They don’t call it Tinseltown for nothing. While it may be true that all that glitters isn’t gold, blockbuster production budgets cost some serious copper.
Every film that a major studio puts out is a substantial investment with a high degree of risk. Film franchises help lower this risk as they understand which characters audiences love and which plots people want to see resolved. Since this is America after all, bigger is better, and production budgets for successful franchises tend to follow the rule.
Ian Fleming’s quintessential male fantasy is one of the oldest franchises on this list, as well as the one that has seen the most substantial increase in budget. When Sean Connery starred in "Dr. No" in 1963 as the titular character, the production budget was $1 million. With few exceptions, each entry in the series increased by several million dollars. Bond’s first replacement, actor George Lazenby, cracks in “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” (1969) that "this never happened to the other fellow,” launching a decades-long debate as to whether James Bond was a codename for interchangeable agents or a specific person.
The issue would remained unresolved until Daniel Craig took up the role and visited his parents’ tombstones at the family cemetery. Their tombstones read “Andrew Bond” and “Monique Delacroix.” The series also saw its most substantial increase under Craig, from $102 million for “Casino Royale” (2006) to $230 million for “Quantum of Solace” (2008).
A long time ago, in a studio far, far away, the effects crew of “A New Hope” (1977) tried to figure out how to make a scrolling text effect from a sheet of paper laid out on the floor. Of all the entries on the list, "Star Wars" is perhaps the most controversial in terms of the effect of a large budget on the quality of a film. Much of the charm from the original sequel stemmed from its use of practical effects, limitations of scope that necessitated intricate storytelling, and feedback from the rest of the crew.
The budget for "Episode IV" was $11 million. When Lucas received the green light for his prequel trilogy two decades later, it was to the tune of $115 million. Countless fans were upset by the excessive use of computer generation and decline in writing that came from Lucas’s vision unrestrained by feedback. Nonetheless, the franchise continued to grow. When Disney rebooted "Star Wars" in 2015, “Episode VII: The Force Awakens” (2015) was launched with a $306 million budget.
“Jurassic Park” (1993) was a landmark film in its use of special effects. While post-production and creature horror were a part of cinema from its earliest days, “Jurassic Park” was unprecedented in the sense of child-like wonder that it instilled in audiences with its realistic computer-generated dinosaurs. The original "Jurassic Park" had a production budget of $63 million, which continued to increase up to “Fallen Kingdom” (2018) with a budget of $170 million.
Speaking of child-like wonder, the magical world of "Harry Potter" is another behemoth franchise that continued to grow with each installment. Bringing Hogwarts to life was no frugal feat as the series debuted to a budget of $125 million and continued to increase in expense with each installment. The films became so long and expensive by the finale that “Deathly Hallows” (2010-2011) was split into two films with budgets of $125 million each. The recent spin-off installment “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald” (2018) had a budget of $200 million.
"The Avengers"/Marvel Cinematic Universe
The Marvel Cinematic Universe — and particularly “The Avengers” — are blockbusters in the truest sense, crushing box office records with fantastical imagery, world-renowned actors, and gargantuan production budgets. “Iron Man” (2008) was the first installment in the film franchise with a budget of $186 million. Though subsequent superhero movies saw smaller budgets, “The Avengers” upped the ante with a budget of $225 million.
The franchise sparked a shift in superhero movies and perhaps the zeitgeist as a whole. Whereas the reboot of the DC "Batman" franchise moved toward gritty realism (or at least as much realism as one could expect from a caped crusader), the Marvel Cinematic Universe returned to family-friendly stories peppered with sass and slapstick humor. However, the final installment, “Avengers: Endgame,” took a more somber turn, as well as an absurd production budget of $400 million.
You get what you pay for
Blockbuster franchises rarely aspire to the goal of high art, but there’s no questioning their feats of spectacle. Critics and film enthusiasts often bemoan the predictability of franchise installments and sequels, but the numbers don’t lie. “Avengers Endgame” grossed $2.8 billion worldwide. As long as fans line up to see their favorite characters return to the screen, Hollywood will continue throwing mountains of cash at familiar faces.