The Most Expensive Sets In Movie History

A good movie can transport audiences to another world. This can be done through talented acting, elaborate costumes and makeup, strong special effects, brilliant writing and directing, and a larger-than-life set. Sometimes when a set is over the top it can end up costing the movie studio a lot of money.

It’s hard to imagine iconic films such as Titanic, Waterworld, and Cleopatra without their massive cinematic sets. There are so many aspects that go into making a complete movie set and the process has evolved for many decades. These are the most expensive movie sets to make it onto the big screen.

The Matrix Reloaded Built An Entire Freeway

the cast of the matrix reloaded standing together
Warner Bros. Pictures
Warner Bros. Pictures

The Matrix Reloaded is the second film in the science fiction movie franchise. In order to keep up with the massive success of its predecessor, it was made with one of the largest budgets of the 21st century. About $2.5 million of the $150 million budget was used just for one set.

The team built a replica of a busy freeway for a huge car chase scene. It wasn’t possible to film it on a real road because it involved a lot of dangerous stunts. The road measured at 1.5 miles long and was built on an airbase in California.

Why The Sets From Hello, Dolly Might Look Familiar

barbra streisand wearing a sequin dress and feather headpiece standing next to waitors
20th Century Fox
20th Century Fox

Barbra Streisand starred as the meddling matchmaker in 1969’s Hello, Dolly. Each of the sets presented a challenge for the production team because they needed to coincide with extravagant musical numbers. Over $2.5 million was used to make turn-of-the-century New York sets that included streets, theaters, restaurants, stores, and more.

The Harmonia Gardens set filled an entire sound stage with three separate levels and took the filmmakers over a month to get all the shots. Other movies went on to use the sets made for Hello, Dolly such as The Towering Inferno, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

Cleopatra Almost Bankrupted The Movie Studio

the exterior set from 1963's cleopatra movie
Archive Photos/Getty Images
Archive Photos/Getty Images

After Cleopatra was completed it almost bankrupted Twentieth Century Fox with a budget of $44 million. Today, that would be equivalent to $340 million, making it one of the most expensive movie sets of all time. Many of the sets that were built weren’t even used during filming or had to be made over again because the production moved from London to Rome.

It was one of the largest productions in history with 79 separate sets and at least 26,000 costumes. Cleopatra required so much lumber and other building materials that it caused a shortage throughout Italy.

Waterworld Almost Ruined Kevin Costner’s Career

kevin costner in a tattered vest in waterworld
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Hinting at the plot from the title, Waterworld takes place in a dystopian future where almost everything is submerged underwater due to climate change. The film was expected to be a massive success after needing to go $75 million over its $175 million budget, but it flopped at the box office.

The movie was shot in the Hawaiian ocean and the sets constantly needed to be repaired and built over again. One of the most expensive set-pieces was a floating island that weighed over one thousand tons and took up over a quarter-mile in space. It even caused a steel shortage in Hawaii.

The Ship From Titanic Needed Special Care

the titanic ship with passengers leaving on a small boat
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Titanic wouldn’t have been as powerful without the life-size replica of the ill-fated ship. This gigantic set-piece ended up being the most expensive item to include in the film. Ten percent of the movie’s $200 million budget went towards building a sound stage in Mexico, complete with all the iconic turn-of-the-century sets and props.

The ship had to be stored in a tank filled with 20 million gallons of water and a lot of it was ruined after the sinking scenes. Since Titanic required so much money to produce it had to be funded by two movie studios (Paramount and Twentieth Century Fox).

The Chronicles Of Narnia: Prince Caspian Stepped Away From CGI

william moseley wearing a knight's uniform and pointing at something
Walt Disney Pictures/MovieStillsDB
Walt Disney Pictures/MovieStillsDB

As the second film in The Chronicles of Narnia franchise, Prince Caspian needed to stand out from the first in a big way. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe used a lot of CGI and other special effects, so this one went old school and built most of the sets from scratch.

Walt Disney Pictures gave the movie a budget of $225 million and a lot of it was used to build the medieval sets of castles, bridges, and battlegrounds. Many critics thought that the lack of CGI added great entertainment value to the entire film.

What Happened To The Pirate Ship From The Goonies

the goonies cast going over a log on set
Amblin Entertainment/MovieStillsDB
Amblin Entertainment/MovieStillsDB

Most of The Goonies followed the young group of kids as they searched for underground treasure. The climax of the film led up to them finding a real pirate ship, which was built especially for the film. A huge percentage of the movie’s $19 million budget created the 105-foot pirate ship and the seven thousand feet of materials used just for the sails.

When production was over they asked if anyone wanted to keep it, but no one wanted it and it was taken apart. The reaction of the kids seeing the pirate ship in the movie is authentic because they weren’t allowed to see it until the cameras were rolling.

The General Spent Most Of Its Budget On One Scene

Buster Keaton clinging to the front of a train in The General
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Even though The General was filmed in 1926, it still has one of the most expensive sets in history. Buster Keaton starred as a soldier who must derail a train in order to save his love interest.

The production spent $42,000 on just the scene where the 215-foot bridge catches fire and sends the train into a river. By today’s standards that would equate to about six million dollars. At the time it was surprising to show this much graphic imagery, which is why it’s still talked about among movie fans.

An Entire City Was Built For It’s A Wonderful Life

james stewart and donna reed dancing in it's a wonderful life
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

When It’s A Wonderful Life was in pre-production the filmmakers needed a way to make Hollywood look like a city full of snow. They did this by creating a four-acre recreation of Bedford Falls that included a main street that took up three blocks, 75 buildings with stores, a working bank, and 20 full-grown oak trees.

In 1946 the production budget reached three million dollars, which is almost $40 million today. When it premiered in theaters it bombed at the box office and left the studio with a debt of $525,000.

Steven Spielberg Hated Hook

julia roberts, steven spielberg, and robin williams watching footage from Hook
Columbia Tristar/Getty Images
Columbia Tristar/Getty Images

Robin Williams led quite a lengthy acting career, but one of his most popular roles was the adult version of Peter Pan in 1991’s Hook. Since the film was directed by Steven Spielberg, the set was given a lot of priority. One of the most expensive pieces in the movie was the Jolly Roger ship and dock that took up about 30,000 feet.

When Spielberg was making the film he didn’t think the script was good enough, so he overcompensated with production value. In an Empire interview he stated, “The more insecure I felt about it, the bigger and more colorful the sets became.”

Most Fans Don’t Know This About Star Wars: Episode VI – Return Of The Jedi

star wars cast peeking out of the bushes
Twentieth Century Fox
Twentieth Century Fox

Star Wars has become one of the top franchises in the world with each film having state of the art production value. The 1983 installment, Star Wars: Episode VI – Return Of The Jedi, spent over 10 percent of its production budget of $40 million on only one of the set-pieces.

About four million dollars was used to make Jabba’s sail barge, which served as the backdrop for the film’s most important scenes. Fans from all over the planet came to sneak a peek at the set after hearing a rumor about where they were filming the movie.

Intolerance Was Thought To Be Four Separate Movies

Crowds of people are gathered outside on the steps of a palace in a Babylonian scene from the 1916 film Intolerance
John Springer Collection/Getty Images
John Springer Collection/Getty Images

DW Griffith’s Intolerance was released over a century ago in 1916 and still manages to have one of the biggest and most expensive movie sets of all time. The most impressive piece is a full-scale reconstruction of the Great Wall of Babylon, which was one thousand feet tall and 5,300-feet wide (pictured).

At the time Griffith worked with a budget of $2.5 million, which is almost $60 million today. Other movie executives believed he was making four separate movies. Intolerance is also one of the longest movies in history coming in at three and a half hours.

The Lord Of The Rings Trilogy Sets Took A Lot Of Preparation

orlando bloom in lord of the rings
New Line Cinema
New Line Cinema

In order to get an accurate location for The Lord of the Rings movies, the production team needed to create a full-scale town in New Zealand. The set took up over 14 acres with 37 Hobbit holes, an inn, and a double-arched bridge. The team also planted over three miles of vegetables and flowers five years before they started filming to give it an authentic look.

The amount of time and effort that went into these sets earned them several Oscar nominations. Now, fans of the trilogy can visit the sets in real life.

Stalingrad’s Set Looked Like The Real World War II Battle Ground

a soldier next to a woman in a dark bedroom in stalingrad
Non-Stop Production
Non-Stop Production

When films depict a crucial event in history, the set needs to be as realistic as possible. Stalingrad showed the grueling five-month World War II battle between the Soviets and Germans. The directors spent about four million dollars out of a $30 million dollar budget to recreate the war-torn city.

The entire set took at least 400 people a total of six months to build in order to make it look completely accurate. Most critics agreed that the best part of Stalingrad was the visual effects, which made up for the lackluster screenplay.

How Ben-Hur Came Out On Top

men riding horses on the set of ben-hur
Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images
Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images

The production value for Ben-Hur certainly paid off with Rotten Tomatoes ranking it “among Hollywood’s finest examples of pure entertainment.” One of the most iconic scenes is the chariot race, which required the construction of an eight million dollar arena that measured at two thousand feet. It was built over a rock quarry and needed multiple tons of sand to be shipped from Mexico to Italy.

There were an additional 300 set pieces for the movie, which occupied over 340 acres of land and nine sound stages across Italy. The scale of the film was so huge that it required 10,000 extras, 100 stylists, and over 400 pounds of human hair to make fake beards.

What It Took To Make Batman’s Gotham City

batman and a blonde woman in 1989's batman
Warner Bros. Pictures
Warner Bros. Pictures

Most of the Batman movies were made with exorbitant budgets, but one that stands out is the 1989 version directed by Tim Burton. Production designer Anton Furst spent most of his time working on the Gotham City set. It took up 18 sound stages with one of the streets measuring over a quarter of a mile.

Each street on the Gotham City set took the 400+ crew members at least six months to build. Film experts admitted that it was likely the most expensive movie set since 1963’s Cleopatra at $35 million.

Why Full Metal Jacket’s Set Was Carefully Constructed

a sergeant yelling at recruits while holding up a donut
Warner Bros.
Warner Bros.

One of Stanley Kurbrick’s toughest sets to accomplish was 1987’s Full Metal Jacket. It took place during the Vietnam War, so Kubrick and his art director spent months demolishing and creating new buildings to create a realistic set for the Vietnamese town of Hue.

They spent over $30 million using equipment such as a wrecking ball, explosives, military vehicles, and special helicopters to make the town come to life on screen. Kubrick worked off of the photos he had from the Vietnam War in order to make sure every detail was shown.

Metropolis Was The Starting Point For Science Fiction

people crowded  around an actress in a still from Metropolis
Donaldson Collection/Getty Images
Donaldson Collection/Getty Images

Many science fiction filmmakers look to 1927’s Metropolis for inspiration. It was one of the first films to incorporate scale miniatures and many other early special effects techniques. The most difficult shot to get was a scene where over 500 extras had to stand waist-deep in freezing water while reaching their arms up to actress Brigitte Helm (pictured).

Even though it took several hours and multiple takes, the finished product turned out visually stunning. Metropolis was one of the most expensive movies that was made in the 1920s and at the time cost 5.3 million reichsmarks or around $1.26 million.

You Only Live Twice Had A Brilliantly Designed Evil Lair

Sean Connery riding in a yellow airplane
Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images
Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images

The James Bond film series lives on as one of the most commercially successful franchises in history. For the 1967 installment of You Only Live Twice the production team put most of their attention on Blofeld’s volcano hideout. Set designer Ken Adam got the idea to put the villain’s lair in a volcano after scouting locations in Japan.

He had no idea how much it was going to cost. When the producers offered him one million dollars just for this particular set-piece he knew he would dream up something magnificent. The volcano set stood at 148-feet tall and cost more than the entire budget of the first Bond film, Dr. No.

WarGames Was Ahead Of Its Time

matthew broderick and ally sheedy looking at a vintage computer in wargames
MGM
MGM

Most hadn’t heard of 1980’s teen stars Matthew Broderick and Ally Sheedy when they appeared in one of their first film roles in WarGames. The two later had their claim to fame in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and The Breakfast Club, respectively. WarGames was made at a time when computers were just starting to become mainstream.

Most of the $12 million budget was spent filling a 30,000-foot set with all kinds of technology to imitate the NORAD headquarters. Set designer Ken Adam took inspiration from NASA’s mission control center and the war room from Dr. Strangelove.