It can be hard to manage a telly budget. You’ve got enough for a season, and you’ve got to spread it out over several episodes. It’s a bit like how we have enough money to buy food for the month, when all we want is to buy a PS4 so we can play Fortnite.
So, we don’t blame some showrunners for deciding to blow most of their money on one spectacular scene, because it’s basically exactly what we would do.
Now, when you’ve read the below examples, can we borrow two quid for a sandwich? All this Fortnite is making us hungry.
1. Fringe – Electrical storm (season one, episode one)
When Fox president Kevin Reilly decided to wind down Fringe, he said it was “an expensive show” that wasn’t making a profit. He added: “We’re not in the business of losing money.”
Well, then maybe Fox should have thought about that when they splashed a bonkers $10 million on the feature-length pilot, before averaging out at $4 million an episode.
We know science fiction telly shows cost money, but blowing the budget on the opening episode doesn’t strike us as expert planning. Still, Fringe isn’t the only pilot on our list, so maybe they know something we don’t, and we live in some parallel universe where this is a good idea.
As for which individual scene in that pilot cost the most, our money’s on the electrical storm. CGI effects, a custom-built set and a large cast of extras – most of whom end up with their faces melting off – couldn’t have come cheap.
2. The Walking Dead – “the clothesline” (season 7, episode 9)
The Walking Dead‘s effects budget tends to go on small-scale but exquisite practical zombie effects (think of those crusty, bloated aquatic dudes stumbling from the water near Oceanside). But now and again, they go big – like this epic scene from season 7, where Rick and Michonne attach a wire between two cars and mow down an entire freeway’s worth of shambling corpses.
Impractical, yes, but spectacular and a lorra lorra fun.
3. The Crown – royal wedding (season 1, episode 1)
Regularly touted as the most expensive TV series of all time (at £100 million per season, we certainly hope it is), it turns out that recreating the lives of the royal family doesn’t come cheap. Who knew?
And the most expensive scene so far? Elizabeth and Philip’s wedding, which splashed £30k on Elizabeth’s dress alone! The episode took five days to shoot, which added to the expense. Chuck in a horse-drawn carriage, loads of gold stuff and a whole bunch of extras, all in period-accurate costume, and you’ve got a telly episode with a budget you could use for an actual royal wedding (as long as it was one of the lesser royals – not one of the main ones).
4. Lost – plane wreckage (season one, episode one)
When presented with the plans for Lost – which included a budget breakdown for the most expensive pilot in history at that time ($14 million!), Michael Eisner, the then-chairman and chief executive of Disney, described it as “a crazy project that’s never going to work”. “This is a waste of time,” Bob Iger, his deputy, agreed.
Somehow, it still got made and ended up being ABC’s fastest-selling export, earning back the $4 million per episode in ad revenue and sales.
But why did that plane crash scene cost so much more than anything from the average episode? In addition to the fairly large salary of the ensemble survivors stumbling from it, JJ Abrams and his mates had to buy an actual airliner to wreck on the beach, which wasn’t cheap. But at least they got plenty of mileage out of it in subsequent seasons.
They even used the wreckage as the last shot of the show, during the credits – an image so incongruous they had to explain why they did it. “The images shown during the end credits of the Lost finale, which included shots of Oceanic 815 on a deserted beach, were not part of the final story but were a visual aid to allow the viewer to decompress before heading into the news,” said an ABC spokesperson.
Visual aid, or two fingers up to the doubters? “See, we told you that wreckage would be worth it!”
5. Game of Thrones – the loot train attack (season 7, episode 4)
Remember when people complained that Game of Thrones season two’s Battle of Blackwater Bay sequence cost $8 million to produce?
Pfff. Every episode of season 7 cost more than that, and season 8 is going to come in at around $15m per show.
For now, let’s settle for the spectacular destruction of the loot train attack, where Daenerys, Drogon and the Dothraki horde made short work of the Lannister baggage train on its way from Highgarden to King’s Landing. The scene had more stuntmen simultaneously on fire than any show or movie ever, it had a completely believable CGI dragon, a horde of Dothraki screamers on horseback and an army of soon-to-be-dead Lannisters. Bloody magnificent, and every penny up there on the screen.
6. Boardwalk Empire – Boardwalk introduction (season one, episode one)
The Boardwalk Empire pilot still holds the record for the biggest budget-breaker for an individual episode, and that’s partly because it included the cost of the specially constructed 300-foot Jersey Shore boardwalk set – itself said to cost $5 million – which was expanded further with CGI.
Yep, the scene introducing Boardwalk’s boardwalk cost more than the average HBO budget for full individual episodes. Add in a cast that contains the likes of Steve Buscemi and Kelly Macdonald, and a superstar director in Martin Scorsese, and the feature-length debut of the critically acclaimed series suddenly feels like a bit of a bargain.
7. Friends – Thanksgiving (‘The One with the Rumor’ – season eight, episode nine)
OK, so this is a bit of a cheat, because, for the final seasons of the show, EVERY scene featuring all of the main cast in every episode of Friends cost $6 million minimum, thanks to the salary expectations of each of the leading pals – who were on a million each.
Of course, it wasn’t always like that. The show had a regular budget when it started. You know, before it became the most popular TV show on the planet. Back then, the production budget was so small, prop designer Greg Grande had to use old furniture to fill out the show.
In terms of the most expensive scene, it has to be the bit in Thanksgiving episode, ‘The One with the Rumor’ where all the Friends were together, and were joined by Brad Pitt (who’s not exactly cheap himself).
Still, it was all worth it in the end. The show’s producers may have blown the budget for a traditional sitcom on salary, but they really reaped the rewards during the finale, where 30 seconds of ad space cost clients $2 million. Not bad for a show that had to reupholster a second-hand sofa to create one of its most recognisable elements.
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