12 Massively Over-Budget Films That Every Film Producer Can Learn From

December 10, 2014

When students at film school study producing, one of the first things they learn is how to make a budget film. That practice seems to go bye-bye in Hollywood though, considering how many films, from budgets of all sizes, overrun their allotted costs, sometimes by tens of millions of dollars. A budding film producer would love to make a free film, but that’s not the kind of magic that Hollywood can make. Producing is never easy, especially keeping the reins on a movie budget from ambitious directors. By the time a movie makes it to a new DVD, or if you watch movies online, to your smartphone, there’s a chance it’s in the red. The following are twelve movies that couldn’t keep it in their wallets.

1. The Lone Ranger

Disney and Jerry Bruckheimer wanted epic western The Lone Ranger to be the new Pirates of the Caribbean so badly. Johnny Depp wanted a new funky hat. But even after massive rewrites, a mid-production shutdown and re-tooling, and a budget that inflated from an early, wistful $70 million to a whopping $225 million, the film was unable to earn any widespread acclaim. Or its money back. Depp got his hat, though.

2. Waterworld

There was no way making a movie about a global flood and steampunk villains riding the Exxon Valdez would be cheap. But even the original $100 million budget couldn’t cover a $22 million dollar set (that was destroyed by a hurricane soon after it was built) and Kevin Costner’s $14 million salary. The budget ended up at $172 million, and Waterworld became the most expensive film ever made up to that point. Hoping to help cut costs, Costner even started drinking his own pee.

3. Apocalypse Now

The legend of how disastrous Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now shoot ended up is so epic and well known it’s even got its own movie about it. Between Marlon Brando’s enormous $3.5 million salary and Harvey Keitel being replaced by Martin Sheen and needing all his scenes reshot, the original budget of $12 million more than doubled to $30 million. It was actually the studio’s accountant who coined the phrase “The horror… the horror….”

4. Titanic

Titanic’s box-office kept growing until it became the biggest hit of all time (until 2009’s Avatar). Its budget also kept growing, starting at $100 million and eventually ballooning to $200 million, seemingly alongside James Cameron’s ego. You might say that the movie’s costs were… titanic. Like the name of the movie. And the boat.

5. Tangled

After the third Pirates of the Caribbean film, Tangled is the most expensive movie ever made. Originally meant to be another notch in the belt of Disney’s animated films, Tangled became a Frankenstein’s monster of constant rewrites, a revolving door of directors, and retool after retool in hopes to reach a wider audience. After six years of development hell, the budget ended up around $260 million dollars, and cash-strapped studio executives hoped the next Disney Princess would just please be bald.

6. John Carter

Box office dud John Carter is one of the most expensive movies ever made with a $250 million budget. While its originally intended budget isn’t on public record, it’s generally acknowledged that the Disney epic overshot its allotted capital by a staggering amount. This is based on its pre-production hell, rotating through several directors and producers, including Robert Rodriguez and Jon Favreau, as well as the fact that Pixar director Andrew Stanton reshot practically every scene in the movie. Two wrongs don’t make a right, and two completely different filmed versions of the same film don’t keep a movie under budget.

7. Almost Famous

With its CGI robot-dragons and its brick-by-brick reconstruction of the Roman Coliseum, it’s no wonder Almost Famous is on this list. Wait, actually, none of that is true. Almost Famous is a low-key coming-of-age story set in the 1970s classic rock scene, a semiautobiographical passion project by Cameron Crowe. Between Crowe’s obsessive filmmaking style and a music budget that had to account for some of rock’s biggest classics, Almost Famous ended up costing $60 million, $15 million more than it was supposed to. No wonder they wouldn’t let Crowe call his film “Untitled.”

8. Heaven’s Gate

Considered one of the biggest film fiascoes of all time, Heaven’s Gate was Michael Cimino’s sweeping follow-up to The Deer Hunter. A perfectionist to OCD-type levels, Cimino constantly rebuilt giant sets (including building an irrigation system to keep the grass in one scene green) and would shoot fifty takes or more for even the most minor shots. Having worded his contract in just the right way, the studio was powerless to stop him as the budget grew from $12 million to almost $30 million and Cimino earned the on-set nickname “The Ayatollah.” Cimino would even spend hours on a single take until the right cloud drifted into frame, just like the real Ayatollah would. While many critics believe there is a masterpiece buried somewhere in the original five and a half hour cut Cimino submitted to the studio, the three-hour version that hit theaters bombed spectacularly and took United Artists and the 70s New Hollywood movement down with it.

9. Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within

With a built-in fanbase and state-of-the-art photorealistic animation, it’s somewhat a surprise Final Fantasy wasn’t a bigger hit. What isn’t a surprise is how over-budget the production was, blowing its original $70 million allotment out of the water and costing $137 million. Almost all of that money went into its CGI, with its protagonist Aki Ross having over 60,000 strands of hair individually created and the production utilizing a render farm of one thousand high-powered computers to process the animation. It probably would’ve been cheaper to just use real spirits.

10. Hugo

Studio executives should know better than to give Martin Scorsese some new film equipment to play with. Scorsese’s 3D children’s film set in 1930s Paris overran its $100 million budget by almost $70 million. Scorsese and his producers should have remembered that old Italian proverb: “More dimensions equals more moolah.”

11. Evan Almighty

Originally budgeted at $140 million, Evan Almighty became the most expensive comedy ever made with a $200 million budget. Between Steve Carell’s $5 million payday and two of every animal, the movie’s numbers were so overblown that its studio passed the project to rival Universal, and director Tom Shadyac quit Hollywood altogether and retreated inward to find himself. When a movie with bird poop jokes causes serious existential introspection in its filmmakers, you know something is seriously wrong.

12. Cleopatra

Cleopatra’s final costs ended up twenty-two times its original $2 million budget—adjusting for inflation, it cost $339 million. Ornate sets recreating Ancient Rome and Elizabeth Taylor’s $7 million payday contributed to the massive costs, making the film the most expensive ever made up to that point. A remake of Cleopatra starring Angelina Jolie has been in the works for years, but the stigma of the original’s price has scared anyone from moving forward with the project. Who would’ve thought that a woman worshipped as a goddess who bedded legendary emperors would have ever inspired such extravagance?