Are we living in the most risk-averse period of film making in Hollywood history, as Jodie Foster recently suggested? Big studios are green-lighting movies with increasingly large budgets, favoring investment in major tentpole franchises with built-in audiences rather than spreading the wealth among lower-budget original features. Disney seems to have a particularly strong grasp of the current business model, routinely setting box office records thanks to the strong receipts from their live action remakes of animated classics, annual entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and now the Star Wars expanded universe. But we’re not looking at box office numbers today — we’re looking instead at the exorbitant costs of making those enormous studio productions, counting down the six movies with the biggest budgets in 2016 to see what Hollywood is doing with all that money, and which investments are paying off.
6. The Huntsman: Winter’s War
Universal sunk $115 million into the production of this follow-up to its 2012 fairy tale reboot Snow White and the Huntsman, which means they’re probably scrambling to recoup whatever losses they can after the film opened to a poor box office showing of $20.1 million in its first weekend. The movie was overshadowed by a Disney production (but we’ll talk about that later) that maintained a heavy lead at the box office on the same weekend, the second week of its release. The production boasts star Chris Hemsworth as a headlining audience draw, but the absence of Kristen Stewart, who was still starring in the Twilight films during the release of the original Huntsman, or the waning popularity of young-adult oriented fantasy and science-fiction may have contributed to its lackluster return of $147 million.
5. Gods of Egypt
Australia’s Thunder Road productions squandered a $140 million production budget on this epic sword-and-sandals tale that severely overestimated audience interest in this age-old genre. Critics scoffed at the film’s faceless mashup of genre cliches, unfortunate direction and acting, and audiences avoided the film like the plague, heavily favoring Fox’s comparatively low-budget Deadpool, an R-rated comic book antihero film whose runaway success will likely impact the future of superhero blockbusters. In the end, Gods of Egypt faded into the wasteland of disappointing releases that always show up around February, only earning $133 million of its production back after a worldwide release.
4. Kung Fu Panda 3
How did Dreamworks Animation and 20th Century Fox build a high-earning franchise by mashing up cute anthropomorphic animals and martial arts tradition? The second sequel to Kung Fu Panda 3 gave parents another piece of enjoyable if forgettable family entertainment centered around Jack Black’s lovable panda Po. A stacked voice cast and warm if not overwhelming critical reception helped Kung Fu Panda 3 become the third highest-grossing January release of all-time, earning more than $517 million in worldwide gross, more than enough to justify its $140 million budget and the three further sequels Dreamworks CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg intends to make.
3. The Jungle Book
Disney had made a killing dusting off old favorites from their vault of animated classics, turning them into effects-driven live action tentpoles. And few films are more heavily effects-driven than Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book remake, a similarly episodic tale that finds the real-life Mowgli interacting with all variety of jungle predators voiced by Hollywood elite like Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson, brought to life with state-of-the-art CGI. It took a lot of cash to bring this CGI world to the big screen, something to the tune of $175 million, but Disney’s reboot paid off big. Diverse audiences of all ages gave shelled out their hard-earned cash weekend after weekend (overshadowing the release of Huntsman), with its current box office total standing at a whopping $783 million worldwide.
2. Captain America: Civil War
Before Disney execs could even close their enormous vaults of gold coins after the success of The Jungle Book, the studio was already releasing Captain America: Civil War, the product of a $250 million production budget and a massive marketing campaign that includes 12 similarly high-profile MCU predecessors. It comes as no surprise that Civil War only extends Marvel’s unstoppable string of box office successes, earning $181 million for the fifth-biggest domestic opening of all-time and propelling Disney’s total box office earnings for 2016 past $1 billion in the shortest time in film history. Its current worldwide gross stands at $711 million, and whoever hasn’t yet seen it will probably be seeing it before long.
1. Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice
Try as they might, Warner Bros. can’t yet emulate the hard-earned success of Marvel’s cinematic universe using their DC properties. Zack Snyder’s $250 million mashup of the comic book company’s two most iconic characters broke records before its release for preordered tickets, but the box office returns of this convoluted, moody action epic (which doubles as a commercial for about a half-dozen upcoming films) saw a steep decline in viewership on its second weekend from which it never fully recovered. Even with such an enormous investment and the world’s enduring fascination with both of the titular characters, Batman v Superman was a box office disappointment that’s already impacting DC’s future releases in spite of an impressive sounding worldwide gross of $865 million.