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Why the Halo Movie Failed to Launch

The Master Chiefs left the offices of Creative Artists Agency around midday on June 6, 2005, in a fleet of limo vans. In their green, red and blue Spartan armour the cybernetically-enhanced super soldiers made quite a spectacle. Each stood six-foot-three tall, visored helmets obliterating their faces. Each carried a red bind document folder stamped with the CAA logo that contained two things: a copy of the Halo screenplay commissioned by Microsoft and written by Alex Garland and a terms sheet. None of them spoke a word.

The security guards on the gates of the major motion picture studios are used to seeing many things. Still, a hulking soldier from the future striding towards them and demanding access to the studios top brass was inevitably going to end in some kind of shooting incident — whether involving a United Nations Space Command BR5 5 Battle Rifle or a security guards arguably more deadly. 38 revolver.

Fortunately Larry Shapiros team at CAA had called ahead and warned the studios security heads what was going on. The Master Chiefs were allowed onto the plenties at Universal, Fox, New Line, DreamWorks and others without firing a single shoot. If this was the videogame industry literally invading Hollywood, it was remarkably bloodless. They delivered their scripts and waited outside the meetings rooms in silent character, flicking through the pages of Variety . Everyone knew the clock was ticking: Studio executives merely had a couple of hours to read the Halo screenplay and decide whether or not to make an offer before the Master Chiefs returned to CAA with the screenplay. It was the bargain of the century, and a fantastic piece of showmanship.

The Master Chief suits were Shapiros idea and they ensured that the Halo bargain stimulated headlines even before the trade papers learned how rich the demands were. It was a spectacular attempt to turn Microsofts first foray into Hollywood filmmaking into a theatrical event and it very nearly run. Master Chief, the hero of Microsoft and Bungies bestselling Halo games, stimulated his debut in Hollywood. Sadly, though, his Tinsel Town ascension was short-lived.

Microsoft was aggressive in pursuing the idea of taking Halo to the big screen. Its easy to understand why. The games, was established by Bungie Studios, were perfect blockbuster material: high-octane, intense sci-fi shoot em ups with a dense mythology and storyline and a dedicated fan-base of millions. Combined sales of the first two Halo games grossed in excess of $600 million over four years, selling north of 13 million divisions. The movie biz seemed on in envy.

When Microsoft approached CAA about their movie aspirations, Shapiro told them about the Day After Tomorrow auction set up by CAA agent Michael Wimer and director Roland Emmerich. With a script for the apocalyptic eco-movie in hand, Wimer called the major studios and invited them to bid for it. The process was unusual: Every studio would send a messenger to CAA at an allotted time, pick up the script and then have 24 hours to read it and make an offer. Each script was despatched with a terms sheet: Heres how much we want; heres how much we want for the director, and it has to be a go movie( in other words, a scene with a guaranteed start date for production ). Each studio responded by trying to negotiate terms. The only exception was Fox, who simply wrote on the word sheet: Yes.

Microsoft, unaccustomed to Hollywoods culture, was impressed by that story. It wanted to be able to dictate the terms even though it was a newcomer in the movie biz. Halo was its prize property and they wanted to protect it.

Microsoft was entering into negotiations brandishing a very big stick .

Microsoft also wanted to make a bundle of fund from its sale. For Shapiro, it was typical of the gulf between the two industries. Games creators are, by their nature, engineers who deal in absolutes. For them the subtleties of Hollywood production, with its ebb-and-flow of egos and power play, were often foreigner. To sell a movie into a studio and actually get it stimulated is a lot of work, he tells. It takes a lot of conversations and a lot of gremlin dust being hurled about while youre get the bargains done. In video games industry, theyre technologists and theyre data driven. Theyre looking at data points and telling: We need the movie to be made, its got to be this, this and this. If you get A, B and C to be part of the movie, then great well sell you the rights. You cant do that. But, if thats what Microsoft wanted, CAA was willing to try.

To set up that kind of deal, Microsoft needed to be ready. Most importantly it needed to have a screenplay so it paid Alex Garland( 28 Day Later , The Beach )$ 1 million to pen a spec script. The screenplay was supervised by Microsoft, which entailed it was — for good or ill — heavily steeped in video games mythology. Still, the project now had a blockbuster screenwriter and was based on a high-profile videogame franchise.

Next, it was a suit of setting up the auction. Peter Schlessel, the former chairperson of production at Columbia Painting, was one of the main negotiators in the Halo movie bargain and served as Microsofts Hollywood liaison. Together with Microsoft and its lawyers, Schlessel and the CAA team hammered out a word sheet. We were literally setting out to be the richest, most lucrative rights deal in history in Hollywood, tells Shapiro. You have to remember that no property , not even Harry Potter , was get[ what we were asking for ]. Microsoft, a global software giant used to get its own style, wasnt about to kowtow to Hollywood. It knew Halo was the pearl of videogame movies, the one that could be a true blockbuster hit. According to Variety , Microsoft wanted $10 million against 15% of the box office gross, in addition to a $75 million below-the-line budget and fast-tracked production.

Those were big demands. Not least of all since, at the time, videogame movies were still floundering on the edge of respectability. Tomb Raider had made a pot of fund and pushed towards the mainstream but its 2003 sequel, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider — The Cradle of Life , suffered a disappointing opening weekend at the U.S. box office and limped by on its foreign grosses. The Lara Croft franchise was running out of steam early. And most other videogame movie jaunts werent even in the same neighbourhood as Lara. Paul W. S. Anderson, the director of Mortal Kombat , parlayed his success into the zombie-themed Resident Evil franchise distributed by Sony Screen Gems. The first movie based on Capcoms survival horror game series took $102 million worldwide and did gangbuster business on DVD selling over a million divisions. But it absence the prestige and mainstream crossover potential of Tomb Raider .

Microsoft were aiming higher — much, much higher. CAAs deal-making matched the software giants aspirations. According to the New York Times , Microsoft were demanding creative approval over director and cast, plus 60 first-class airplane tickets for Microsoft personnel and their guests to attend the premiere. It wouldnt be putting any fund into the production itself beyond the fee paid to Garland , nor was it willing to sign over the merchandising rights. To add insult to injury, Microsoft wanted the winning studio to pay to fly one of its representatives from Seattle to LA. They would watch every cut of the movie during post-production. Clearly, Microsoft was entering into negotiations brandishing a very big stick.

With the screenplay written and the ink still drying on the terms sheet, the agents called up the major studios and advised them to be prepared. It was a bold, some might say arrogant, present of power. As Shapiro recollects it, We told them: You need to have all your decision makers in a room because were going to deliver the script for you to read together with a terms sheet. But theres a fuse on it. Youll merely have a certain amount of time to make a deal.

Master Chief in the upcoming game Halo 4 .
Image: Microsoft

Because Hollywood is a town built on relationships, CAAs agents stimulated sure they called all the major players. Even then there were some who felt snubbed; Miramax head honcho Harvey Weinstein called up to scream about being left off the listing. Everyone had assumed Miramax wouldnt be interested in the property. Truth was they probably werent, but there was prestige to be had in being invited to the Halo party. The only major studio Microsoft refused to approach was Columbia, which was owned by Sony, its chief rival in the console war.

With his production background, Shapiro decided to add a little razzle amaze to the proceedings. Recollecting the Master Chief attires hed ensure at Comic-Con, he tracked down the person or persons in the U.S. who was fabricating video games official Spartan UNSC battle armour and hired seven suits: a Red, a Blue and several in Master Chief green. I had them shipped out to CAA, recollects Shapiro, they came in crates and had instructions about how to set them on. I hired character performers to wear the suits because, you know, you dont only set anyone in these suits. They had to feel like Master Chief.

For a few hours on June 6, 2005, Hollywood became Halowood. Everyone was buzzing about the Master Chiefs spotted strolling through the studio plenties and — more importantly — about the richness of the bargain Microsoft was demanding. No one had ever seen anything like it before. Microsoft, the global corporation whose products sat on every desktop, had come to Hollywood and wasnt afraid of throwing its weight around. If showmanship and arrogance and Hollywood dont go together, I dont know what does, tells Moore who was Microsofts go-between with Universal during the negotiations, reporting to the software companys point man Steve Schreck.

Not everyone was impressed. Movie executive Alex Young, who by the time of Halo had moved from Paramount to Fox, recollects reading the screenplay under Master Chiefs watchful eye. It was one of those gimmicky Hollywood things: hey, force everybody to be in a room, make it feel urgent, have a guy show up in garb and Oh my God! This feels like a big deal. It likely served Microsoft and CAA well at the time, but ultimately it seemed like a little bit of manufactured theatre to me.
Another problem was that the Halo property was so well-known by that point that everyone knew what to expect. You either loved the idea of making a Halo movie or you did not, indicates Young. Having a guy in garb deliver the screenplay wasnt going to convince you one style or the other.

In the end, though, it wasnt the Master Chiefs faulting that the bargain stumbled. Nor was it CAAs. The failing of the Halo movie remains a potent illustration of the gulf that still lies between Hollywood and the videogame business. It should have been the tent-pole movie to die for, instead it became the one that got away. Millions of Halo fans around the world wanted a movie, yet it failed to launch. Partly, it stemmed from the on-going inability of both sides of the bargain to understand each others culture, needs and language.

” When the videogame industry talks to people they do it open-kimono and they expect the same transparency back. Hollywood doesnt function that style .”

Most of the studios who read the Halo screenplay passed immediately. Microsofts terms were simply too demanding. By the end of Master Chief Monday there were only two horses in the race: Fox and Universal. Microsoft hoped to use each to leverage off the other but hadnt banked on the studios very different approach to doing business. What the games industry doesnt understand is that this town is all about lunch, explains Shapiro. It doesnt happen like that in video games industry. If there was a movie studio going out to the games publishers to license Avatar or something like that, theyd say Ok were licensing Avatar , send us your best bargain. But none of video games publishers would talk to each other and say Hey, what are you going to offer them?

The studios werent so reticent in sounding one another out. What happened was Universal called Fox and asked them what they were going to offer, continues Shapiro, who watched events unfold close-up. They decided to partner on it. Lets offer the same bargain and offer to partner. So now we lost our leveraging. Universal agreed to take U.S. domestic, Fox would take foreign. In the blink of an eye Microsofts bargaining position had been pole-axed.

The vastly powerful Microsoft had strayed into the bargain navely expecting everyone to play by its rules and the resulting culture shock set immense strain on the Halo bargain. For Moore, then corporate vice-president of the Interactive Entertainment Business division at Microsoft, there was clearly culture clash during the negotiations: You work for a company like Microsoft, where you do what you say, you say what you do; you think you have an agreement, youre ready to go, and then …[ the bargain falls apart ].

It was something that talent agents working at the intersection between the two industries have experienced many times. When the videogame industry talks to people they do it open-kimono and they expect the same transparency back, tells Blindlights Lev Chapelsky. Hollywood doesnt function that style, they dance and they sing and they play games and go through their ritual haggling. To somebody whos not accustomed to that, it can be insulting.

Microsoft clearly werent accustomed to it. They were used to being the strongest contender in any negotiation they entered into. But this time they were far out of their consolation zone. We dont understand Hollywood, Microsoft Games Studios general manager Stuart Mulder confessed to the trade papers in 2002 as the company inked in its deal with Shapiro at CAA. It was a throwaway remark that would turn out to be disturbingly prophetic.

What was apparent during the Halo deal-making was that Microsoft was far from home, perhaps even surrounded in enemy province. In the middle of the Halo negotiations, as all parties sat around the table, Shapiro recalls the discussion between Microsofts Hollywood liaison Peter Schlessel and Jimmy Horowitz, Universals co-president of production, taking an aggressive turn. Schlessel was get really tough on some of the terms with Horowitz: Come on, dont be a dork, blah, blah, blah …. It was get genuinely heated. The guy from Microsoft[ Steve Schrek] was like, Wow, this is really good. Then we took a transgres and Schlessel goes to Horowitz, Are you coming over for Passover? Because they know one another. You dont have those kinds of relationships in videogames. In Hollywood you can be getting at one another but then youre playing golf together the next day.

Even after the bargain was struck, the misunderstanding over how the movie business operated continued to be a problem. Microsoft wanted a big-name director, but Peter Jackson, helmer on The Lord of the Rings trilogy, decided to sign on as a co-producer alongside Peter Schlessel, Mary Parent and Scott Stuber. Jackson wanted his new protg, an up-and-coming commercials whiz kid called Neill Blomkamp, to direct. With Jacksons fee running to several million dollars the studios knew there was an advantage in hiring a cheaper, less well-known talent to sit in the directors chair. Microsoft was reputedly not happy with the decision.

Blomkamp, a South African director who had stimulated his mark with commercials for Nike and had shot an intriguing short about alien apartheid called Alive in Joburg , was concerned about get chewed up and spat out while attaining his first feature with these three enormous corporations and a budget north of $100 million. My instinct was that if I crawled into that hornets nest it would be not good, and it was a clusterfuck from day one, he acknowledges. Theres no question that there was a clash of worlds, for sure. The two sides werent ensure eye-to-eye.

What lured him in, beyond the obvious kudos, was his love for the property: I told Tom Rothman[ co-Chairman of Fox Filmed Entertainment] that I was genetically created to direct Halo . However, Blomkamp promptly realised that the studio didnt share his artistic vision and was uncomfortable at the prospect of his gritty, post-cyberpunk aesthetic — all blurry video feeds and radio chattering- dominating a summer blockbuster. Rothman detested me, I think he would have gotten rid of me if he could have, tells the director. The suits werent happy with the direction I was running. Thing was, though, Id played Halo and I play videogames. Im that generation more than they are and I know that my version of Halo would have been insanely cool. It was more fresh and potentially could have stimulated more fund than only a generic, boring movie — something like G.I. Joe or some crap like that, that Hollywood produces.

Blomkamps relationship with Fox was especially fraught. The style the bargain was divided between three major corporations and a handful of Hollywood producers caused several unusual imbalances in terms of power. The style Fox is dealing with me was not cool. Right from the beginning, when Mary[ Parent, Universals former chairperson of production turned Halo producer] hired me up until the end when it collapsed, they treated me like shit; they were just a crappy studio. Ill never ever work with Fox ever again because of what happened to Halo- unless they pay me some ungodly amount of money and I have absolute fucking control.

He was also being pressured by Microsofts demands too. One of the biggest issues was creative control. Microsoft had paid Garland to pen the screenplay to their specifications in order to retain control over what was clearly a very valuable property to them. Halo was an Xbox exclusive title, a billion-dollar franchise, and its chief weapon in the console war against Sony. The problem was, though, that filmmaking was a collaborative exert and total control simply wasnt possible.

If youre dealing with a company that doesnt understand the film industry, its sense of assurance comes with glossy names that have done a lot of big projects that have made a lot of money, tells Blomkamp. I guess the guys at Bungie liked what I was doing. Im somewhat confident in saying they liked where I was running. Its highly possible that that artwork was getting back to Microsoft and Microsoft itself, the corporate entity, was not happy with it because it was too unconventional. I dont know if thats true or not, but it was entirely possible.

Against this fraught background, Universal money $12 million of preliminary development on the movie. Some of the money was expended before Blomkamp arrived on-board by director Guillermo Del Toro, who was initially attached before going off to attain Hellboy II: The Golden Army instead. The remainder was spent on Blomkamps watch and included paying various screenwriters — Scott Frank, D.B. Weiss, Josh Olson — to redraft the original screenplay.

Meanwhile, Weta Workshop, the New Zealand physical consequences company co-founded by Jackson, was fabricating real-life versions of the weapons, power armor and the Warthog assault vehicle from the game. Blomkamp would eventually use them to shoot a series of thrilling test shorts. The legacy of a movie never stimulated, is how Moore describes the gathered footage, which was later cut together under the title Halo: Landfall and used to promote the Halo 3 videogame release in 2007.

With development proving slow, Fox and Universal were beginning to get impatient. The gross heavy bargain and costs increased the growing sense of malaise. In October 2006, right before a payment was due to be made to the filmmakers and Microsoft, Universal demanded that individual producers bargains be cut. Jackson consulted with his co-producers and Blomkamp, as well as with Microsoft and Bungie, and rejected. In a stroke, the Halo movie was pronounced dead in the water.

What ultimately killed the Halo movie was fund. Microsofts unwillingness to reduce their bargain killed the bargain, tells Shapiro. Their unwillingness to reduce their gross in the bargain entailed it got too top-heavy. That movie could have been Avatar .

Blomkamp agrees: One of the complicating factors with Halo was that Microsoft wasnt the normal party that youd come off and option the IP from and attain your product. Because Microsoft is such an omnipresent, powerful corporation, they werent just going to sit back and not take a massive cut of the profits. When you have a corporation that potent and that large taking a percentage of the profits, then youve get Peter Jackson taking a percentage of the profits and you start adding all of that stuff up, mixed given the fact that you have two studios sharing the profits, suddenly the return on the investment begin to deterioration so that it becomes not worth attaining. Ultimately, thats essentially what killed the film.

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