James Cameron: 4 times he made the most expensive film ever

On four occasions, James Cameron has broken the record for the most expensive screen project - from Terminator 2 to Titanic...

Writer/director/editor James Cameron may have started out on some fairly frugal productions, with both Piranha II and The Terminator in particular coming in at what now appear to be very low prices. Yet at the point studios were trusting him with bigger budgets for his projects, he duly spent it. You could hardly say he wasted it, either. Say what you like about Cameron and his films, but his dollars go on the screen.

Four times he’s broken the record for making the world’s most expensive film. So let’s take a look…

Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991)

A pivotal moment in blockbuster cinema, Cameron signed up to make Terminator 2 following his expensive commercial disappointment, The Abyss (a film we have a lot of time for, as we wrote about here).

Terminator 2 was the right sequel at the right time. The reputation of the original had grown thanks to the boom in home video, whilst Arnold Schwarzenegger, off the back to back successes of Twins and Total Recall, had become the biggest movie star on the planet. Arnie duly signed up for T2 duty, taking a good chunk of the budget in the form of a $15m salary (part of which was paid for by giving the Austrian Oak a Gulfstream jet).

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Cameron, though, was interested in pushing technical boundaries with his new film, building on some of the extraordinary visuals he’d brought to the screen with The Abyss. As such, and as you well know, Robert Patrick’s T-1000 was conceived, with an ability to shift in a liquid metal state. It’s no coincidence that Jurassic Park followed two years later, building on many of the techniques that Cameron had brought to the screen.

In all, Terminator 2 cost just over $100m to make. It was the first film whose negative alone cost that much, and it was regarded as a huge gamble. After all, just the year before, many had questioned how Die Hard 2 could ever realise a profit, off the back of its $75m production budget and gallons of fake snow. Prior to the DVD boom of the late 90s, there was a perceived ceiling as to how much money a movie could make.

Cameron, though, handsomely won his gamble. His film was the big ticket for summer 1991, and it returned over $500m in box office receipts alone. Even more riches would follow on video, and now, 25 years later, a 3D re-release is being planned. For $100m, it all looks a bit of a bargain.

20th Century Fox must have thought so too, as it subsequently entered into a development deal with Cameron. The first Cameron film that Fox backed? That’d be the next most expensive film in the world…

True Lies (1994)

Not so much of a tough sell, this one. Sure, Schwarzenegger had stumbled significantly at the box office for the first time with 1993’s Last Action Hero. But True Lies would see him very much back on home territory. A remake of the French comedy La Totale!, the idea for this one came from Schwarzenegger himself, who suggested the project to Cameron. Cameron was tempted, admitting that “I was looking for a small drama after ‘the most expensive movie in history’.

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He thus made the most expensive movie in history again.

Cameron had been circling a project called The Crowded Room (that was to be the first film in his new Fox deal), but Cameron and producer Sandra Arcara fell out, and he moved on from the project. He toyed with Spider-Man for a while, and was also developing Strange Days, that Kathryn Bigelow would eventually direct. But in early 1993, his attention turned to the idea of True Lies, and doing a broad action comedy. Writing work ensued, and production itself kicked off in August 1993.

Once again, a hefty Schwarzenegger salary gobbled over 10% of the budget, and Cameron too took a few dollars for his efforts. In all, the movie’s negative was reported to have cost $115-120m, a record that would be dwarfed when Waterworld made it to cinemas the year after.

So what cost the money?

Well, take the washroom sequence for an example of how things escalated. It was half a script page in the original True Lies draft. By the time Cameron was done with it, it’d expanded to a washroom three times as big, with real tiles, a real mosaic on the floor, water spraying and strobing lights. The scene was expanded to a major action sequence in the movie – again, with everything on the screen – but it would take five days in all to capture. As Rebeccca Keegan noted in her book, The Futurist, “it would prove to be among the easiest parts of the shoot”.

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Further contributors to the extended bill? Schwarzenegger was late on set one day, after taking an impromptu tour of Washington. This led to Cameron, memorably, reportedly screaming at Arnie “do you want Paul Verhoeven to direct the rest of this motherfucker?”. But more practically, Cameron wanted his action sequences to look and feel real. The third act sequence with the Harrier jet, therefore, wasn’t staged against a green screen. Instead, they positioned the jet 300 feet in the air on a special gimbal, with Schwarzenegger in its cockpit, against a real building. The crane involved was then hit by lightning. And things like this delayed the production schedule so much, that Bill Paxton had the time to shoot another movie in between the sections where he was needed for True Lies filming.

Again, though, Cameron’s gamble paid off. Whilst not a Terminator 2-style success, True Lies grossed over $370m at the global box office (back when that was regarded as a lot of money, remember), and sequel talk followed. In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11th, though, Cameron abandoned his sequel plans. By then, of course, he had a mantelpiece full of Oscars, and had made another most expensive film of all time…

Terminator 2 3-D (1996)

Here, then, is the wildcard. Whilst Terminator 2 3-D isn’t technically the most expensive film in the world, back in 1996, the 12 minute feature was – on a per-minute basis – the most expensive live action film of all time.

It was put together by Cameron for Universal Studios in Florida, with the 12 minute feature the heart of a then-new 3-D attraction. The whole ride cost $60m to put together, of which at least half was spent on the film. The film brought Arnold Schwarzenegger, Linda Hamilton, Edward Furlong and Robert Patrick back to shoot brand new material. But on top of that came a new computer-generated Terminator: the T-1,000,000. This was billed as an eight-legged “arachnoid killing machine” that comes after the audience, only for the T-800 to step in.

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All of this was also presented in 3D (a good decade before Avatar, remember), and expense was not spared.

The technical presentation ate up a good chunk of cash too. The ride used a 110-decibel sound system, 700 pairs of 3D glasses per showing, 159 speakers, and a trio of screens. That’s before the assorted other effects. Thus, whilst it may have flown under the radar of those outside of a theme park, Cameron had shattered even Waterworld’s record in 1996, spending around $5m a minute to make the attraction.

But by the time the ride opened, he had an even bigger challenge he was in the midst of…

Titanic (1997)

The stories of the making of Titanic could and have filled a book. A film that’s got a sporting chance of being regarded as the toughest film shoot of all time, Cameron’s obsessive perfectionism struck gold again. Currently, the film has over $2bn banked in cinema box office takings alone, with 11 Oscars the reward for the movie too. But it would be fair to say the journey to its release was a bumpy one. It cost at least $200m to realise the negative, dwarfing the production budget even of Waterworld the year before.

Waterworld had been the movie press target of ire for some time, courtesy of budget overruns that saw the budget balloon to around $170m. Again, many questioned if a film that expensive could ever make a profit, although as we explored here, make a profit it indeed did.

Titanic, then, if you believed the build-up, was where Cameron had finally bitten on more than he could proverbially chew. The catalyst for Cameron’s interested would ultimately be watching A Night To Remember on VHS in 1992, when he said that “I realised by the end that it would be a fantastic movie to retell that story, probably with a love story added to the mix of real characters”. He realised that the technical opportunities of cinema in the 90s offered huge potential too, and would soon commence the first of over 50 dives to explore the Titanic wreckage.

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Again, Cameron figured his new film would be a more modestly costed one than his previous ventures. He reckoned that Titanic would cost around $80m to bring to the screen, reckoning that the box office potential of a long historical movie where hundreds of people die would be quite limited. In March 1995, with True Lies comfortably in profit, Cameron pitched his idea for Romeo & Juliet on the Titanic to 20th Century Fox. The greenlight was given.

What could go wrong?

Well, plenty. Within a year, that $80m budget was looking unrealistic, and thus Cameron cut his own upfront fee, in favour of only really making serious money if the film his very, very big. He agreed a summer 1997 release date, but the costs and delays mounted up.

Firstly, Cameron needed a huge set of the Titanic itself, which then would need to be set in a large tank. A studio was effectively built from scratch in Rosarito, Mexico, and a 775 foot recreation of the Titanic was constructed (90% to scale). Cameron and his team would spend months there, with the production running over budget considerably, and also over schedule. The 138 day shoot went on for 160 in all, with practical problems such as having to wait three hours for a set to drain if Cameron wanted a second take of certain sequences.

Cameron’s combative style on the film didn’t always help, and it got to the point when the on-set catering was spiked with a drug, leading 75 of the crew – the writer/director included – being whisked to hospital.

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Even following photography, the substantive post-production work gobbled time and money, and Fox was alarmed. It brought in another studio – Paramount – to help shoulder the financial burden, and also suggested cutting the film down to two hours, to allow more screenings per day. Cameron got his cut though and – around half a year late – Titanic eventually landed in cinemas at the end of 1997.

Cameron’s next non-documentary feature, Avatar, would be an expensive challenge too. But the $235m or so he spent bringing back to the screen in 2009 had already been dwarfed by the near-$260m Sony had spent – ironically enough – on Spider-Man, and the $300m Disney had poured into Pirates Of The Caribbean: At World’s End.

With the upcoming Avatar 2, though? Cameron will need to spend $378.5m on the final movie to make – for the fifth time – the most expensive film on planet Earth…