How Microsoft Killed Its Own Halo Movie

Why combat failed to evolve in Hollywood.

halo 2
Bungie

The security staff manning Hollywood studios' gates must have seen some sights pass through over the years, but when a six-foot-three soldier from the future stomped onto the scene, demanding to speak to the top brass, they must have thought a hallucinogenic toxin had found its way into the water supply.

This was the day the video game industry quite literally invaded Hollywood, where on an afternoon in Summer 2005, Microsoft rolled up its sleeves and decided a blockbuster Halo movie was finally going to happen. And it was going to happen on their terms.

The computing giant enlisted the services of CAA to put together a stunt that would turn heads at Universal, 20th Century Fox, New Line Cinema, DreamWorks and the other leading film studios, so the agency dressed up a bunch of professional actors in Master Chief costumes and marched them into alien territory.

Garbed in Spartan armour, the cybernetically-enhanced soldiers presented two things to executives at the production houses: A copy of the Halo script Microsoft had paid 28 Days Later writer Alex Garland $1 million to pen under strict supervision, and a list of hefty demands for the firm ambitious enough to snap up the movie rights to what was the hottest gaming property of the time back then.

Halo big team battle
Bungie

According to Variety, Microsoft wanted $10 million against 15% of the box office gross, as well as a $75 million “below-the-line” budget and a fast-tracked production. No movie property, including Harry Potter, was enjoying those kind of numbers in 2005.

It was a brash, in-your-face pitch with added urgency, since the Xbox maker wanted a response from the interested parties within 24 hours, but, as reported by Wired, not everyone was impressed. Most studios passed immediately, either unswayed by the contrived theatrics, put off by Microsoft's bloated list of terms and conditions, or both.

The fundamental differences between the games industry and Hollywood were beginning to show. Microsoft was a goliath within its own medium and Halo was the gaming franchise of the mid-2000s. It was accustomed to calling the shots, but the movie business was more hostile to outsiders than a Covenant warship.

Still, the gaming titan aggressively pursued Halo on the big screen, with demands maintaining tight creative control and a massive budget. Only two studios were willing to play ball: Fox and Universal, but the Big M's plan to play them off against one another failed when they sounded each other out before offering to partner up.

In the games industry, rival publishers are often reticent to collaborate with one another, though Hollywood doesn't operate this way and Microsoft was caught unaware, suddenly losing their assumed stature and leverage. Nevertheless, all three parties got into bed together and the Halo movie plans rolled on like a Warthog heading off to battle.

Peter Jackson boarded the project as producer and brought in his new-found protege Neill Blomkamp to direct. He hadn't made Elysium or Chappie by this point, so he seemed as good a choice as any - but Microsoft's inability to speak the Hollywood lingo continued to cause friction.

FILE - In this Jan. 20, 2012 file photo, Peter Jackson is interviewed at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. Jackson's movie trilogy
Chris Pizzello/AP

Filmmaking is a collaborative process, and MS' creative control demands didn't sit well with Blomkamp. Things only became more fraught when vast sums of the pre-production budget were splurged on script rewrites and preliminary costs.

Several months and millions of dollars later, Universal waded in and demanded Jackson and Blomkamp’s deals be cut. The producers consulted with Microsoft, but the gaming studio was unwilling to compromise on brass tacks, and this was the moment the movie died like a noob in a deathmatch full of seasoned FPS veterans.

Money is what ultimately killed the Halo movie, and while the blame doesn't rest at Microsoft's door alone, this entire saga highlights the cultural and structural differences between film and gaming as industries.

With all this in mind, is it any wonder that the video game adaptations that do make it onto the big screen turn out the way they do?

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Been prattling on about gaming, movies, TV, football and technology across the web for as long as I can remember. Find me on Twitter @MarkLangshaw

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