10 Of The Most Expensive Movie Sets Ever Built

We go through the 10 most expensive movie sets ever built in the history of cinema.

By Phillip Moyer | Published

Movies have always been expensive to make, which is why they need to make back a lot of money at the box office for them to be worth a studio’s time. But movies drive up the price even further creating impressive sets to marvel the movie-going masses. Here’s a list of ten movies that spent loads of cash giving their actors something fancy to act around.

10. Avatar (2009)

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You’d be forgiven for thinking that the massive alien world of Pandora was entirely CGI, given its seemingly impossible geography and its colorful, otherworldly look. But since Avatar featured both live-action and motion-captured characters, the actors had to be walking around on something.

The most expensive “something” was the movie set for the Home Tree — aka the Tree of Souls. The massive tree set the studio back $1.2 million — a drop in the bucket against the film’s $237 million budget, but still a significant chunk of change. Considering that the film remains the highest-grossing film of all time, it was well worth the cost. 

9. The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

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In a world where CGI seemed to be taking over the movies, the Christopher Nolan Dark Knight trilogy was a breath of fresh air. The movie’s use of practical movie sets, live-action stunts, and more-grounded characters stood out against movies like The AvengersThe Hobbit, and Ghost Rider

But real movie sets come at a price, and that can be seen by the cost of the Batcave alone in the trilogy’s final film, The Dark Knight Rises. The movie set of the massive underground cavern, complete with Batman’s gadgetry such as the Batpod, cost $3.5 million to construct. While The Dark Knight Rises was the worst-received of the trilogy, it still awed audiences to the tune of over $1 billion.

8. Blade Runner 2049 (2017)

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You’d assume that trash would be easy to come by, but putting together enough trash to make it look like you’ve covered the entirety of San Diego does not come cheap. Yet that’s exactly what Dune director Denis Villeneuve set out to do for 2017’s Blade Runner 2049.

The movie set in the massive San Diego wasteland, home to violent scavengers and exploited orphans cost a total of $4 million to construct. It made for an engrossing and atmospheric vista, though very few people ended up getting to see it. Blade Runner 2049 was a box office flop, losing the studio more than $80 million.

7. Cleopatra (1963)

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When a movie becomes the highest-grossing film of the year, but still loses money, you know that costs got out of control somewhere. With the 1963 historical epic Cleopatra, it seems as if that “somewhere” is, in fact, “everywhere.” Costing $44 million to produce and market back in 1963 ($439 million today), the movie almost bankrupted 20th Century Fox.

Among the movie’s expenses was the $1 million ($9 million today) spent on creating Cleopatra’s ostentatious palace, complete with a massive pool and ornate decor. Thankfully for Fox, after its theatrical run, they were able to sell the TV rights to the film for $5 million, which allowed them to just eke out a profit.

6. Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)

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Zack Snyder has never been one to be outdone. Ever since he released his debut film, Dawn of the Dead, back in 2004, he’s been known for having a flair for spectacle and memorable visuals. So when it became his turn to bring Batman back to movie theaters four years after the end of the Dark Knight trilogy, he pulled out all the stops.

While Christopher Nolan spent $3.5 million on the Batcave, Snyder decided he was going to build a movie set of both the Batcave and Wayne Manor from scratch. This endeavor cost $15 million — almost five times Christopher Nolan’s budget.

5. Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (2007)

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The original Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl was a hit, and its sequels decided that the best way to capitalize on the first film’s popularity was to make things bigger and more expensive. This all came to a head with Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, which featured massive sea battles and a place all the world’s pirates came to meet: the “Brethren’s Court.”

The large, dimly-lit meeting room might not look like much in the film, but building a nautically-themed set large enough to fit dozens of seafaring scallywags on a former 007 soundstage wasn’t cheap. All in all, the set cost Disney $16 million.

4. The Great Wall (2016)

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The Great Wall, starring The Departed’s Matt Damon and The Mandalorian’s Pedro Pascal, was China’s answer to the big-budget superhero movies that dominate the global movie industry. The best way to compete with big-budget movies is to make a big-budget movie.

The film cost $150 million to make — the most expensive Chinese film ever made. A whole $20 million of that budget went into building a movie set of the Great Wall itself. Unfortunately for director Zhang Yimou, the historical monster movie didn’t make enough back to make up for the production and promotional costs.

3. The Hobbit Trilogy (2012-2014)

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It’s hard to point to just one expensive movie set in The Hobbit Trilogy, from Hobbiton to Smaug’s horde to Laketown to Mirkwood the Goblin Cave — it was all just one big, extremely expensive (and vaguely disappointing) trilogy. 

In fact, before the CGI-heavy post-production process even came into effect, the costs ended up causing The Hobbit movies to be three of the most expensive movies in film history. Just the practical portion of this trio of films cost about $765 million to make — more than $250 million per film. While the movie sets provided plenty of spectacle, some of the mystique of the original Lord of the Rings films got lost in the process.

2. Waterworld (1995)

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Filming a movie on water is not an easy thing. The unpredictable nature of the waves and the weather out on the open ocean is a recipe for continued delays and inflated production costs. Waterworld Director Kevin Reynolds took this knowledge and decided to make a water-based film that would have cost a boatload of cash even if everything went perfectly.

The most expensive set on this monster of a world was the floating city, complete with a replica of the Exxon Valdez. The set cost $22 million and the ocean, predictably, proved unpredictable during shooting, ballooning the cost of the film to $175 million. 

1. Titanic (1997)

It’s no secret that James Cameron made Titanic more or less as an excuse to fund a dive to explore the Titanic’s wreckage. The way to justify that expense was to fully recreate the interior of the doomed passenger liner. 

The obsessively-detailed recreation of the lounge, dining hall, grand staircase, and more wowed audiences back in 1997. As well it should… the movie set cost a whopping $30 million when adjusted for inflation. 

For Titanic, the cost of the movie set was well worth the money. It has made more than $2.2 billion in theaters since its release and stands as the fourth-highest-grossing film of all time.