Those who were around at the time will remember when, in 1991, Terminator 2: Judgment Day (T2) made headlines across the USA, inspiring much chatter among industry and non-industry people alike, for becoming the first movie in Hollywood history to break the $100 million budget ceiling, making it the most expensive film ever produced by a wide margin – at least, at the time. That was 27 years ago, and $100 million studio movie budgets are far more commonplace today, with the average tent-pole film costing upwards of $200 million, and some even pushing towards $400 million (see 2011’s Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, for example). —
Adjusted for inflation, T2‘s budget doesn’t rank among the top 50 most expensive movies ever made. Since its release, there have over 200 movies produced by Hollywood studios with reported budgets of over at least $100 million dollars. Even with inflation considered, more than 90 percent of the top 50 most expensive movies ever made, all came in the least decade. And as you can probably guess, the vast majority of them were directed by white male filmmakers.
As previously reported, according to a University of Southern California’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative report published in January of this year, Hollywood film directors are still overwhelmingly white and male. The new year study analyzed 1,100 top-grossing movies released between 2007 and 2017, and found an overall percentage of those directed by black filmmakers to be 7.8% below the U.S. Census (13.3 percent). 2007 has the highest percentage of black directors across the 11 years evaluated at 7.1 percent or 8. And of most significance with regards to this specific article, black directors were less likely to be attached to financially lucrative, tent-pole type films. But 2018 will see that concern challenged a bit, with as many as 14 (still relatively low when compared to the hundreds of movies that will be released in 2018) Hollywood studio-backed movies directed by black filmmakers, currently scheduled for release; although most of them are not members of the $100 million budget club.
The top 5 most expensive films ever made are (adjusted for inflation):
1 Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, 2011, $412 million budget
2 Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, 2007, $354 million budget
3 Titanic, 1997, $305 million budget
4 Spider-Man 3, 200,7 $304 million budget
5 Justice League, 2017, $300 million budget
6 Tangled, 2010, $292 million budget
7 Avengers: Age of Ultron, 2015, $289 million budget
8 Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, 2009, $285 million budget
9 John Carter, 2012, $281 million budget
10 Waterworld, 1995, $276 million budget
None of the above films was directed by a black filmmaker. And none of the next 10 (11 to 20) most expensive films ever produced was directed by a black filmmaker. The highest-ranked film that meets that criteria is at number 22, The Fate of the Furious (2017), which was directed by F. Gary Gray, with a reported budget of $250 million – a movie that grossed over $1 billion worldwide, making Gray the first African American to direct a film with global theatrical earnings of over $1 billion. Proving himself after back-to-back box office wins in Straight Outta Compton ($201 million global gross on a $28 million budget) and the aforementioned Fate of the Furious, Gray is Sony’s choice to direct the Men in Black franchise relaunch, as was reported earlier this month, which will very likely carry a hefty budget as well. The first Men in Black movie (1997) cost (adjusted for inflation) about $140 million; and the second (released in 2002) was even more expensive with a $195 million budget (also inflation adjusted). So I’d fully expect this relaunch to flirt with similar figures, if not higher. The film is expected to be released during the summer of 2019, and if Ryan Coogler (a fellow hit-maker on this list) doesn’t return to direct the inevitable Black Panther sequel, F. Gary Gray just might be available at the time to take over.
Speaking of Coogler, he’s next on the list, although just outside of the top 50 most expensive movies, with Black Panther, which has a reported budget of $200 million. Coogler has seen his budgets increase markedly since his $900,000 feature debut Fruitvale Station (2013), to Creed (2015), which came with a $40 million price tag, and now Black Panther at 5 times that number. And should Panther perform well globally (by all accounts, it will), I’d expect future Coogler films will command top dollar.
Of note, there’s just one woman on this list – Ava DuVernay – who earned her way into the history books when she was tapped to direct the $100 million Disney adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time. Like Coogler, DuVernay’s budgets made significant successive leaps, from the $50,000 I Will Follow, to the $200,000 Middle of Nowhere (2012), followed by Selma‘s $20 million, and now Wrinkle in Time at 5 times Selma‘s budget. While Black Panther’s potential box office success and overall cultural impact are certainly of great intrigue, one could argue that Wrinkle‘s earnings power and influence might be of even greater significance, given that DuVernay is the first black woman filmmaker to helm a $100 million picture, as well as the fact that the film is centered around a character played by a young black actress in Storm Reid. It’s very, very rare that a high-profile, pricey studio movie is led by women of color, both behind, and in front of the camera. The magnitude of this, which is already being felt ahead of the film’s March 9, 2018 release, can’t be overstated. The longer-term impact on the industry overall, with regards to the opportunities afforded women of color creatives – in this specific case, black women – remains to be seen. However, one can’t help but be optimistic.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that, 7 years before Ava DuVernay made Sundance Film Festival history with Middle of Nowhere (first African American woman to win US Directing Award: Dramatic), there was a movie titled Herbie: Fully Loaded, released in 2005, which was directed by a filmmaker not as familiar named Angela Robinson – a black woman who was hired (also by Disney by the way) to helm what was, at the time (for a black woman filmmaker), a significant $50 million studio picture starring Lindsay Lohan, in what was effectively her prime as her actress, a year after starring in the pop-culture phenomenon that was Mean Girls. Fully Loaded, which was the sixth and final installment in the Herbie film series, was released on June 22, 2005, and grossed over $144 million worldwide. Adjusted for inflation, the film’s $50 million budget is around $64 million in today’s dollars. While not enough to meet the $100 million requirement for this list, Robinson deserves some recognition for achieving something that even still today, 13 years later, is a very, very rare occurrence – that a black woman filmmaker be given the opportunity to direct a $50 million or more Hollywood studio feature, and with a white female lead.
Robinson has since directed several episodes of different TV series, and returned to directing for the big screen with last year’s (2017) Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, the William Moulton Marston biopic, who created the fictional character Wonder Woman. Robinson both wrote and directed the film which stars Luke Evans as Marston.
The filmmaker isn’t currently attached to any new feature projects – at least nothing that’s been announced.
Also on the list below are other familiar names including Tim Story (with 2 films), Antoine Fuqua (also with 2 films), John Singleton, and maybe the least-known filmmaker of the group, Peter Ramsey, who directed Rise of the Guardians (his feature debut), the 2012 3D computer-animated fantasy film based on William Joyce’s The Guardians of Childhood book series. The first African American to direct a big budget studio animated feature film, Ramsey’s Rise of the Guardians budget was $145 million ($159 million inflation-adjusted). Joyce and Guillermo del Toro were executive producers with voice acting by Chris Pine, Alec Baldwin, Hugh Jackman, Isla Fisher, and Jude Law. Produced by DreamWorks Animation and distributed by Paramount Pictures, it was released on November 21, 2012, and grossed $307 million worldwide.
Ramsey is now co-directing (alongside Bob Persichetti and Rodney Rothman) the much-anticipated Miles Morales Spider-Man movie, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, produced by Columbia Pictures and Sony Pictures Animation, set for release on December 21, 2018. Shameik Moore voices Morales. Mahershala Ali and Brian Tyree Henry are also part of the voice cast.
The Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse budget isn’t public info at this time, but I’d be very surprised it it’s less than $100 million. Computer animated studio-produced films are generally quite expensive, with price tags in the $150 million to $200 million range common among the top earners.
Without further ado, the below list (in order from highest to lowest) considers only the films that have already been released to the general public, or will very soon be, and no films that are still in production, or were recently announced, as these costs can still change in the production process. Also note that all figures have been adjusted for inflation where necessary:
— F. Gary Gray: The Fate of the Furious (2017), $250 million budget (Universal Pictures)
— Ryan Coogler: Black Panther (2018), $200 million budget (Disney)
— Peter Ramsey: Rise of the Guardians (2012), $159 million budget ($145 million unadjusted) (DreamWorks Animation, Paramount Pictures)
— Tim Story: Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007), $158 million budget ($130 million unadjusted); Fantastic Four (2005), $128 million budget ($100 million unadjusted); both were 20th Century Fox films
— Antoine Fuqua: King Arthur (2004), $158 million budget ($120 million unadjusted) (Disney); Tears of the Sun (2003), $102 million budget ($75 million unadjusted) (Sony Pictures)
— John Singleton: 2 Fast 2 Furious (2003), $103 million budget ($76 million unadjusted) (Universal Pictures)
— Ava DuVernay: A Wrinkle in Time (2018), $100 million budget (Disney)
I look forward to seeing this list grow over time, with new names and titles – especially more women – as well as even more work from those that are already on it, which I think will be an indication of genuine progress in the ongoing race towards a more equitable, inclusive film industry.