Most Expensive Movie Ever? It’s a Battle Between ‘Pirates,’ ‘Cleopatra’ and ‘Avatar’

Cleopatra Elizabeth Taylor
20th Century Fox/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

June 12 marks the anniversary of the 1963 world premiere of “Cleopatra.” It raises the question: Who starred in the most expensive Hollywood movie ever — Johnny Depp or Elizabeth Taylor?

Depp probably wins, because “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides” cost $378 million (or slightly more than $400 million if adjusted for inflation). Runner-up is 2007’s “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End,” at $300 million.

But if you’re talking about the most scandalously expensive movie ever, “Cleopatra” is the easy winner.

The 1963 Taylor vehicle had a budget of $5 million when filming began on Sept. 28, 1960. Two years later, the film was not yet finished and Fox executive Darryl F. Zanuck said the cost was $35 million, though Variety later estimated that the true figure was closer to $44 million.

At that point, MGM’s “Mutiny on the Bounty” was the most expensive movie ever made, at $17 million, according to Variety. “Cleopatra’s” numbers double that, with a cost that translates to $350 million in 2017, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In the 21st century, a mega-budget film isn’t so startling. But back in 1963, the “Cleopatra” budget was shocking and the public was fascinated, mostly because of the Taylor-Richard Burton romance.

She had become a tabloid sensation in 1959 when she began dating Eddie Fisher, her friend Debbie Reynolds’ husband. When Taylor started her affair with married man Burton in January of 1962, the studio tried to hush it up. But it was too hot to keep under wraps.

Over the years, Hollywood legend says “Cleopatra” forced Fox to sell a huge chunk of its backlot, which became Century City. Movie lore also says the film was a box office disaster.

Neither is true. Fox actually sold off the land in 1958 because TV had severely cut into movie revenues. But it makes a better story if the sale was attributed to two glamorous and high-living movie stars. And “Cleopatra” was actually the No. 1 box office hit of 1963. While it earned big money, it operated in the red for years, because it was so expensive.

It held the record as the costliest film for three decades, which is why the cost became legendary. In the past, some in the film business used to consider a huge budget as a great selling point, using such taglines as “filmed with a cast of thousands at a cost of millions!” In 1966-67, the seven-hour, multi-film adaptation of Tolstoy’s “War and Peace,” directed by Sergei Bondarchuk, was touted as the most expensive film ever, with a budget of $100 million. However, Variety was skeptical, saying that financial statements put it at closer to $9 million.

On August 22, 1979, Variety’s chart of all-time mega-budget films put “Cleopatra” at the top, at $44 million. That was followed by estimates on four films that were recent or still in production: “Star Trek” (1978), $40 million; “Heaven’s Gate” (1980), $40 million; “Flash Gordon” (1980), $35 million; and “Inchon!” (1981), $30-35 million. Also in the top 20, all with budgets at $20 million or above: “1941,” “Apocalypse Now,” the 1978 “Superman,” and “The Empire Strikes Back.”

It was clear even then that mega-budgets were becoming more common. And stockholders became angry at Hollywood excess, so the studios started reversing their instincts and saying that budgets were lower than they actually were. Even so, there was a lot of hand-wringing over the costs for “Waterworld” (1995, $172 million) and “Titanic” (1997, $200 million) — but both movies, like “Cleopatra,” ended up in profit.

Otherwise, the list of all-time expensive movies is now easily dominated by movies made since 2000: the “Pirates” movies, “Spider-Man 3,” “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” “John Carter,” “Avatar,” “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” et al.

The costs of moviemaking have risen so much in the 21st century that mega-budgets for franchise movies barely raise an eyebrow. And despite protests about Hollywood’s lack of originality, the public seems to lap up sequels and remakes.

As budgets continue to climb, it looks like the list of Hollywood’s most expensive films will keep growing. But until then, it seems like Jack Sparrow and the Queen of the Nile will still reign.