How do people make movies? Writers, actors, directors, surely play a part, but there’s something more important than a movie’s creators, and that thing is money. Movies need money; that’s an irrefutable fact. And it’s the sole goal of the financier(s) to get a positive return on their investment. We’re going to look at how producers use production budgets to outline a course to positive net return. We’re also going to break down movie production budgets at three levels: low, mid, and high end. By the end, you’ll know how production budgets are made and the most expensive movies of all-time.
Film Budget Examples
Background on production budgets
What is a production budget? A production budget is simply the agreed upon cost between a financier and a producer for the creation of a product. That product could be a fine-tailored suit, a chandelier; or in this case, a movie.
Above the Line
Below the Line
Below the line means everyone and everything that’s not above the line – and their associated production costs. Personnel on this side of the line include crew, craft services, and non-key cast.
Production budgets vary greatly between projects. But if one thing’s for certain, it’s that organization is key. Check out this video for more on the process of film budgeting.
Obviously, there’s a lot that goes into film budgeting. We’ll have some film budgeting resources for you at the end of this article, but first, let’s take a look at some production budgets at low, mid, and high tiers.
Video Production Budgets
Production budget vs total budget
It’s important to note that production budgets only account for the production costs of a movie. Oftentimes, marketing and distribution cost a hefty penny as well. Check out this next video to see the marketing side of the film-world in further detail.
Many people get confused when they hear that a movie with a production budget of $100 million grosses $15o million worldwide and loses money. But the brutal fact is that movies get sunk by the massive costs of marketing and distribution all the time.
Film Budget Examples
Low-end movie production budgets
A low-budget movie is a movie that’s (usually) financed through self-financing or small private funding.
There’s some conjecture as to what the low-budget movie range is (especially when accounting for inflation) – but most analysts agree anything below $5 million USD can be characterized as low-budget.
Examples of low-budget movies:
- Primer (2007) – Budget: $7,000
- Monty Python And the Holy Grail (1975) – Budget: $400,000
- Get Out (2017) – Budget: $4.5 million
These three movies – Primer, Monty Python And the Holy Grail, and Get Out – represent three tiers of the low-budget movie spectrum.
Primer was self-financed on a shoestring budget by writer/director/star Shane Carruth in true independent film fashion.
Monty Python And the Holy Grail was financed in large part by friends of the Pythons, including band members in Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd.
Get Out represents the final rung of the low-budget spectrum; that of the low-budget production company. Blumhouse Productions has made a fortune out of strategically picking horror-themed projects that they can finance with small-budgets. Get Out was no exception.
This next video takes a look at how filmmakers have made the most out of “no-budget” features.
There’s no doubt about it: many of the world’s best filmmakers began their careers making movies with miniscule production budgets. Some preferred to stick in that production tier; others moved on to more expensive projects.
Production Budget Examples
Mid-level movie production budgets
A mid-budget movie is a movie that’s (usually) financed by a studio; with assistance from grants, awards, and, or government subsidies.
Mid-budget movies bridge a considerable gap between low-budget and blockbuster movies. With inflation, it’s hard to say what that gap is – but for the sake of clarity, we’re going to say ~$5-$50 million.
Examples of mid-budget movies:
- A Quiet Place (2018) – Budget: $17 million
- The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) – Budget: $25 million
- Knives Out (2019) – Budget: $40 million
Mid-budget movies are some of the most dangerous movies to finance. Why? Because there’s almost no way to tell whether they will be a box-office player. The three movies above all did an excellent job of maximizing their budget – which undoubtedly helped their performance at the box-office.
Let’s check out a video on how The Grand Budapest Hotel was made on a mid-end budget.
The Grand Budapest Hotel reportedly grossed $172.9 million against a $25 million budget. That’s a great return on investment by anybody’s standards. Of course, the film had a lot going for it; including an auteur director in Wes Anderson, and a bevy of stars in Ralph Fiennes, Willem Dafoe, Edward Norton, Tilda Swinton, and more.
Mid-budget movies have largely been relegated to two tiers in recent years: the Academy-focused and the streaming service tiers. Movies must play in theaters (or have been planned to play in theaters) to be eligible for the Academy Awards. For these movies, think Parasite ($15.5 million) or La La Land ($30 million). Other, more commercially-focused mid-budget movies, like most Netflix movies, are simply concentrated on attracting viewers.
This next video takes a look at the disappearance of the mid-budget movie.
Chris Stuckmann makes a lot of great points about mid-budget movies; streaming, creative changes, and theater exhibition have all played a role in the decline of mid-budget movies.
Blockbuster Movie Budgets
High-end movie production budgets
A high-budget movie is a movie that’s almost always financed by a film studio. High-budget movies are synonymous with blockbuster cinema; think Jurassic Park ($63 million) and Marvel’s The Avengers ($220 million).
High-budget movies are almost exclusively relegated to the $100 million+ tier. If this article was longer, we’d have more than three tiers – but it’s not, so we’ll say a high-budget movie is a movie with a budget of more than $50 million.
Examples of high-budget movies:
- Dune (2021) – Budget: $165 million
- John Carter (2012) – Budget: $250 million
- Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011) – Budget: $379 million
Marvel’s Avengers movies have grossed billions of dollars at the box-office whilst captivating the minds and hearts of millions. But for every box-office hit, there’s a box-office bomb. In recent years, movies like The Last Duel ($100 million) and Mortal Engines ($100 million) cost studios enormous amounts of money; which goes to show you that big stars, like Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, and big directors, like Peter Jackson, sometimes aren’t enough to carry a big-budget movie.
Film Budget Planning
Now that we’ve reviewed the industry details regarding movie production budgets, let’s move on to film budget planning. In our next article, we’ll show you how to outline film production costs step-by-step. By the end, you’ll know everything you need in order to start budgeting your film.