Academy awards. It was the most expensive film made at that time, and is considered to be the most iconic movie about shipwrecks.
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4. Spider-Man 3
Year released: 2007
Budget: $291 million
The most expensive superhero movie ever, Spider-Man 3 is noted for having created more than 900 visual effects shots during post-production. Filming lasted for more than 100 days and had four different versions of the resolution of Sandman’s (the main antagonist) story.
Year released: 2010
Budget: $281 million
It is rare for an animated film to receive extremely high production budget, but as in the case of Walt Disney’s adaptation of ‘Rapunzel,’ it is not impossible at all. Six years in the making, the movie underwent a controversial name change and needed a significant amount of time to perfect the digital simulation of one of the story’s most important elements: Rapunzel’s hair.
6. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
Year released: 2009
Budget: $276 million
Harry Potter is a global phenomenon and producing a high-budget film series out of the literary masterpiece was an easy decision considering its very strong box office potential. Of all the films in the series, Half-Blood Prince was the most expensive. It set the record for the biggest single-day worldwide gross and was nominated at the 82nd Academy Awards for the ‘Best Cinematography’ category.
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Year released: 1995
Budget: $271 million
This film’s futuristic setting was strongly lauded by critics and viewers alike. While it did manage to earn very well at the box office compared to other films released in the same year, it failed to recoup its gigantic budget. After factoring in home video sales and TV broadcast rights, however, Waterworld eventually made profits.
8. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest
Year released: 2006
Budget: $265 million
Disney is highly generous when they see that a film can be very lucrative. Shot back-to-back with ‘At World’s End,’ ‘Dead Man’s Chest’ was immediately developed following the success of the sequels’ predecessor. It eventually became the third film in history to surpass the $1 billion threshold.
Year released: 2009
Like his previous film, James Cameron intended to make his new film a high-budget one. His epic sci-fi film—featuring tall humanoid blue aliens—was more than a decade in the making. Avatar made extensive use of new motion capture filming techniques and is one of the first films to popularize 3D viewing. Its groundbreaking special effects are considered to be a cinematic and technological breakthrough. It is currently the highest grossing film of all time.
By most standards, the American film industry dominates in terms of both production costs and box office performance. No other country comes close in such criteria, although India and China (which are significantly much more populous) may claim to have higher admissions. With gross revenues from theatrical runs generally increasing every passing year (the $1 billion mark has already been surpassed 21 times in the past six years alone), film studios have gained more confidence in increasing their budgets and produce more ambitious motion pictures.