Happy 50th Birthday, 'Cleopatra': 5 Famously Expensive Movies

Features
by Jessica Kiang
June 12, 2013 3:44 PM
4 Comments
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Cleopatra” (1963)
Why are we talking about it? It cost $44 million to make, which sounds like chump change till you adjust for inflation to give a modern day equivalent of $325 million -- which vies for the largest amount ever spent on a single film depending on how you split out the back-to-back shooting costs of "Pirates of the Caribbean" installments 3 and 4. It nearly bankrupted 20th Century Fox. Additionally Elizabeth Taylor was given a then-record breaking $1m deal to star, though estimates now suggest that due to various addenda to her contract (salary: $125,000 per week for sixteen weeks; $50,000 weekly after sixteen weeks; plus 10% of the film's gross; $3,000 per week living expenses plus food and lodging; and first-class tickets for herself, three adults, and three children, plus exorbitant delay fees) she would have pocketed closer to $7m overall. Not bad for a film that was a colossal flop and only crossed into profit decades later after home video, re-releases and TV rights years after the majority of the players in the production saga were dead.
Why so Pricey? Where to begin? As with a few of the films on this list, an early change in director and cast was the first sign that things were going to go wrong, when in 1960 original choice Rouben Mamoulian (who apparently favored Dorothy Dandridge for the lead role, which makes this a what-might-have-been? situation for African-American representation in Hollywood film) dropped out to be replaced by Joseph L Mankiewicz. Mankiewicz himself would later be fired and rehired, while original Caesar actor Peter Finch and original Mark Anthony (Stephen Boyd -- just imagine, there could have been a “famous Boyd/Taylor romance” instead!) had to leave because delays were impacting on their commitments elsewhere. All of which amounted to a production on which more than 3 1/2 times its original $2m budget had been spent before a single frame of usable film had been shot. But once final cast and crew were assembled, the problems didn’t stop -- Taylor became seriously ill and production was halted, then moved. Building the sets, moving the production, and even the laborious editing process (the intended cut was 6 hours long, and only after extended hassle and negotiation was it pared down to a lean, mean 3 1/4 hours) -- all ran many tens of times the amount they were orignally budgeted at, but even so it’s not like the production values are consistently excellent: in fact, as time wore on and the money dwindled, certain big battles scenes had to be drastically scaled back, and the results show in the finished film, especially alongside the earlier, no-expense-spared footage.
How did it do? Financially, the hole that it had dug itself into proved just too large to escape from, even with massive public interest. Nominated for 9, the film won 4 Oscars -- Costume Design (indeed Taylor held the Guinness World record for most costume changes, at 65, for 5 years) Art Direction and Cinematography and Visual Effects, but critical reception was lukewarm, with many singling out the film’s lack of dramatic urgency as a particular flaw. Still, audiences, attracted especially by the promise of onscreen sizzle between Burton and Taylor who had begun their highly public and mutually extra-marital affair on set, flocked to see it, and it was the number one box office movie 1963. Yet because the film was so excessively expensive to make (and remember in ‘63 the average ticket price was 86¢), simply being number one was not enough to fill the Nile Delta-sized hole in the Fox coffers, It wasn’t until ABC paid $5m for two showings of the film in 1966 that it actually went into (marginal) profit.

Terminator 2: Judgement Day” (1991)
Why are we talking about it? It was the first film widely believed to have cost more than $100 million to produce at the time of its release.
Why so pricey? If subsequent years have proven the golden rule that we should Never, Ever, Bet Against Cameron, back in 1999, he’d had hits -- “Aliens” made $130m off a reported $18.5m budget, “Terminator” made $78m from $6.4 -- but his last film “The Abyss” while profitable, hadn’t really offered the same kind of return on its $70m budget. So taking a flier on the first $100 million+ budget was hardly the no-brainer it might seem in retrospect, especially with Cameron presumably having to pitch some of the film’s most sellable aspects (the groundbreaking CGI of the T2000, for example), off a few doodles on the back on a cornflakes pack (ok, we’re being overly flippant, but he wouldn’t have had a whole lot of existing examples, outside of the rather underperforming ‘Abyss’ of how he was going to make it all work so spectacularly). But obviously, the guy can inspire faith, because the studio stumped up this unprecedented amount -- 3.5 times the average amount that a studio film cost to make back then, and hell, we remember even our tiny childhood minds being blown back then by the sheer staggering hugeness of the number -- 100 million. Of course rumour has it, in addition the massive CGI budget and the cost of your standard explosions, practical effects, cast and crew, set builds and apocalyptic futurescapes,$12m of that went on basically the highest value card in Hollywood Top Trumps -- a Gulfstream Jet for star Arnold Schwarzenegger.
How did it do? Of course it had a lot going for it: it was a sequel to an already successful film, featuring the world’s biggest action star in an iconic role. But aside from that, its hefty price tag was offset by presales for TV, home video and worldwide netting over $80m before it even opened. And then it did open, and raked in five times its budget to become the highest grossing film of 1991, the record holder for highest profit increase from original to sequel, and the benchmark to that date in James Cameron’s career. And for once, critical and general opinion aligned with a largely positive reaction, especially to how the film’s scale and visual bombast for once did not engulf or overwhelm the storytelling. $100m well spent.

World War Z
Why are we talking about it? Because it’s a highly publicized potential white elephant, costing, if the more hysterical reports are to be believed up to $400 million to make and market. Our own guesstimate (because marketing and distribution costs are hard to gauge) is probably a little more conservative, and subtracting potential marketing, but straying a little north of the studio's own official reports, we’re thinking maybe $220m ish for production alone. That number might not stagger compared to say, the ‘Pirates 3’ budget (currently judged to be the all-time most expensive at $300m-ish), or even the adjusted “Cleopatra” budget, but it does suggest that the production is around $100m over its initially mooted $125m. That, coupled with many, many reports of a fractious and troubled set (this Vanity Fair article details all that very well, we summarized its main points here), has caused a sort of perfect storm of negative advance word of mouth around the film.
Why so pricey? To be honest, a $200m-ish budget these days for an apocalypse movie featuring a megastar lead, cities falling and hordes of zombies swarming all over the world, actually doesn’t seem so outrageous (with the proviso of course that all Hollywood movie budgets these days seem to happen in a weird stratosphere that mortals like us find it hard to relate to). The real question for us is why make that story out of Max Brooks’ clever, tight bestseller, thats greatest asset to our mind was the economy with which he told the story as a series of personal recollections/found documents, that are individually compelling but build up as a patchwork to give a great suggested sense of the scale of the disaster. It could even have been a faux-documentary. But fine, who are we to reason against Brad Pitt’s Plan B shingle who, after winning the stand-off bidding war for the rights against DiCaprio’s Appian Way, saw in this material the potential for his first franchise lead (‘Oceans’ movies, which are ensembles pieces anyway, aside)? Whatever the reasoning, mid-shoot changes to the script by newly hired writer Damon Lindelof necessitated an extra seven weeks of shooting, to get to a more coherent ending. And with a sense that the tail was wagging the dog when it came to crucial points of deviation from the book’s story (like the excision of any reference to China being ground zero for the zombie plague so as to not to scare off the huge Chinese market, and the general toning-down of the film’s political aspects to be more summer-PG13-tentpole-audience friendly) basically the narrative that evolved around the production was that it was basically selling the original concept up the Swanee to make the film look kind of like everything else. And doing that expensively.
How did it do? Only time (or perhaps Google) will tell, -- just another couple of weeks really. Our review is here however, and while our critic had many issues with the film, he was fairly sanguine about its chances at pulling in enough of a crowd this summer to not be judged an unmitigated disaster. For ourselves, we’re looking forward to this time in a couple of years when the numbers are tallied and the wounds somewhat healed, to hear from the participants what really went on and what really went wrong. Because even if it's a smash hit, there are more perspectives (Marc Forster's and Brad Pitt's, for example) that we'd love to hear, away from the inevitable junketeering.

If this short list proves one thing it’s that it’s a mug's game to suggest there might ever be an outer limit, even a psychological one, to what someone will someday pay to get a film made. So tune back in in 2025 when we’ll revisit it after James Cameron’s Cloned Brain In A Jar becomes the first director to spend $1 billion on a single film. As much as we'll probably roll our eyes and wonder aloud at how many hungry mouths that money could feed, chances are as soon as we’re done mopping the outrage from our brows, we’ll be queuing up to pay the $40 5-D OrgaZmorama surcharge and giving it all the Oscars. And if not, well, impoverished producers can take heart from moral of the "Cleopatra" story -- like politicians, prostitutes and buildings, even ruinously expensive movies can become respectable with age; a remastered version is doing the festival rounds as we speak.

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4 Comments

  • Paul | June 25, 2013 5:36 PMReply

    CLEOPATRA of Hollywood.. managed to completely subjugate the existence of black people in an AFRICAN country. Holy wood wil never get away with that damaging insult ever again.

  • Theoc | June 12, 2013 7:45 PMReply

    I just wanted to add that whatever they spent, the T2000 effect is probably the last time my mind was blown by any effect in a cinema. Even now I'm impressed.

  • TheoC | June 12, 2013 7:43 PMReply

    Great list, gladly wasn't a rehash of previous features, nice subtle dig with the " why fuck with Max Brook's book ?' question.

    Yeah I'd heard these tales before,but it's nice to have them compiled with guestimate numbers.

    @leigh Heaven's Gate gets its nod, read the feature.

  • Leigh Richert | June 12, 2013 4:38 PMReply

    Uninspired choices. Try critically reviled "Star Trek: The Motion Picture", the most expensive movie ever made up to 1979, but whose budget included the costs of a failed 4th network, and "Heavens's Gate", which, for all practical purposes, collapsed a major studio.

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