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.