The Most Expensive Movie Ever Made

This week, I found myself thinking, as I often do, of Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. The tweet which made me think of it was a picture of Davy Jones in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest which said “Still can’t believe this was CGI work from 2006.” And that’s true, the CGI from the first Pirates movie was good for 2003, and has aged rather well, and the CGI for the second and third movie, as that Twitter user notes, looks as good as anything coming out fourteen and fifteen years later.

And the first three movies are well-remembered and well-liked by fans. But you hear less of that about the fourth and fifth movies. On Stranger Tides, the fourth in the series has the distinction of being the most expensive movie of all time, even adjusted for inflation. It’s an odd distinction for a movie which was pretty widely critically panned.

From what I can tell upon fairly brief research, the movie cost $410 Million for the gross cost, which does not factor in the tax credit Disney got from filming in the UK. Even adjusting all budgets for inflation, it’s still more expensive than its closest competition, Avengers: Age of Ultron. The budget compares to the GDP of some of the world’s smallest countries.

Now, it does get a little bit hard to get into the specifics of the budget because not all of that information seems to be publicly accessible, but with a little bit of digging, some details about this $410 Million price tag can be found.

First, one of the potential factors that helps give a clear picture is star power. Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley had departed from the franchise, but this movie did add Penelope Cruz, who probably was probably a significant part of the budget. We’re left to wonder how much series regulars Geoffrey Rush and Kevin McNally made, but clearly they were offered enough money to come back. But whatever they made, it was probably small potatoes compared to one certain member of the cast.

The one budgetary number that seems to come up pretty consistently is that Johnny Depp was paid $55 Million for On Stranger Tides, which is most likely more money than you or I will ever make in our lives. It made sense for Depp to call for such a high salary, since he wasn’t particularly excited about doing a fourth Pirates movie. Once his friend, Disney exec Dick Cook left the studio leading up to the production of On Stranger Tides, Depp remarked that his enthusiasm for the fourth movie was low. Cook was partially the one who had made Depp’s interpretation of the Jack Sparrow character possible in the first movie despite the objections of other studio executives. Quite candidly, Depp would later say that he was overpaid for the Pirates movies.

One thing that certainly comes up in a movie like this can also be practical concerns. For a fairly relevant example, George R.R. Martin has often said that there were many written scenes in Game of Thrones’ early seasons that had to be changed because horses were too expensive. The equivalent for that would be Pirates filming on board a ship. Filming on certain locations can be tough, especially on the water. The more scenes filmed on the water, the more that budget goes up.

What might have been the biggest drain on the budget is the CGI budget. It’s surprising to think about, because one doesn’t think of this installment as having the best CGI in the series – sure, there are CGI mermaids, but it’s nothing of the level of detail we saw in the crew from Curse of the Black Pearl, and certainly not even close to how amazing Davy Jones was. What seems to have happened was that almost a dozen different companies were hired to produce the CGI in this film. If you click here, on the IMDb cast and crew page for this movie, and ctrl+F to find “Visual Effects by” you can see the name of ever person who worked on the VFX for this movie, and if you scroll through that list, you will see hundreds of names from many different VFX companies. The companies involved were Legend 3D, ILM, MPC, Reliance Media Works, Cinesite, Ollin VFX, Hydraulx, Pixel Liberation Front, and others. (For what it’s worth, the only one of those I’ve heard of is ILM.) I’m not exactly an expert in Hollywood budgets and we don’t know exactly how much that cost, but surely, there must have been a less expensive way to do that.

I think one of the interesting details about this movie’s financials is that when it came out, it crossed the $1 Billion dollar mark. For as much as anyone is inclined to say that this movie isn’t memorable or good, it sure made a lot of money. It was the 6th highest-grossing movie ever made, which seems rather impressive; but in the decade since then, with three Star Wars sequels, two Jurassic Park sequels, multiple Fast and the Furious sequels, Disney’s live action remakes of their classic films, and the majority of the MCU, most of all including the four Avengers movies – On Stranger Tides is now the 38th highest-grossing movie of all time, which feels staunchly less impressive.

One odd thing is that, due to streaming contracts, On Stranger Tides is the only of the Pirates movies not to be on Disney+, as though it never happened. It’s currently on the Starz streaming service, so if you’re one of the ten people who has the Starz app, enjoy! Presumably, Starz’s rights to the movie are going to expire and it’ll eventually find its way to Disney+ but who knows.

So, it’s unclear where exactly every dollar of the budget went, but it seems that explains at least some of where that $410 million went. It’s certainly interesting to think about what drives up the cost of a movie. Being in the Pirates franchise, On Stranger Tides was almost guaranteed to make a fair amount of money, but it’s interesting to think about how movies with extensive CGI and proportionately high budgets – 2019’s Alita: Battle Angel, for example – thereby have to clear a higher bar to be considered franchise-able. It’s not nearly enough to make back your budget; you have to make much, much more.

But I think the more interesting question about On Stranger Tides isn’t just how expensive was it – but was it any good? In my post next week, I’ll be watching the movie and taking a critical look at it to determine just how good of a movie you can make for $410 Million.

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