Filmmaking is not for the faint of heart—or the shallow of pocket. After all, busting blocks at the box office doesn’t come cheap. We usually notice the million-dollar special effects and star actors, but one of the most expensive and important aspects of putting a film in the multiplex is often overlooked: the set. While some of them can be as simple as a plain room, plenty have gone straight off the deep end.
Here are 10 of the most expensive in history:
Perhaps one of the big screen’s most notorious flops, Waterworld sent director Kevin Reynolds’ respectability to a watery grave and almost sank Kevin Costner’s career along with it. Before the advent of green screen the film’s aquatic sets proved to be a logistical nightmare, one that saw the crew burn through a multi-million dollar production budget in a matter of months.
The biggest culprit was a huge 1,000-ton floating atoll that was created off the coast of Hawaii. This specially built island measured a quarter-mile in circumference and used up all of the available steel on the Hawaiian islands, forcing producers to ship in more from California! The movie went about $75 million dollars over budget, mostly in set costs. Adding that to whatever was in the original budget and we're probably well over $100 million.
Adjusted for inflation, Cleopatra remains one of the most expensive films ever made. In fact, the $44 million–roughly equivalent to $340 million in modern money–that the film racked up nearly killed Fox, the studio that held the production’s purse strings. Lavish sets were one of the biggest money pits; in fact entire backdrops were built and then never used as the botched production moved from London to Rome midway through shooting. In total, there were 79 sets created for this film. They went big.
It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
You know the story: angels, bells, Zuzu’s petals. But did you know that this beloved festive flick is also responsible for one of the most exorbitant movie sets ever created? That set was a sprawling four-acre recreation of Bedford Falls complete with a three-block main street, 75 stores and buildings–including a working bank–and more than 20 fully grown oak trees. They probably should have just gone with an actual town, but they needed to be able to control the snow. And I mean fake snow, because those shooting days in Encino, California topped 90 degrees.
James Cameron is no stranger to mega-budget movies, but even by his own inflated standards the sheer scale of the sets constructed for his 1997 box office behemoth is something else. In fact, adjusted for inflation, the set for Titanic cost a staggering $30 million with much of that going towards the creation of a 90% scale replica of the ill-fated ship, which in turn was housed inside a whopping 17-million gallon tank that cost $40 million. When all was said and done, the movie's $200 million budget was more than the cost of the real ship.
The General (1926)
Known for his silent movie mugging, Buster Keaton doesn't seem like the kind of guy to be responsible for what is undoubtedly one of the most expensive movie sets ever created. The set, which involved an old train being blown up on an actual bridge, cost $42,000 back in 1926, a figure that equates to roughly $500,000 in today’s money.
The Matrix Reloaded (2003)
For a movie series that pushed the boundaries of what audiences had come to expect from digital effects, you wouldn’t expect that the Wachowski siblings' set budget was all that extravagant for the blockbusting Matrix trilogy. And yet $1.5 million worth of the movies’ multi-million dollar budget went on building the freeway that was used for the chase scene in Matrix Reloaded. The end result was a mile and a half long stretch of road built over an old runway at a former military base, complete with its own off-ramp and 19-foot concrete walls.
While some people might turn to green screen and visual effects to recreate the horrors of World War II era Stalingrad, Russian director Fedor Bondarchuk decided to go the old fashioned route and build his set from scratch. The end result, a meticulously detailed recreation of the war-torn city. It cost $4 million and took an army of 400 workers more than 6 months to build. It was worth it, as the film’s jaw-dropping visuals were like catnip for critics who lapped up the lavish settings.
Best known for his racist caricatures in his 1915 film Birth of a Nation, D. W. Griffith also blazed the trail for pricey sets. For his 1916 epic Intolerance (an appropriate title, since this one was also racist), he built a 300-foot tall replica of the Great Wall of Babylon, a colossal construction that took up more than four city blocks. You can watch the whole film for free on YouTube.
With great acting, a sensational script, and ground-breaking cinematography, Ben Hur is clearly a masterpiece. But even more impressive than those things was its massive scale. There were 10,000 extras, 100 wardrobe technicians and more than 400 pounds of human hair used to fabricate fake beards. But these all pale in insignificance in contrast to the film’s 300 sets, which extended over 148 acres and nine sound stages. Made using a million pounds of plaster, 40,000 cubic feet of lumber, and countless carpenters and artists, they were the most expensive and largest sets ever made. Over 1,000 workers constructed the stadium out of a rock quarry which cost more than $8 million in today's dollars.
The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001 – 2003)
Considered perhaps the most ambitious movie series ever made, the sets for Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy were as expensive as you might expect. Recreating the likes of Hobbiton and Helm’s Deep doesn’t come cheap—the production budget was $281 million, but the New Zealand Army did help out for $20 a day. And while filming has long since finished today, the sets still stand as tourist attractions.
Daniel Bettridge is a freelance writer for outlets including The Guardian, The Atlantic, Vulture and The Week; he’s also the author of The Travel Guide to Westeros. You can read his writing in 140 characters or less on Twitter @DanielBettridge.