The Most Expensive Movie Made: Pirates of the Caribbean "On Stranger Tides"

The Most Expensive Movie Made: Pirates of the Caribbean "On Stranger Tides"


Despite the recent rise in popularity of superhero films and big budget blockbusters like Godzilla Vs. Kong, the most expensive feature film ever made was released in May of 2011. Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides was the fourth installment in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise and the most expensive to make. The feature film had a reported budget of over $400 million including prints and advertising, making it almost $50 million more than the second most expensive feature film of all time, Avengers: Age of Ultron.

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The film was a box-office hit, making over $1 billion worldwide. The expensive budget included finances for state of the art cameras, 3D technology, and a whopping $55.5 million for Johnny Depp alone. The film out-competed several other films in the pirates franchise including At World’s End which made over $900 million and Dead Man’s Chest which made slightly over $1 billion. Despite the film’s astounding budget, the production navigated certain challenges prior to the films release. Approaching the tenth anniversary of the film, here are several production decisions that contributed to the films record-setting budget.

Tax Credits

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The film was shot in the United Kingdom, which made it eligible for certain tax credits. This included a promise from the country that any film with an expenditure greater than $34.1 million could claim back up to 20% of the production. A majority of the production staff were hired in the United Kingdom, showcasing the tax benefit as a contributing factor to the rising economy provided by the film.

The tax relief according to information from the British Film Institute indicate that the UK treasury spends approximately $256 million annually. According to the Gross Domestic Product, that means the UK contributes around $20.50 for every $1.70 spent. These highly coveted tax havens are often utilized by American feature film productions and has resulted in over 30 feature film studios in the London area alone. Of these locations is Pinewood Studios which has produced some of the most expensive and iconic films in cinema.

Pinewood Studios

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Pinewood studios is an iconic film location that has served as a set and production base for several iconic feature films. In addition to Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, the studio also housed production sets for Star Wars: Episode VII, Superman, Beauty and the Beast, and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

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The company reported an annual profit in 2011 of over $6.1 million with the help of the Pirates of the Caribbean feature film, making it almost triple the $2.5 million from the previous year.


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A majority of the budget went to financing actors and the production staff. In addition to the $55 million set aside for Johnny Depp, an additional $17.8 million went to the over 895 production staff members. This included the iconic cast members Penelope Cruz and Geoffrey Rush.

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The filming itself also required a hefty portion of the budget. The film was the first in the franchise to be released in Disney Digital 3-D and the IMAX 3D formats. This required the film to be shot with 3D specific cameras which included the Fusion 3D camera system. The fusion system was the same that James Cameron had utilized to shoot Avatar, but with several significant updates to improve the outdoor capacity that would be necessary for the Pirates franchise. In addition to this film, the system was also used for the Michael Bay’s feature film Transformers: Dark of the Moon.

Computer Generated Imagery

Another major portion of the budget was set aside for post-production work. This included the use of computer generated imagery. CGI became the standard for effects for feature films after the popularity of its use in the Jurassic Park franchise. On Stranger Tides had a record 1,112 shots of CGI. This work was so massive, that it required the use of ten different visual effects companies. Because the film was shot in 3D, there was a difficulty in creating CGI to fit the footage.

The lead companies used to provide effects included Industrial Light & Magic who is known for their work on the Star Wars films as well as The Mummy, Jumanji, and Forrest Gump. The production also received help from the Moving Picture Company, who created a variety of images featuring the ship as well as external expansions of the setting.

The production also utilized the technology of motion capture suits for several of the mermaid sequences. Several stunt performers and professional swimmers were hired to simulate a ballet. Then in post production, they were removed and replaced by digital recreations via the motion capture technology.


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The film budget was also high due to the music featured in the film. The score was written by film legend Hans Zimmer who had worked on all of the previous films in the franchise. He is also known for having created the iconic scores behind the feature films Gladiator, Inception, and Wonder Woman 1984. In an attempt to create a sound that blended the atmosphere of traditional-sounding pirate music with rock and roll, Zimmer worked with classical guitarist Rodrigo y Gabriela.

The risk of the films high budget was a success that resulted in financial compensation of over $1 billion, as well as critical acclaim. The film was nominated for several Teen Choice Awards and a variety of positive reviews from critics like Richard Roeper and Variety. The film also performed well after being released on DVD. Just two weeks after coming out on Blu-Ray, the film sold over 1.7 million units and generated over $48 million in profits. After 11 weeks, the film went on to sell over 3.20 million units.

With a large scale production, a star studded cast, and state of the art equipment, it is no surprise that the film was not only the most expensive in the franchise, but the most expensive in the history of cinema.

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Sources: Insider, CinemaBlend, ScoopWhoop, StackExchange, Forbes, DailyHawker, TheHollywoodReporter, Pirates, Variety, TheNumbers, TheThings, B2B

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