Hollywood has a long history of taking popular video games and turning them into films – generally with disastrous results. It’s long been posited that producers don’t really understand video games, but this excerpt from the new book Generation Xbox: How Video Games Invaded Hollywood demonstrates that the game industry (including giants like Microsoft) doesn't really get Hollywood either.
Wired has shared a sneak peek inside Jamie Russell’s book, focusing on how Microsoft completely bungled plans to bring one of its most popular franchises – the first person shooter Halo – to the big screen. It’s a tale of misunderstanding, ego, greed, and ultimately regret – because it seems unlikely that we’ll ever see a Halo film in its aftermath.
Russell recounts how Microsoft dreamed big when it came to translating developer Bungie’s futuristic sci-fi epic to the screen – sending a group of character actors dressed as main character Master Chief onto studio lots to hand deliver their script (commissioned to Alex Garland, who earned a tidy million bucks for his troubles) and their outrageous terms sheet. According to sources, the computer giant was asking for $10 million against 15% of the box office gross and a $75 million below-the-line budget (which means the studio who bought the script was committing to budgeting $75 million minimum for effects, assistant directors, etc. – and would also be on the hook for the above-the-line budget of stars, director, and so on, which meant MS expected a film with a budget north of $100 million) and a fast-track into production.
This was just the first of Microsoft’s mistakes. As Russell points out, the company had no real idea how Hollywood operated and simply expected to bully the movie industry into meeting its demands based on the company’s reputation as one of the most powerful corporations on the planet.
The reality was that MS was in over its head – and Hollywood knew it. MS wanted Peter Jackson to direct. The studios wanted Jacksons’ younger protégé Neill Blomkamp. The studios won. It was just one of many battles Microsoft picked and eventually lost.
Ultimately, it was the company’s stubborn refusal to compromise on its terms sheet that killed Halo. MS’ Hollywood representative, CAA agent Larry Shapiro, says that “Their [Microsoft] unwillingness to reduce their gross in the deal meant it got too top-heavy.” He further teases gamers by saying “That movie could have been Avatar.”
We’ll never know if there’s any truth to that assertion or not. The Halo film has been dead for quite some time – the only tantalizing reminder of what might have been is Blomkamp’s Halo: Landfall – a series of test shoots that were later re-edited and used as promotional material for Halo 3.
In the wake of the Halo debacle, films based on video games have struggled to find traction in Hollywood. Franchises like Gears of War, Uncharted, and Bioshock have been in various stages of the development process for what feels like an eternity without any real progress. In Bioshock’s case, it has followed a similar path to Halo – landing a big-name director (Gore Verbinski) and a huge budget ($160 million) before Universal got cold feet and pulled the plug. Verbinski tried to trim the budget, but the project has since fallen apart completely and seems unlikely to resurrect itself any time soon.
Perhaps game companies need to look to Marvel and DC for a better way to not only get their projects on the big screen, but turn them into franchises as well. Comic companies have (mostly) figured out how to navigate the Hollywood maze and their films have become industry leaders. There’s no reason video games can’t achieve the same results – but in the meantime, the Halo saga should be a cautionary tale about how not to do things when trying to cross mediums.