Give us the spectacles we want to see! Constantly trying to outdo each other, some of our favorite films are notorious for their insane sets and huge production costs. The problem is, shelling out great sums to behind an on-screen fantasy world wasn’t always worth the investment — and sometimes the result was downright catastrophic. These are the most expensive movie sets of all time.
25. Pirates of the Caribbean – The Black Pearl: Unknown
Inspired by the classic theme park ride from Disneyland, Walt Disney Studios came out with the first Pirates movie in 2003, taking box offices and pop culture by storm with Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. Since then, four films have been produced, with the latest having been released in 2017.
While hard to pin down exact costs per set, all five films started with allocated budgets of over $250 million. The 2011 release of Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides goes on record to date as the most expensive movie ever made, with a budget of over $370 million. It’s a safe bet to say that building the notorious ship the Black Pearl alone cost over $1 million.
24. Gangs of New York – 1850’s New York: Unknown
Director Martin Scorsese was working on Gangs of New York for over twenty years before it was purchased by Harvey Weinstein in 1999. The film’s release was delayed several times, at first due to a disagreement between Weinstein and Scorsese on editing and the length of the film. Then came the September 11 attacks that rocked New York City.
On a budget of $100 million, the key to nailing production of the movie was capturing the essence of Civil War-era New York. The only way to accomplish that was to rebuild the city from scratch. Filmed at the famous Cinecittà studios in Rome, the team recreated over a mile of mid-19th century New York buildings in a project that easily ran over $1 million.
23. The Lord of the Rings – Hobbiton: Unknown
Situated on an old family run farm in Waikato, New Zealand is Hobbiton, the quaint fictional hobbit village appearing in all of the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films. After working out a deal with the farm’s owners, director Peter Jackson enlisted the help of the New Zealand military to build thirty seven hobbit holes, along with planting a massive amount of trees and shrubbery.
For the first film, construction was not built to last. After continual reuse, the production team decided to make the village more permanent by doing reconstruction in 2011. Since then, the movie set has become one of New Zealand’s most popular tourist sites, attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors every year.
22. The Ten Commandments – Pharaoh’s Palace: $1,000,000
Based on the 1949 novel The Prince of Egypt, legendary director Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments is a retelling of the Biblical story of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt. Moses, adopted son of the Egyptian pharaoh, learns of his Hebrew origins and eventually sides with his own, oppressed people against his once adoptive family, eventually leading them to freedom.
At the time of its release in 1956, the total production cost of $13 million was the highest ever recorded. A huge portion of that went into creating the elaborate set of Pharaoh’s lavish palace. To give some context, the set took months to build and required more than 1,500 carpenters and 25,000 pounds of nails.
21. You Only Live Twice – Volcano Lair: $1,000,000
Capitalizing on an already successful franchise, the fifth James Bond film, You Only Live Twice, was released in 1967 with a budget of $9.5 million. In the film, Sean Connery stars as the iconic international man of mystery, who is sent to a remote island in Japan after a joint American-Soviet spacecraft goes missing in orbit.
The craft eventually turns up in the secret SPECTRE headquarters, which is located inside an active volcano. The set of the volcano lair cost $1 million by itself — more than 10% of the entire film’s budget. The bunker, which was built in a Hollywood studio, measured 148 feet tall and could be seen from three miles away.
20. The Spy Who Loved Me – Liparus: $1,000,000
Keeping with the James Bond theme, the tenth film in the 007 series, The Spy Who Loved Me, received a franchise record budget of $13.5 million, since its predecessor was ill-received. As one of the most expensive movies in the James Bond series up until then, much of that money was spent creating villain Stromberg’s super-submarine, Liparus.
Built in one of the largest sound stages in the world, the set held three full-size submarine models and 1.2 million gallons of water. No wonder it was nicknamed the Jonah set! The set was so big that production designer Ken Adam needed to call for reinforcements, enlisting the help of friend and legendary director Stanley Kubrick.
19. WarGames – NORAD: $1,000,000
Before starring as Ferris Bueller, Matthew Broderick played David Lightman, a young computer hacker who busts his way into a United States supercomputer used to simulate the outcome of a potential nuclear war. Before long, the computer cannot differentiate between simulation and reality, and risks starting World War III.
Thanks to confidentiality measures taken by the real NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command), director John Badham needed to go about creating his own command center for the movie. The 30,000-square-foot set looked more high tech than the actual NORAD, with its wall-sized screens and endless stacks of technical equipment.
18. The Matrix Reloaded – Freeway Chase: $2,500,000
Released in 2003, the total budget for the sequel to 1999’s groundbreaking film The Matrix was a formidable $150,000,000. All of that money came back when the film grossed over $730 million at the box office, making it the highest-grossing R-rated film at the time.
In one of the most memorable scenes from the film, Morpheus and his crew are being gunned down on the freeway amidst the hustle and bustle of daytime traffic. Unable to use a real road for safety and directing concerns, the production team set out to build a 1.5 mile-faux freeway at a decommissioned Navy Air Base in Alameda, California. The freeway scene alone reportedly cost $2.5 million.
17. Hello, Dolly! – Harmonia Gardens Scene: $2,500,000
Based on the 1969 musical of the same name, Hello, Dolly! stars Barbra Streisand as Dolly Levi, a matchmaker who travels to Yonkers, New York to find a mate for her client. Part of the difficulty of shooting the film was staying true to the original Broadway production.
Over $2.5 million of the film’s $25 million budget was spent on making the streets look like turn-of-the-century New York. The set for the famous Harmonia Gardens scene filled an entire sound stage on three levels, taking filmmakers over a month to get all of the shots that would go into the film’s final cut.
16. Stalingrad – Recreating The City: $3,500,000
Known for its stunning visuals, Stalingrad had its premiere in Volgograd (formerly named Stalingrad) in September 2013. The film was nominated as the Russian entry for Best Foreign Film at the 86th Academy Awards, but did not earn a nomination despite its amazing production design and cinematography.
Lasting a total of five months, the battle for Stalingrad was one of the bloodiest of World War II. In order to replicate history as best as possible, director Fedor Bondarchuk created a detailed reconstruction of the city as it would have appeared in 1942. It took a team of 400 people six months to build, and cost a total of $3.5 million.
15. Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi – Jabba’s Sail Barge: $4,000,000
The Star Wars franchise has set a serious precedent when it comes to production value, something that its loyal fan base enjoys to this day. In the final film of the original trilogy, director George Lucas spent ten percent of his $40 million budget to build slimy alien gangster Jabba the Hutt’s sail barge.
The project took one hundred and ten workers more than four months to complete. Once it was built, the word got out. Over-anxious fans arrived from all over the world trying to sneak a peek during production in the California desert. The finished set stood over 80 feet tall and was 212 feet in length.
14. The Last of the Mohicans – Fort William Henry Model: $6,000,000
No stranger to large-scale productions, Michael Mann’s The Last of the Mohicans went to great lengths to make the film as historically accurate as possible. The plot centers around a trio of Mohawks (including their adopted white family member, Hawkeye, played by Daniel Day-Lewis) tasked with escorting a group of Brits to Fort William Henry in northeastern New York.
The film, which takes place during the French and Indian War in 1757, was filmed in the woodlands of North Carolina. To fit the period, it was necessary that the fort be as accurate as possible. Mann spent $6 million to recreate it. The 160,000-square-foot structure took 150 workers several months to complete.
13. The General – Blowing The Bridge: $6,000,000
Filmed in 1926 during the latter part of the silent film era and widely regarded as one of the best films ever made, the Library of Congress chose The General for preservation. The production team spent a huge chunk of their then-unheard of $750,000 budget on just one scene.
In it, a 215-foot-bridge is blown up, derailing a train and sending it crashing into a river. The scene was the first of its kind, shocking moviegoers who were not used to this type of violent imagery. The cost of the scene in 1926 was $42,000, which equates to about $6 million today.
12. The Goonies – Pirate Ship Wharf: $7,000,000-$8,000,000
Written and produced by Steven Spielberg, 1985’s The Goonies is one of those cult films that you cannot forget. In 2017, it was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress. Perhaps the most iconic image from the movie (aside from Sloth), is One Eyed Willy’s pirate ship.
The ship, along with the pirate wharf, was by far the biggest set used in the film, encompassing an entire sound stage. While the exact cost of the set is a Hollywood secret, it’s safe to say that the bill ran close to $10 million. During the set’s several months of construction, Spielberg banned the cast from entering the sound stage in order to preserve their authentic reactions to seeing the ship for the first time on camera.
11. Batman – Gotham City: $15 million (estimated)
Built using eighteen sound stages with scale models and full-size pieces, the set used to build Tim Burton’s vision of Gotham City in 1989’s Batman was the largest set built in two and a half decades. It may not have been the most expensive movie set ever, but it took 400 people six months to complete it and used all of Pinewood Studios’ back lot.
Set designer Anton Furst said that he wanted the city to look like a New York City gone wrong. Tim Burton said that he wanted it to be a playground for his deranged characters to run around in. While the film may be memorable for its characters, the scenes of Gotham City are absolutely mindblowing.
10. Metropolis – Futuristic Cityscape: $18,500,000
A pioneer in the genre of science fiction, German director Fritz Lang was one of the first to use scale miniatures and special effect techniques. Both were on full display in 1927’s Metropolis. In one scene that was notoriously difficult to shoot, 500 extras had to stand waist-deep in freezing cold water while reaching up to actress Brigitte Helm.
The city scenes, which took up more than 60,000 square feet of studio space, drew artistic inspiration from Art Deco, Cubism, and Bauhaus design. They also had touches of the Old Testament’s Tower of Babel and the Manhattan skyline. A budget of seven million Reichsmarks in 1927 made this film one of the most expensive movies of the silent era.
9. Titanic – Sunken Ship Stage: $20,000,000
Titanic was such a huge production effort that it required enlisting two studios to finance it, Twentieth Century Fox and Paramount. While the production team did spend quite a bit of money on special effects and historical props, the film would have been incomplete without exerting a full effort on its most climactic part.
Ten percent of the movie’s $200,000,000 budget was spent on building a sound stage in Baja California that held 20 million gallons of water. This is where the ill-fated ship finally sank (in the movie), largely destroying the pricey ship model. Titanic would become the first film to ever gross more than $1 billion, so in the end the spending paid off.
8. Full Metal Jacket – Recreating Vietnam: $30,000,000
Director Stanley Kubrick had planned to use a plastic reconstruction to recapture the image of the city of Hue during the Vietnam War. But when he found the model to be unsuitable, he was forced to go a different route. Instead, he found an old British army base owned by British Gas, where he rebuilt the city to his own liking.
Working from photographs of the war’s damage, Kubrick had his crew use a wrecking ball to smash holes in the buildings so they would look as realistic as possible. All told, construction and equipment costs, including the wrecking ball, helicopter, explosives, and military equipment, cost a cool $30 million. As they say, the devil is in the details.
7. It’s a Wonderful Life – Building Bedford Falls: $40,000,000
It’s a Wonderful Life was actually a box office flop upon its release in 1946. However, soon after, movie goers and critics alike reevaluated it, earning it five Academy Award nominations. The film won the award for technical achievement. Russell Shearman, head of special effects, developed a new way of making artificial snow out of mostly soap products, a departure from the previous method: cornflakes!
In order to create the fantasy town of Bedford Falls, director Frank Capra decided to build it completely from scratch. In total, the set measured over four acres, including 75 stores and buildings, a working bank, and more than 20 fully-grown oak trees. By the movie’s premiere, its budget had ballooned to $6 million. That sum was largely because of this set, which would be $40 million in today’s money.
6. Intolerance – The Great Wall of Babylon: $60,000,000
An epic of the silent film era, director D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance also had an epic price tag when filming was completed in 1916. Filmed on a huge studio lot on Sunset Boulevard, Griffith needed a 300-foot-tall replica of the biblical Great Wall of Babylon, as well as streets to model ancient Judea and medieval France.
The actual cost of production is somewhat shrouded in mystery. At the time, it was rumored that the bill had jumped to $2 million. This figure was simply unheard of in 1916. Records show the film costing somewhere in the range of $400,000. Griffith financed the film out of his own pocket, which would lead to eventual financial demise.
5. Hook – Pirate’s Wharf: $70,000,000
Although not a personal favorite for director Steven Spielberg, 1991’s Hook is known for its fantastic sets, which earned it a nod for Best Production Design at the Academy Awards. The movie was filmed on Sony’s Sound Stage 27, which also used to house the sets of Munchkinland from The Wizard of Oz and the command center in WarGames.
The pirate wharf measured 30,000 square feet itself, housing the Jolly Roger pirate ship, which was seventy feet long. The massive costs to produce Hook are yet another reminder of how much ships are worth. Despite the director disliking the film, it was still a financial smash success, earning more than $300 million at the box office.
4. Ben Hur – Chariot Race: $152,000,000
Back in 1959, television was starting to become so popular that families were opting to stay at home rather than go to the movies. Encouraged by the success of Paramount’s monumental The Ten Commandments, MGM bet on big production, creating one of the most expensive movie projects of its era. The studio threw $15.4 million into recreating the 1925 classic film Ben Hur.
In total, filming required 300 sets, using 340 acres of back lot. It took workers an entire year to carve out a rock quarry used for the epic chariot scene, and 40,000 tons of imported sand to fill it. Just this one scene alone ate up one quarter of the film’s budget.
3. Waterworld – Floating Atoll: $175,000,000
Set in the (hopefully) distant future where the planet has drowned beneath the oceans, 1995’s Waterworld is one of the biggest financial disasters in film history. The set, which is more like a dystopian floating city, was designed to be towed and rotated. This would allow camera operators to film at multiple angles.
High construction costs, along with bad weather which ruined the set, led to unprecedented budget increases. In total, the final bill was over $175 million. However, there’s a plus side: as a result of production, the state of Hawaii experienced a $35 million increase to their economy. The film did not break even at the box office, but eventually would inspire a video game and Universal Studios attraction.
2. The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian – Narnia: $250,000,000
This isn’t necessarily what pops to mind when you think of the most expensive movie projects ever. The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian is director Andrew Adamson’s follow up to 2005’s The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, released three years prior. All four movies in the franchise have attracted hundred-million dollar budgets, thanks to their intensely loyal fan base.
For the previous film, Adamson faced serious criticism for relying too heavily on CGI for the film’s effects. So, for Prince Caspian, he decided to go the old-fashioned route, using scale models and huge sets instead. The majority of the film’s $250 million budget was spent on the sets alone to give Narnia a more realistic feel.
1. Cleopatra – Ancient Egypt: $350,000,000
In 1963, Cleopatra became the first-ever production to earn the accolade of highest-grossing film while still registering a loss. This was due to its extraordinarily high production cost. The price of filming nearly bankrupted 20th Century Fox. Its lead actress, Elizabeth Taylor, became seriously ill on set. Violent rains wiped out most of the sets, and filming had to be moved to Rome.
More than seventy sets, some with walls that were hundreds of feet tall, needed to be rebuilt from scratch. Set construction, as well as the constant rewriting of the script, caused the budget to reach astronomical levels. With sets and losses, this remains one of the most expensive movie productions of all time.