Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ Becomes The Most Expensive Movie Ever Made

Star Wars: The Force Awakens has become the most expensive movie ever made with a total budget of $533.2 million (£446.3 million) according to recent filings.

The 2015 flick was the first Star Wars movie made by Disney and was released three years after the studio’s $4 billion acquisition of Lucasfilm which owns the rights to the sci-fi franchise.

The Force Awakens rebooted the series by pairing rising stars Daisy Ridley and John Boyega with Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill and the late Carrie Fisher who shot to fame in the first Star Wars film 37 years earlier.

The reboot was a hit with fans and grossed $2.1 billion worldwide according to industry analyst Box Office Mojo.

Mindful of the fact that it would need a blockbuster budget for visual effects and the salaries of the stars, Disney devised an ingenious way to make money back on the movie. Instead of shooting it in the United States, Disney decided to film at Pinewood Studios in the United Kingdom. This enabled it to benefit from the UK government’s Film Tax Relief scheme which allows production companies to receive a cash reimbursement of up to 25% of the costs they incur in the country.

With so much at stake, Disney didn’t take any chances and got endorsement from the UK government right from the start. In 2014, Treasury Secretary George Osborne proudly announced that Pinewood would not just be home to The Force Awakens but also its two sequels. “This will mean more jobs and more investment,” he said. “It is great news for people working at Pinewood Studios, from the set designers to the carpenters.”

Another consequence of shooting in the UK is that it puts the finances of the films under the spotlight. Movie budgets are usually a closely-guarded secret as studios tend to absorb the cost of individual pictures in their overall expenses. However, the costs of movies made in the UK are consolidated in single companies which file annual financial statements showing the cash reimbursement, headcount, salaries, total expenses and more.

A condition of receiving the cash reimbursement is that the companies must be responsible for everything from pre-production to delivery of the movie and paying for services relating to the finished film. It one of the reasons why Foodles is still booking costs on its financial statements eight years after The Force Awakens was released.

Disney didn’t actually spend more than it forecast as the financial statements say that “at the year end the estimated total cost was within budget.” Salaries alone came to a total of $21.5 million (£18 million) with staff numbers peaking at 258 without even including freelancers and self-employed workers who make up the majority of the crew.

As the graph below shows, the closest competitor to The Force Awakens was 2019’s The Rise of Skywalker which cost $503.6 million (£421.5 million) to make. At the other end of the spectrum are the three Star Wars spin-offs that were also made in the UK. Rogue One is a prequel to the first Star Wars film whilst Solo tells the origin story of Ford’s Han Solo character. At a total cost of $242.4 million (£202.9 million) its budget was less than half that of The Force Awakens though it doesn’t stop there.

Graph showing the costs of six recent Star Wars productions
The costs of six recent Star Wars productionsCAROLINE REID USING FLOURISH
Disney has received a staggering $389 million (£325.6 million) in reimbursements from the UK government with $86.6 million (£72.5 million) of it paid for The Force Awakens bringing its net costs to $446.6 million.

This puts The Force Awakens head and shoulders above Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides which is widely believed to be the most expensive movie ever made. It crowned recent lists from Collider and Screenrant thanks to a budget which came to £240.7 million when Forbes revealed it in 2014. Since then it has increased to $324.1 million (£271.3 million) but this is still far cry from the sum spent on The Force Awakens and the same goes for the net costs of On Stranger Tides which come to $297.9 million after its $26.2 million reimbursement is deducted.

Technically, the two latest instalments in Disney’s Avengers super hero saga cost more to make than even The Force Awakens. Both Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame were made by Assembled Productions III which has spent a total of $1.2 billion (£1 billion) since it was incorporated in 2016 according to its latest financial statements. However, as both films were made by the same production company it isn’t possible to tell precisely how much was spent on each one.

In contrast, analysis of 39 sets of financial statements reveals that Disney has spent a total of $2.3 billion (£1.9 billion) making the six Star Wars productions in the UK.

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