5 of the Most Lavish and Expensive Sets Ever Built for a Hollywood Movie

  • April 3, 2018

Hollywood is undoubtedly a dream factory. For over a century, the brilliant minds of cinema have been creating iconic images that have resonated in the minds and memories of viewers, generation after generation. But sometimes, to create something so dreamy and magical, a pretty dime must be spent…millions of pretty dimes, actually. Today we look at five Hollywood movies with the most lavish and expensive sets ever built. Some of which, even put their respective studios into bankruptcy.

Cleopatra (1963) had over 70 sets and almost sent 20th Century Fox to bankruptcy
Cleopatra (1963) had over 70 sets and almost sent 20th Century Fox to bankruptcy

Cleopatra (1963)
Undisclosed, but the film had a budget of $44 million ($340 million when adjusted to inflation)

When Elizabeth Taylor was announced to headline 20th Century Fox’s Cleopatra, anticipation was high. Taylor, was the highest paid actress of the time, and her bankability at the box office was golden. The studio decided that they weren’t going to skimp on production, allotting a hefty budget of $340 million for the film. Today, Cleopatra still remains to be the most expensive movie ever made. Every backdrop of Ancient Egypt and Rome were built. There was a total of 79 sets shown during a complete running time of 5 hours and 20 minutes. The size of the production got so big that they had to move from London to Rome midway through filming just to have more space. It remains to be one of Hollywood’s most epic productions (it was troubled from the start), even putting 20th Century Fox into near bankruptcy. Hey, at least it looked pretty. The film received lukewarm critical response, but was a financial success, getting the honor of being the highest-grossing movie of 1963. The set designers did not go unrewarded for their work, the 10 team leads of Cleopatra were bestowed an Academy Award for Best Art Direction-Set Decoration.

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The expensive sets of Waterworld (1995) were built on the island of Hawaii
The expensive sets of Waterworld (1995) were built on the island of Hawaii

Waterworld (1995)
Undisclosed, but the film went $75 million over budget due to its sets

Everybody knows Waterworld as that overproduced Kevin Costner post-apocalyptic epic that is just…borderline bad. The movie was made before green screens, meaning all sets of the actual water city needed to be built from scratch. Filmmakers chose the coasts of Hawaii to build the 1,000-ton floating city. It was a nightmare in logistics, making sure the team completes the set under the original $100 million budget (that’s for the whole movie!). Running a quarter-mile big in circumference, the floating city used up all the available steel on the islands. Goals were not met, and the movie had to raise its budget another $75 million just for the set alone. The film opened in 1995 to bad reviews and was unable to recoup its loses at the box office. Waterworld almost sank Kevin Costner’s career entirely. Although he would be fine, his leading man status and golden Hollywood reputation had certainly diminished thanks to the troubled production.

A replication of the Great Wall of Babylon in Intolerance (1916)
A replication of the Great Wall of Babylon in Intolerance (1916)

Intolerance (1916)
$2.5 million ($47 million when adjusted to inflation)

The story of Intolerance spans 2,500 years, from the war at Babylon all the way to modern day America. It isn’t a surprise that director D.W. Griffith (known for his large-scale productions) wanted to build huge, ambitious sets. The most impressive of which was a scale reconstruction of the Great Wall of Babylon, which spanned 5,300 feet wide and 1,000 feet high, with hundreds of pillars and intricate carvings. It was reported that the sets alone cost $2.5 million (or $47 million in today’s money, when adjusted to inflation). Though it was a popular film, it sadly put studio Triangle Distributing Corporation out of business.

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The sets of Titanic costs a whopping $30 million to make
The sets of Titanic costs a whopping $30 million to make

Titanic (1997)
$30 million

When watching the gigantic hit Titanic, it is easy to be taken away by the gorgeous set design. It easily transports one to 1912, aboard the R.M.S. Titanic, once the most glamourous and luxurious ships in the world. To be able to do this, director James Cameron commissioned the talents of art director Peter Lamont and set decorator Michael Ford (who would later win the Oscar for their work on the film) to build a scale set of the doomed ship and a large chunk of its interiors. It was built on a property that spanned over 40-acres in size inside two huge tanks that were filled with over 20 million gallons of water. They also created a 90% scale replica of the starboard. The film’s total budget was an enormous $200 million. But it totally payed off, winning a total of eleven Oscars (including Best Picture) and has the rare distinction of being one of the few films to gross over $1 billion at the box office. Not to mention, Titanic has remained to be as popular as ever today, and has garnered the reputation as being one of the most iconic pieces produced by the Hollywood Dream Factory.

1000 builders were employed to create the iconic charriot racing set in Ben-Hur (1959)
1000 builders were employed to create the iconic charriot racing set in Ben-Hur (1959)

Ben-Hur (1959)
$1 million (approximately $8.5 million when adjust to inflation)  

The Best Picture-winning Ben-Hur had a lot of expectations during its production period in the late 1950s. It was to be made in a grand scale ala Cecile B. DeMille’s biblical epic The Ten Commandments (1956) and had casted Charlton Heston in the titular role, one of the era’s biggest stars. The film’s epic climax happens at a large chariot arena, that many movie goers today still consider as one of the most iconic and ambitious scenes ever filmed. Director William Wyler made sure that the arena scene was one to be remembered, starting by creating a scale-size set that cost production $1 million (or approximately 8.5 million when adjusted to inflation). Take note, that is a single set, and not including the numerous others the film showed during its three and half hour runtime. Ben-Hur had a total production budget of $15 million (approximately $127.5 million today). To build the set, 1000 builders were employed, while all the white sand was imported from Mexico.


By Chino R. Hernandez