No matter how you look at it, the movie-making industry is big business, and that’s even more true when you consider that, in 2022 alone, the domestic box office hit $7.32 billion in gross revenue.
Those are huge numbers and hard to ignore, but to get to this point, movies have to be made well, attract an audience, and you often have to spend a lot to make a lot. Nowhere is this more true than with the most expensive movie ever made: Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides.
It may come as a surprise to see a movie title here that isn’t Star Wars, Avatar, or Lord of the Rings, but it’s true that a pirate movie is the single most expensive film ever produced. All of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies have been expensive, but none hit as high a bar as On Stranger Tides, which cost $379 million to write, produce, develop, and market, all while earning the title of the most expensive movie ever made.
Ahoy Matey, Pirates Ahead
Released in 2011, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides marks the fourth installment in the Disney franchise. Returning stars from the franchise include Johnny Depp (Jack Sparrow), Geoffrey Rush (Captain Barbossa) and Kevin McNally (Gibbs) and were joined by Penelope Cruz and Ian McShane. The film itself is said to draw a bit of its story from a 1987 novel by the same name, On Stranger Tides.
Right from the start, part of the movie’s huge expenses came from Disney paying Depp more than $55.5 million in salary to reprise his role of Jack Sparrow. With this pay, Depp is currently ranked as one of the 10 highest-paid actors of all time for his role in this film.
The film once again focuses on Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow character along with Captain Barbossa as they separately set off on their own adventures to find the fountain of youth. The movie is typical Pirates of the Caribbean fanfare with plenty of pirates, scallywags, and villains, including a woman from Jack Sparrow’s past who just so happens to be the daughter of the infamous Captain Blackbeard. Forced to accompany her to her father’s ship, Jack Sparrow must then accompany a zombie crew all in a quest to find the legendary fountain of youth.
Unfortunately, even with its outstanding cast and massive budget, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides only earned a 33% Tomatometer score on Rotten Tomatoes out of 278 critical reviews. Over 10,000 audience reviews have propped up the film somewhat to the tune of a 54% audience score. Still, for the budget, there’s a better-than-good chance Disney was hoping for more positive reviews.
With its huge budget, expectations were large that the series would carry on the success of the three previous films. On Stranger Tides would go on to earn $241.1 million domestically and more than $805 million worldwide for a box office total of just over $1.046 billion dollars. These earnings were good enough to give On Stranger Tides a place as the third-highest-grossing film of 2011 and the second-biggest box office in the Pirates of the Caribbean series.
The movie opened huge, earning more than $350 million worldwide in its first weekend along with a record-breaking IMAX performance at over $16.7 million in its first weekend.
On Stranger Tides would break additional records by becoming the fastest movie to hit $500, $600, and $700 million at the worldwide box office in 10, 12, and 16 days, respectively. At the time, after passing $1 billion in box office sales, it became the eighth such film in Disney history to break the billion-dollar mark. In total, the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise has pulled in more than $4 billion, so it’s no surprise Disney has shown interest in continued sequels.
One Expensive Budget
First and foremost, it’s important to note that while On Stranger Tides is represented as having cost $379 million to produce, the number is actually a little higher. As the film received a tax credit for shooting some of its scenes in the UK, the actual production budget is closer to $410 million. Originally, Disney had green-lit an initial budget that was closer to $300 million. Hawaii was also home to numerous scenes in the film as production also found tax benefits from shooting on the Hawaiian islands as well.
One of the biggest factors around cost was the 895 crew members in total that took part in filming. This means that you had to position 895 production staff in various locations around the world accounting for traveling, accommodations, and other related expenses.
As part of the filming process, On Stranger Tides was also the first Pirates of the Caribbean film to be shot entirely on 3D cameras. The cameras were very expensive, even more so than the equipment that was used to shoot Avatar in 3D in 2009. Between the cameras and the production crew, costs started rising from the very beginning of filming.
Disney had hoped to limit the number of film scenes that took place at sea as any time the product process moved into water photography, there were huge additional costs involved. Of course, this is a film about pirates, so ocean shots are almost assuredly going to take place, and this leads to additional costs throughout filming.
Also boosting costs was the idea that On Stranger Tides had some of the most diverse movie distribution formatting around. It was available not just in 3D but also in 35mm, 70mm, and D-Cinema formats, all of which incur extra costs on top of the 3D film costs.
Why Movies are Expensive
While these numbers are subject to change, the costs of a movie can be broken down into a few various categories. According to industry insiders, around approximately 5% of a film’s production budget goes to developing the script, salaries of the cast, licensing, the director, etc. Approximately 25% more of the budget will go toward production costs, which include all of the salaries of the personnel and staff that will help make the sets, move equipment around, etc.
On top of these costs, special effects can be an enormous expense, and The Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides had a huge amount of special effects, so there’s no question this helped drive up the budget. Then, you have to include music that needs to be made, and there are costs associated with an orchestra, a conductor, and anyone else who helps in this space.
Last but certainly not least is marketing, which can play a massive role in a film’s budget. For On Stranger Tides, a Super Bowl commercial helped introduce the movie to audiences, and that alone cost a few million dollars.
When it comes to blockbuster movies, budgets keep growing, and it’s likely that Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides won’t hold this record forever. We are already seeing this as a possibility if you account for inflation as movies like Avatar, Avengers: Age of Ultron, and Star Wars: The Force Awaken come very close to the budget if not surpassing On Stranger Tides.
For now, we’ll look to On Stranger Tides as a blockbuster movie that cost Disney a fortune to make but also performed well enough at the box office to turn a big profit. Unfortunately, not every movie can say that, John Carter.
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