The 10 Most Expensive Movie Sets


From elaborate sets to expensive digital effects, high-budget blockbuster film making always gives movie studios, producers, and investors a nervous sweat, especially since movie cost doesn’t guarantee financial success.

Below, you can learn more about the ten most expensive film sets and what caused their huge budgets! I’ve ranked them after adjusting their budgets for inflation for easy comparison.

1. Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

Quick Facts:

  • Release Year: 2011
  • Director: Rob Marshall
  • Budget: $378 Million (Roughly $505 Million in 2023)
  • Box Office: $1.06 Billion (Roughly $1.420 Billion in 2023)

Released in 2011, the fourth installment in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, On Stranger Tides, was directed by Rob Marshall. Starring Johnny Depp reprising his iconic role of Captain Jack Sparrow, Ian McShane, Penelope Cruz, and Geoffrey Rush, a large portion of the movie’s $378 million budget went to pay the actors’ salaries. 

Since many of the film’s actors had been with the franchise since its beginning, Disney had to spend extra money on talent costs. Not enough of that budget went towards plot development and writing, though, as the general populace agreed the film was a mess that screwed with the franchise’s narrative. 

Even though the film was far from great plot-wise, it still managed to find financial success and earn over 1 billion dollars at the box office. Johnny Depp played a critical role in attracting viewers because his fans are sure to follow wherever he goes. 

2. Avatar: Way of Water

Quick Facts:

  • Release Year: 2022
  • Director: James Cameron
  • Budget: $350 – 460 Million (Roughly $359 – $473 Million in 2023)
  • Box Office: $2.310 Billion (Roughly $2.375 Billion in 2023)

The sequel to Avatar, Avatar: Way of Water, is James Cameron’s third film that has made it into the top five highest-grossing films ever. Starring Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang, Kate Winslet, and Sam Worthington, Avatar: The Way of Water held back nothing in this film. 

Given a $350 million budget, James Cameron combined motion capture and CGI in a beautiful blend to capture the underwater world of Pandora’s oceans. Unsurprisingly, a huge portion of the budget was used for the underwater intricate motion capture, but that wasn’t the only big price tag on this film. 

One of the reasons why it took so long to produce Avatar: The Way of Water was that Cameron and his team had to create a whole new camera and algorithmic system. They then used that to create the stunning underwater scenes that dominate much of the second Avatar film. 

While it may have taken 13 years and 350 million dollars, Avatar: The Way of Water made $2.310 billion. More sequels have been planned and announced, and Pandora seems to be here to stay, at least for several more years. 

3. Avengers: Endgame

Quick Facts:

  • Release Year: 2019
  • Director: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo
  • Budget: $356 – 400 Million (Roughly $418 – $470 Million in 2023)
  • Box Office: $2.799 Billion (Roughly $3.294 Billion in 2023)

Ranked number two on the list of highest-earning films ever, Avengers: Endgame was directed by Anthony Russo and Joe Russo. 

Starring the usual Avengers cast of Roberty Downy Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johannson, and dozens more, Endgame was one of Marvel’s largest films ever. All those big names together on screen for one film come with a massive price tag, as industry talent and standard reportedly comprised around half the entire budget. 

The rest of the massive $356 million budget went to the special effects and CGI necessary to pull off the epic battles featured throughout the film. 

However, while it was one of the most expensive films to create in their history, it also became their highest-earning film ever. Making a whopping $2.799 billion at the box office, Avengers: Endgame earned a respectable second place behind James Cameron’s Avatar. 

4. Avengers: Age of Ultron

Quick Facts:

  • Release Year: 2015
  • Director: Joss Whedon
  • Budget: $365 Million (Roughly $463 Million in 2023)
  • Box Office: $1.403 Billion (Roughly $1.781 Billion in 2023)

Released in 2015, Avengers: Age of Ultron was one of Marvel’s biggest movies, costing a whopping 365 million dollars. It was directed by Joss Whedon and stars Robert Downy Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, and many other big-name actors. 

Those big-name actors don’t come cheap, though, with multiple of them coming with large price tags, but that wasn’t where most of the budget went, surprisingly. 

Age of Ultron used many special effects, with the final battle alone between the Avengers and Ultron costing millions to create properly. Alongside the huge chunk of the budget that went to CGI, filming for Age of Ultron happened in several places worldwide, adding even more cost to the movie. 

That huge budget came with an even bigger return netting around $1.403 billion, making it into the top 15 highest-earning movies ever. 

5. John Carter

Quick Facts:

  • Release Year: 2012
  • Director: Andrew Stanton
  • Budget: $306 Million (Roughly $400 Million in 2023)
  • Box Office: $284 Million (Roughly $372 Million in 2023)

One of the greatest box office fails ever to exist, John Carter, was created by Disney and directed by Andrew Stanton. Based on the book A Princess of Mars, the film stars Willem Dafoe, Mark Strong, Lynn Collins, Taylor Kitsch, and Dominic West. 

Given a massive budget of $306 million, Disney poured a ton of resources into this movie, hoping to make it a film franchise capable of competing with its other famous IP, Pirates of the Caribbean. 

Nearly all of the budget put into the promotional content ($100 million) was a complete waste, as the trailers and promotional art did a poor job of sharing the film’s plot. The other $200 to 250 million was spent on the movie’s production, its set, and paying the actors’ salaries. 

After languishing in the equivalent of developmental purgatory for films, John Carter was released in 2012. Even after Disney invested over $300 million in the film, it completely failed, earning only around $284 million. 

6. Titanic

Quick Facts:

  • Release Year: 1997
  • Director: James Cameron
  • Budget: $200 Million (Roughly $374 Million in 2023)
  • Box Office: $2.249 Billion (Roughly $4.216 Billion in 2023)

Yet another film from the master of high-earning films himself, Titanic, was released in 1997 and directed by James Cameron. It was the first of three films he created that would earn over two billion dollars at the box office, with more potential in the future. 

Starring Leonardo Di Caprio, Kate Winslet, Bernard Hill, and Kathy Bates, Titanic quickly became a timeless classic among the public. James Cameron used his $200 million budget well. With such big names as DiCaprio and Winslet, it may be a surprise that much of the film’s budget didn’t go to the actors. 

Fun Fact: It cost James Cameron more to film the movie Titanic than it took to build the real Titanic. The actual ship cost about $7.5 million to make. 

Instead, much of it went to pay for gathering the underwater shots of the actual sunken Titanic, as Cameron’s team had to dive down with special cameras to capture it. 

For only $200 million, the resulting creation was an amazing piece of art, earning over $2.249 billion at the box office. When you adjust for inflation, Titanic is the highest-grossing movie ever.

7. Tangled

Quick Facts:

  • Release Year: 2010
  • Director: Byron Howard, Nathan Greno
  • Budget: $260 million (Roughly $358 Million in 2023)
  • Box Office: $592 million (Roughly $816 Million in 2023)

One of the most beloved animated films of all time, Tangled, was created by Disney and was directed by Byron Howard and Nathan Greno. Starring Zachary Levi (Flynn Rider), Donna Murphy (Mother Gothel), and Mandy Moore (Rapunzel), Tangled became a fan favorite instantly as Rapunzel, Flynn, and Maximus the Horse. 

Starting in 1996, it wasn’t until 2010 that Tangled was finally released, eating up a $260 million budget. Reportedly, it took over six rewrites after the first script, each adding millions more to the final total cost. Rapunzel’s hair alone took a full team of animators almost six years to figure out how to animate correctly so it would all flow together seamlessly. 

In the end, though, all the hard work paid off, as the movie made over $592 million at the box office. 

8. Waterworld

Quick Facts:

  • Release Year: 1995
  • Director: Kevin Reynolds
  • Budget: $172 – 175 Million (Roughly $340 – $345 Million in 2023)
  • Box Office: $264.2 Million (Roughly $522 in 2023)

Many consider Waterworld to be one of the worst flops in movie history. It was released in 1995 by Kevin Reynolds and distributed by Universal Pictures.  Waterworld, which starred Kevin Costner, Dennis Hopper, Tina Majorino, and Jeanne Tripplehorn, was beset by problems from the very beginning. 

Starting, Steven Spielberg warned Kevin Reynolds and Kevin Costner not to film Waterworld out on the actual sea. He had had a terrible time filming Jaws and graciously passed on the advice. 

Reynolds and Costner were not going to have that, though. They decided to still film out on the sea off the coast of Hawaii, which led to the entire atoll set being destroyed during a hurricane. Since that took place only three weeks after getting into filming, the team faced multiple production setbacks. 

The film’s original budget was $100 million, which quickly ballooned to $175 million, with most of that replacing the set and props. While it did make $264.2 million at the box office, most of that was in foreign countries, and after the theatres took their cut, Waterworld barely scrapped by as profitable.  

This is a firm warning that filming at sea can involve numerous unforeseen circumstances and should be avoided whenever possible. 

9. Avatar

Quick Facts:

  • Release Year: 2009
  • Director: James Cameron
  • Budget: $237 Million (Roughly $332 Million in 2023 adjusted for inflation)
  • Box Office: $2.923 Billion (Roughly $4.099 Billion in 2023 adjusted for inflation)

Released in 2009, the hit sci-fi movie Avatar starred Sigourney Weaver, Sam Worthington, Stephen Lang, Soe Saldana, and Michelle Rodruizuez. 

Taking place on an alien planet known as Pandora, director James Cameron weaves together a masterful story with breathtaking visuals. Those visuals, though, are not cheap, with the movie’s total budget being $237 million. 

James Cameron began work on the world of Avatar in 1984, but because he deemed the current technology too primitive, the movie was not released until 2009. 

Once the camera technology caught up to what James Cameron wanted, a new camera system and method required a huge production cost of $237 million. Avatar utilizes the latest motion-capture technology alongside the custom-built camera setup to bring forth Cameron’s vision. 

All that hard work paid off, bringing in $2.923 million and making Avatar the second highest-grossing film ever when you adjust for inflation rates.

10. Cleopatra

Quick Facts:

  • Release Year: 1963
  • Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
  • Budget: $31.1 Million (Roughly $300 Million in 2023)
  • Box Office: $71 Million (Roughly $698 Million in 2023)

Released in 1963 and directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Cleopatra is a 251-minute-long historical drama about the famous Egyptian queen known as Cleopatra. Starring Elizabeth Taylor, Rex Harrison, Richard Burton, and Pamela Brown, a surprisingly sizable chunk of the total budget went to paying their salaries. 

Elizabeth Taylor alone signed on to play Cleopatra for a staggering salary of $1 million, setting the record of being the first actress ever to sign on for that amount. 

Things seemed to be going well with the production until they had to pause it due to Taylor being sick. Production was then suspended in November as the movie had gone over budget with only 10 minutes of usable footage shot. 

The film cost the 20th Century Fox studio $31 million, which nearly bankrupted the studio, but luckily, it did not. However, that close brush with bankruptcy paid off, as Cleopatra brought in a whopping $71 million, or roughly $700 million in 2023.

In Closing

So there you have it. The top 10 most-expensive movies of all time.

While having the biggest set doesn’t necessarily mean you create the highest-grossing film, there is no doubt that when you play in the blockbuster league, going big is sometimes needed to achieve the desired result, especially if your name is James Cameron.

Going big can also be a huge selling point and is often used in marketing. However, as Waterworld is a good testament to if your story sucks, an expensive production can still flop at the global box office ticket sale.

I remember watching Waterworld in a theatre in Iceland in 1995 (because there were no more tickets for Apollo 13), and I would probably have fallen asleep if it hadn’t been for the loud sound. It was so boring.

I hate to admit that I like John Carter, even though I hated the trailer.

What’s your favorite on the list?

Table 1: The most expensive film sets (for easy comparison):

MovieBudget in Million USDBudget in Million USD
(adjusted for inflation 2023)
Box Office Sales in Million USDBox Office Sales in Million USD (adjusted for inflation 2023)
Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011)37850510601420
Avatar: Way of Water (2022)350 – 460359 – 47323102375
Avengers: Endgame (2019)356 – 400418 – 47027993294
Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)36546314031781
John Carter (2012)306400284372
Titanic (1997)20037422494216
Tangled (2010)260358592816
Waterworld (1995)172 – 175340 – 345264522
Avatar (2009)23733229234099
Cleopatra (1963)3130071698
The table shows the most expensive movie sets after adjusting their budgets for inflation.


  • Jan Sørup

    Jan Sørup is a indie filmmaker, videographer and photographer from Denmark. He owns and the Danish company Apertura, which produces video content for big companies in Denmark and Scandinavia. Jan has a background in music, has drawn webcomics, and is a former lecturer at the University of Copenhagen.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.