This very day, (counting from the original U.S. release date) Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s infamous “Cleopatra” turns 50, thereby outliving by over a decade the last pharaoh of Ancient Egypt herself. As a film, “Cleopatra” has many claims to fame -- the first teaming of subsequent real-life spitfire couple Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor; a multi-Oscar-winning epic of dubious historical accuracy; a film whose slimmest cut runs a whopping 192 minutes. But mainly, it is still known for being very, very expensive to make.
We’ll get a little more into the numbers below, but suffice to say for now that “Cleopatra” was not the first time that a film’s budget became a talking point. In fact, all throughout film history, teeth have been sucked and slow wolf-whistles sounded at the seemingly inexcusable price of making X or Y film. And it sure wasn't the last either -- just a pit stop in a continuum that'll likely never end, because as much as we might have a tendency to believe we’re living in the End Times and nothing could possibly get bigger, badder or crazier than it is right now, we also kinda love to see things crash through those limits, be they ever so profligate and seemingly wasteful. Is such chatter detrimental to a film's box office? In some cases it seems very likely (“Heaven’s Gate”). But there’ve been many other occasions (especially in more recent times) when it feels like the increased chatter around a film’s enormous budget has done the opposite and made people curious to see whatever spectacle is on offer that could possibly ever in a million years have cost so much (“Titanic,” “Avatar”).
We’ve got a little sampler for you here of just 5 of those films spanning from the near future right back to the early decades of the 20th Century when, quaintly enough, a million dollars seemed like a lot of money (and of course it was; it probably would have bought you a couple of solid gold homburgs and a dinner with Diamond Jim Brady). In the meantime here are the 5 we’ve picked -- not so much a list of notable big-budget flops (because we already did that more comprehensively here), and more a quick rundown of some of the films that challenged whatever the prevailing budget benchmark was at the time -- sometimes winning, and sometimes not -- in the great gambling house that is Hollywood.
Note: We’ve done our best to be as accurate with figures as we can, but with studios often gunshy about revealing the bottom line, and with wide mysterious margins of error as to whether or not marketing and/or distribution costs are or should be included, it can be a minefield.
“A Daughter of the Gods” (1916)
Why are we talking about it? The first film to cost $1 million dollars (approx $21m adjusted)
Why so pricey? The labor of 20,000 men, set building, underwater scenes and, um, mosquito proofing were mostly to blame for the grotesque cost overruns on this silent film. That and the fact that on the Kingston, Jamaica set, over 220,000 ft of film were shot (40+ hours if our math is right). In fact, the final bill was so egregious that producer William Fox (who had just set up a lil’ mom-and-pop film corporation bearing his surname) demanded director Herbert Brenon’s name be removed, which it was, until Brenon successfully countersued and his credit was reinstated.
How did it do? It fared well, as far as can be told. The 3-hour long film (gotta use as much of that footage as possible, we guess) is now officially classified as lost, as only catalogue records of it remain. Yet those records do speak of something that should have had significant box office appeal (and the Vancouver Daily Sun sure liked it): a fantasy story with sultans and fairies and witches, ‘Daughter’ also featured the first-ever nude scene by a major star (proto-Esther Williams aquatic actress --"aquactress"? -- Annette Kellerman, though her long hair apparently kept things tasteful). Additionally, it boasted an orchestral score (played live in the theaters) by composer Robert Hood Bowers that was apparently one of the most notable up to that point. And it certainly didn’t negatively impact on Brenon’s career either -- he has more than 120 directing credits to his name, including, topically enough, the 1926 Warner Baxter and William Powell-starring version of “The Great Gatsby.”
“Ben Hur” (1925)
Why are we talking about it? The most expensive film of the silent era -- $3.967m (approx $51,388,000m adjusted for inflation)
Why so pricey? There’s no such thing as a sure thing in showbiz, but as near as you get might be “Ben-Hur.” Based on a novel that ousted “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” as the bestselling American novel ever (a title it retained until Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone with the Wind” hit bookstores in 1936, though it has re-overtaken it in the rankings since), even the play of "Ben-Hur" broke records, running for 25 years until 1922. All of which is to say, producer Louis B. Mayer knew a potential cash cow when he saw one and wasn’t afraid to invest in the production accordingly -- gotta speculate to accumulate after all. And so from the lavish set-pieces like a naval battle and, of course, a chariot race to recasting roles (including the lead) and a director changover that took place while already on location in Rome, delays and cost overruns happened all over the place. Not just that, but the property had already been the subject of a defining piece of copyright legislation, when the producers of a 1907 15-minute long partial adaptation were successfully sued for not securing the film rights to the novel (which had never really been the practice up until then). When it came to the 1925 film, the rights were actually held by the play’s producer Abraham Erlanger, who insisted on a hefty profit participation deal as well as creative approval over every aspect of the film.
How did it do? It did remarkably well, but not straight off the bat: the prejudicial deal he’d done to get the rights (and an early example of Hollywood creative accounting perhaps) meant that somehow despite taking $9m worldwide on release in 1925, MGM posted it as a net loss of nearly $700,000. It did however end up in profit profit after a rerelease in 1931 with an added musical score, and long before that it had done a publicity job for MGM that was almost beyond value: at a swoop it helped establish the studio as a major player. You may have heard of them since. They made a few movies.