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 honor 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.