Today’s topic is one I’ve had on my ‘to do’ list for a while and it took the help of four students to gather all the data. We looked at the key dates behind Hollywood studio movies in order to work out roughly how long the average Hollywood movie takes to make.
We built a database of 782 live-action studio-produced feature films, all of which were released domestically between 2006 and 2016, inclusive. We then scoured trades and traditional press outlets to find the earliest date for the following key milestones:
- Announcement – The date when it’s publicly announced that the film will be made. Often this is when the industry announces that the script has been optioned, but could also be when the mainstream press are told that the film will be made. Where we collected both bits of information, I opted for the earlier of these two dates.
- Pre-production – The first day of pre-production, the process by which the film’s shoot is planned.
- Shoot starts – The first day of principal production when the first scenes are filmed.
- Post-production – The first day of post-production. This is usually directly after all of the major scenes have been shot.
- Release – The North American theatrical release date when it’s shown in cinemas to the paying public.
(See the notes section at the end of this article for clarification and caveats on the process and data).
How long does it take to make a Hollywood movie?
Let’s start our journey looking at the average for all movies, and then break it down by genre and script source.
Across all these movies, the average production was announced 871 days before it was eventually in cinemas. Pre-production took 146 days, principal photography took 106 days and post-production began 301 days before the movie hit the big screen.
How long between a movie’s announcement and its theatrical release?
If you’re a fan of major Hollywood studio movies then you may have become accustomed to having to wait a long time between when you first hear about a new movie and when it’s finally in cinemas. For example, Disney has already announced their new titles for the next three years, including Gigantic, which will be released on 25th November 2020.
Across all Hollywood studio movies, the average time between the first announcement and eventual release date is 871 days – or two years, four months and nineteen days.
Comedies have the shortest pre-release announcement at 755 days while Adventure films are announced a whopping 1,103 days before they’re in cinemas – almost exactly three years.
How long does pre-production last for the average Hollywood studio movie?
Once the money and key creatives (normally director, producer(s) and the top few actors) are in place then the movie will be greenlit and it moves into pre-production. During pre-production, every detail of the shoot is researched and planned out… well, in theory, at least!
Across all the movies studied, the average movie spent 146 days in pre-production. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Fantasy movies take the longest to plan (189 days) while romance movies were much quicker (92 days).
How long is the average Hollywood movie shoot?
A major Hollywood production will have many teams filming footage for the final movie. Each team is called a unit and there are a number of types of units, including;
- Main unit is directed by the film’s director and involves the film’s main actors. Dialogue scenes are almost always shot by the main unit.
- Second unit is a smaller crew tasked with capturing shots and elements which do not feature the main actors. These could include cutaways, close-ups of hands, establishing shots, etc. They will be directed by the 2nd Unit Director, although they are ultimately following the guidance of the film’s main director.
- Model unit films miniatures to help with special and visual effects.
- Special effects unit shoots stunts, action and special effects elements such as wind and rain.
- Aerial unit is charged with shooting from the air, which normally consists of establishing shots and very wide shots of driving sequences.
- Visual effects unit films things they may need during post production, such as plates and elements.
- Other units can be used when dealing with specialist equipment such as underwater filming.
Once the main shoot is over, the main actors may be called back for more filming in order to grab missing shots/scenes or to add new shots/scenes. Today’s research looks at the date on which the main unit started filming – known as Principal Photography.
Across all movies in the dataset, the average length of principal photography was 106 days – three and a half months. The quickest to shoot were horror movies (just 81 days) and the longest were Adventure movies (133 days) The ratio between the number of days spent planning the shoot and actually filming was broadly similar for most genres. Horror had the smallest (average of 92 days prep for an 81-day shoot = 113% of the shoot time spent in prep) while most genres were around 140% of shoot time spent in pre-production.
A brief word of caution – we don’t know what the studios have in place when they officially start pre-production so this rule of thumb may not work for non-studio movies. I’d be interested to hear from any knowledgeable producers or production managers about their experiences in the comments below.
How long between when a shoot wraps and when the movie hits cinemas?
Once a movie has completed principal photography then post-production can begin in earnest. The film is edited, the sound is created and cut, music added, visual effects completed, the film is graded and mixed and then prepared for distribution.
It’s difficult to know when the post-production period actually finishes. I have heard from industry insiders about major movies being tweaked just days ahead of the premiere, whereas it’s also possible that some films finish post-production and sit on the shelf waiting for the right space in the distribution calendar. Therefore, we cannot say with certainty how long post-production takes, only how long between when it starts and when the film hits cinemas.
Across all films, this is an average of 301 days. Horror films seem to make it through post-production the quickest, with visual effects-heavy Fantasy films taking longer. It’s interesting to note that the differences between the genres is not as stark as it was for other stages of production. Fantasy shoots are 150% the length of Horror shoots, but between post and release Fantasy films only took 114% the time of Horror movies.
The timeline of the average Hollywood studio movie
When we put all this information together we get a simple timeline of what the average Hollywood studio movie lifecycle looks like.
Bonus data: Why do Hollywood studios announce movies so early?
There may be a few reasons why studios want to announce their movies years in advance. One of the major reasons is to signal their intent to rival studios. This may help them secure a prime release slot in the calendar or ensure there is no competition for their movie’s topic or theme.
If we look at the same data as above focusing on where the original idea for the movie came from rather than genre, we can see that movies based on legends and folktales are announced very far in advance, perhaps to signal to other studios that this public domain story is already in development. There is some overlap with genre (i.e. folktales account for more Adventure movies than Comedies) but this does not account for the whole effect.
Some of the raw data for today’s research was gathered by students on the MA Film Distribution and Marketing course at Birmingham City University. Their tutors, Pip Piper and Eugenio Triana, reached out to me last year and proposed that I set the students film data research projects. I jumped at the chance to have such knowledgeable, smart students help out and the end result is four projects which I’ll be sharing on the blog over the next few months. So a BIG thank you to Kara Hanna, Anthony Evans, Corinna Osei and Yu Wang for all their hard work and research on this week’s topic.
The data came from a large number of sources including IMDb, Wikipedia, NATO, The Numbers, Deadline, Variety, Hollywood Reporter, New York Times and the websites of filmmakers and film companies. This study looks at live-action, fiction, feature films designed for a commercial theatrical release. Therefore, I excluded other film types such as animation (i.e. The Good Dinosaur), documentaries (i.e. Shine A Light), IMAX short films (i.e. Hubble 3D) and concert movies (i.e. Glee: The 3D Concert Movie).
In all cases, when referring to the average I have used the median, rather than the mean.
In this article, “studios” refers to the Big Six:
- 20th / 21st Century Fox
- Sony, including Columbia Pictures
- Paramount Pictures
- Universal Studios
- Walt Disney Pictures, including Touchstone, Pixar, Marvel, Lucas Film
- Warner Bros.
This is a slightly simplistic view of the studio system as the situation changes over time. For example, Disney is in the process of buying Fox and we’re yet to see whether they will operate independently or be subsumed into one mega-studio. Also, a small number of films were collaborations between studios. For example, Interstellar was funded by Warner Brothers (who got the International distribution rights) and Paramount (who got Domestic).
When referring to the length of the shoot I mean the time between the start of principal photography and the start of post-production. This doesn’t take into account rest days. It is extremely unlikely that a shoot lasting 100 days would involve all members of the crew working 100 days straight!
We are relying on when data has been shared with the public, meaning that we are unable to personally verify accuracy. Projects do not magic into existence on the day they are announced to the press, and will likely have had a long, complicated journey to reach that point. Therefore, the date of the first announcement is not the birth of the movie, but rather the birth of its public life. Dates for pre-production, shooting and post-production are likely to be largely correct as they are not used in the heavily-controlled PR machine which promotes the movies.
Early announcement allows for the social media team to create a ‘buzz’ around the project and create an established fan-base. Facebook, Twitter and various forums have to be targeted with “Has anyone got the skinny on the new Narnia movie?” style of postings. Then the various teasers and trailers are posted on YouTube, to get the fans excited.
“This has got to be the most anticipated Star Wars movie . . . ” and we’re off to the races, feeding the speculation. All this takes time. But it also helps to put them old-fashioned bums on seats! The fans have been living with the idea of the next Star Wars movie or the next Narnia epic, so they feel that they just ‘must’ be there when it happens!
Add some reports from the set – making-of shots and the like, or reporting on some spectacular effect or movie-making craziness (blowing up a bridge, rerouting a river, star breaks a leg doing own stunts) and you are drawing in the fans, giving them an emotional proximity to the final movie.
And the build-up echoes down the line and helps BluRay and download sales and even TV ratings for that all-important ‘long-tail’ revenue for the distributors.
Of course, this can boomerang if the movie fails to live up to the build-up. Plenty of damp squibs out there that failed to live up to their expectations!
Do Hollywood films collectively take a day or two off each week? I haven’t worked on a really big movie. Certainly cast and crew members get some time off on a hundred day shoot, though the days could be staggered rather than everyone being off at the same time. I assume you are just counting calendar days, with no accounting for days off.
Also, you said principal photography was “106 days – just a few days over four months”. Just a quibble. Wouldn’t that be a little over three months? Sounds like an adventure movie is nearly four and a half months (133 days).
Thanks for all the excellent research!
Hi Mike. Superb point about time off. I was referring to the time between the shoot starting and post-production starting but I can see how my language is a little sloppy. I’ll add a note now.
And that’s a typo I’ll fix. Not sure what happened there.
Thanks for both!
I’m my experience, crews work a five day week in town or in the studio and a six day week when on location.
By location I mean where the crew lives out. Nevada, Paris, Tunisia and such.
(It saves on accommodation, gets us all home quicker and there’s usually not much to do anyway – so may as well work)
Completely awesome article – as usual! Would LOVE a post about directors – where they came from, how long between movies, training, etc. You’re the best.
Like this one https://stephenfollows.com/become-film-director 🙂
An in-depth report an analysis, thank you.
Very informative article, thank you.
What about a mini-series?
Great article! Can you also provide any information on how long a regular series season (8 episodes the industry average) would take from start to finish?
Thanks. Sadly not – I research film, not TV.
So what about someone like Clint Eastwood who shoots a movie in 37 days? Is this normal? His latest movie RICHARD JEWELL is planned for 37 days of shooting.
That’s a shorter shoot than 95.6% of the films in the dataset from this article
Stephen: this is a superb bit of research and answers exactly the questions I was looking for–which were around how long each phase of the process takes on average.
The one question I had (and this is coming from someone outside the film industry, so pardon me if this is well known to insiders) was around the difference between when the project is announced by the studio, and when the project is truly “greenlighted.”
Here’s how I imagine it works…Studio announces the project on Day 1. From Day 1 to day, say, 300 there would be a small, development budget which pays for producers and writers and a few others. Then, once everything is truly ready to go, there is a much larger round of financing and preproduction kicks into gear and massive amounts of people are hired, and the movie is truly locked in.
Is that right? To what phase of this process does the word greenlight truly apply? The announcement phase? Or the preproduction phase?
And one other question: what percent of movies which are announced by the studio, actually are ultimately made (or are some caught in development hell post announcement?) Or are all the examples listed here of movies that somehow are beyond the dev hell phase?
Greenlight is a useful term but may refer to particular stages. At any point in Development the deal can be cancelled. The picture is then in “turnaround”. A bill is prepared for money spent and any other studio can pick up the project once that bill is paid.
It is common for hundreds of thousands of dollars being swapped between studios as projects are dropped and picked up.
The book “Anatomy of the Movies” has excellent descriptions of this as gas “Adventures in the Screen Trade”
Both fascinating and easy to read.
BTW the rule of thumb used to be that editing schedules were “the length of the shoot plus two weeks”
So a four week shoot would allow six weeks after end of principal photography.
This would be a conventional narrative picture. Allowances would be made for other things like visual effects but also availability of Composer and orchestra. “Shoot plus two” is a starting point.
This assumes the Editor would be assembling during the shoot and dailies would be swiftly available.
It can happen we’d shoot in Sri Lanka, process in London and telecine in Sydney or Auckland, depending on financing arrangements, and this would offset schedules by a week or more. Use of digital overcomes this. It also helps where the Studio or Network wants dailies sent to them. Most commonly every day. Again, use of digital and internet simplifies this.
This may be of interest. See part four for editing time allowed.
Thanks Stephen. You answered the exact question I’d been trying to answer myself, ‘how long will it take for audiences to see new films once the production doors are open again?’ It’s like you read my mind. Much appreciated. I need this data to understand the needs of some of our production and distribution customers.
Have been looking for something like this for a long time, thanks so much. Love the different charts and breaking down the data by genre.
So when can I expect the first movie about the coronavirus?
You can expect it when you FIX THIS DAMN DOOR!!!
Now day hollywood average movie making very due to good technology they are low cost movie with great story.
Nice one. Against this backdrop is Africa where most production houses shoot low quality movies and sell in a few days.
Thanks for this amazing article.
I am looking your article of “how long average UK movies take to make?”.
Have you written similar articles for UK movies ? (movies produced in the UK)?