Halo: The biggest movie never made
6th Aug 2012 | 11:11
Should Larry Shapiro ever write his memoirs, he says he'll call them Pushing Rocks Up A Hill. Back in 2005, the smart suited deal maker was co-head of the videogames division at Creative Artists Agency (CAA), the powerhouse Hollywood talent agency that repped clients like Brad Pitt and George Clooney. His aim was to set up the deals that would drive the film and games industries closer together.
Jamie Russell's Generation Xbox: How Videogames Invaded Hollywood is available now.
When Microsoft decided it wanted to make a Halo movie, the Xbox exclusive, best-selling jewel in its videogames crown, it was Shapiro it reached out to. It seemed like a certain success: neither party suspected that Master Chief was destined to become a modern day Sisyphus.
Back in 2005, Microsoft stomped into Hollywood like an 800lb gorilla. The corporation's representatives were inspired by Shapiro's story of what happened when CAA agent Michael Wimer and director Roland Emmerich set up an auction for eco-apocalypse movie The Day After Tomorrow. With a spec script already written, Wimer called the major studios and asked them to bid.
Each script went out with a terms sheet that dictated everything from budget to salaries to the movie getting an instant green light. The studios only had a few hours to respond. Everyone tried to negotiate, apart from Fox who simply wrote on the term sheet: "Yes."
New players in town
Microsoft was impressed by that story. This was the kind of balls-out, take no prisoners approach it wanted for
Shapiro was worried by how uncompromising it seemed: "To sell a movie into a studio and actually get it made is a lot of work," he says. "It takes a lot of conversations and a lot of pixie dust being thrown about while you're getting the deals done. In the games industry, they're technologists and they're data driven."
"They're looking at data points and saying: 'We need the movie to be made, it's got to be this, this and this. If you get A, B and C to be part of the movie, then great we'll sell you the rights.' You can't do that." But Microsoft was CAA's client and if that's what it wanted, well, that's what CAA would do for it.
First up, they needed a screenplay. Alex Garland (28 Days Later, The Beach, Enslaved) was paid $1 million to pen a spec script supervised by Microsoft and Bungie. Then CAA set up the auction for June 6, 2005. Peter Schlessel, the former president of production at Columbia Pictures, was one of the main negotiators in the Halo movie deal and served as Microsoft's Hollywood liaison.
Together with Microsoft and its lawyers, Schlessel and the CAA team prepared a term sheet. "We were setting out to be the richest, most lucrative rights deal in history in Hollywood," says Shapiro. "You have to remember that no property, not even Harry Potter, was getting [what we were asking for]."
Microsoft wanted $10 million paid in advance against 15% of the box office gross. It also wanted a $75 million "below-the-line" budget (the cost of the production and crew, not including the director, producers and stars) in place as well as guarantees that it would be a fast-tracked project that wouldn't be left to languish in development hell.
On top of all that, it wanted creative approval over the director and cast; and it wouldn't be putting any of their own money into the production itself other than Garland's one-off fee. Finally, Microsoft wasn't even going to sign over the merchandising rights. Clearly, Microsoft wasn't just trying to sell the movie license to Halo. MS wanted to be treated as equal, Hollywood players.
The Halo invasion
On the morning of June 6, Shapiro dispatched a team of actors in custom-made green, red and blue Spartan armour to the major studios. Each carried a red CAA folder containing the script and a terms sheet. For a few hours, Hollywood became Halowood. It was a bold, arrogant move by Microsoft.
"If showmanship and arrogance and Hollywood don't go together, I don't know what does," reckons Peter Moore, who was Microsoft's go-between with Universal during the negotiations, reporting to the software company's point man Steve Schreck. Every major studio - from Paramount to Fox - was invaded by the Master Chiefs.
As the soldiers arrived, Miramax head honcho Harvey Weinstein called up to shout about being left off the list. CAA had assumed it wasn't a property that would interest Miramax. It probably wasn't: but everyone wanted an invite to the Halo party. The only exception was Columbia. They weren't invited to bid since their owner, Sony, was Microsoft's chief rival in the console war.
Once the scripts were delivered, the clock started ticking. Shapiro recalls, "We told them: 'You need to have all your decision makers in a room because we're going to deliver the script for you to read together with a terms sheet. But there's a fuse on it. You'll only have a certain amount of time to make a deal.'"
By the end of the day, there were only two parties standing: Fox and Universal. Microsoft, an alien in Hollywood's close-knit community, naively thought it had the movie industry by the balls. Instead, Fox and Universal struck a deal between themselves.
Behind closed doors
"What the games industry doesn't understand is that this town is all about lunch," explains Shapiro. "It doesn't happen like that in the games industry. If there was a movie studio going out to the games publishers to license Avatar or something like that, they'd say, 'OK we're licensing Avatar, send us your best deal.' But none of the games publishers would talk to each other and say 'Hey, what are you going to offer them?'"
Garland, the British writer who'd penned the script, watched events unfold from back in the UK. From his vantage point, at one remove from the hoopla of Hollywood, Microsoft's approach looked antagonistic. "Being candid about it, I think they pissed people off. You're talking about Universal and Twentieth Century Fox, they're not shrinking violets.
"I think [Microsoft] did it wrong. You can accept that within the film world you will be involved in combat [but] what you should be trying to do is also find allies. I think the way to have done it was not to go in there saying, 'We're going to stick it to the studios,' but to choose which studio to work with."
Even with a deal inked in between Microsoft, Universal and Fox, the culture shock kept reverberating. It wasn't the first time two movie studios had partnered up but it was certainly the first time two movie studios had done so with a global computer giant. With hindsight it was inevitably going to end up as a dick-swinging contest.
Since it had approval over the cast and director, Microsoft initially wanted Peter Jackson as director. The New Zealand filmmaker had been introduced to Halo 2 by his son and enjoyed it so much he picked up a copy of Halo: Combat Evolved and played that too.
Jackson loved the property and could see how Weta, the FX company that had collaborated with him on The Lord Of The Rings trilogy, would be a perfect fit for the material. But he didn't want to direct. Instead he preferred to act as a producer (alongside Peter Schlessel, Mary Parent and Scott Stuber) and groom upcoming South African filmmaker Neil Blomkamp for the director's chair.
Microsoft was unimpressed - much as it had been a few years earlier when it turned its nose up at the thought of Sam Raimi, pre-Spiderman, working on a mooted Age Of Empires movie. "The games publishers are name snobs," says Shapiro. "They don't understand the up-and-comers." After Jackson interceded on his protégé's behalf and promised to mentor him, Blomkamp got the gig.
The Halo movie was announced by Microsoft at X05 in October 2005 and all looked rosy. But problems started during pre-production. As a young director making his feature debut, Blomkamp was in an unenviable position. He had shot commercials for Nike and an intriguing short about alien apartheid called Alive In Joburg; but now he was on an epic sci-fi blockbuster with a spiralling budget and three vastly powerful corporations breathing down his neck. "My instinct was that if I crawled into that hornet's nest it would be not good, and it was a clusterfuck from day one," he says.
Working out of New Zealand, Blomkamp oversaw various script revisions by a parade of new writers and collaborated closely with the visual and practical effects wizards at Weta as they started to create the iconic aliens and fabricate the weapons and vehicles Halo players had come to know and love.
He shot several pieces of gritty test footage - what Moore calls "the legacy of a movie never made" - that can be found online. Much like Blomkamp's later sci-fi outing District 9, born out of the ashes of Halo, his test footage doesn't show the glossy world of Master Chief from the games. It's a grubbier, dystopian future dominated by blurry video feeds, radio static and chatter, and Blomkamp's shakeycam.
As development costs headed towards $12 million, Blomkamp's choices began to incur ever greater scrutiny from the suits. "[Tom] Rothman [co-Chairman of Fox Filmed Entertainment] hated me, I think he would have gotten rid of me if he could have," says the director. "The suits weren't happy with the direction I was going. Thing was, though, I'd played Halo and I play videogames. I know that my version of Halo would have been insanely cool."
Cut to death
As the power struggle between these three giant corporations continued, the gross-heavy deal and the increasing costs led to unease at both Fox and Universal. In October 2006, right before a payment was due to be made to the filmmakers and Microsoft, Universal demanded that the producers' deals be cut. Jackson consulted with his co-producers and Blomkamp, as well as with Microsoft and Bungie, and refused to yield. In a stroke, the Halo movie was pronounced dead in the water.
Nobody at Microsoft was quite sure what had just happened. Peter Moore, then corporate vice-president of the Interactive Entertainment Business division who'd been part of the movie deal negotiations (he'd even set up a merchandising agreement with Mattel for toys based on the film) remembers being shell shocked. "It was all a mystery to me," he says. "The deal was done. Then we got a call saying, 'Oh, we've changed our mind, all done. Off.'"
The Halo movie's ruin was money. "Microsoft's unwillingness to reduce their deal killed the deal," says Shapiro. "Their unwillingness to reduce their gross in the deal meant it got too top-heavy. That movie could have been Avatar." Blomkamp agrees: "One of the complicating factors was that Microsoft wasn't the normal party that you'd go off and option the IP from and make your product.
When you have a corporation that potent and that large taking a percentage of the profits, then you've got Peter Jackson taking a percentage of the profits and you start adding all of that stuff up, mixed with the fact that you have two studios sharing the profits, suddenly the return on the investment starts to decline so that it becomes not worth making."
Infuriated by the deal's collapse and how badly things had been handled, Jackson and Blomkamp went off to make sci-fi movie District 9, a $30 million sci-fi movie based on the Alive In Joburg short. Its computer-generated aliens clearly owed a debt to the Halo development and to videogames generally, although its masterful apartheid subtext was all its own.
Distributed by Tristar, the film became a sleeper hit in 2009. It grossed $211 million worldwide, won a stream of critical plaudits and picked up four Academy Awards nominations. To many it looked as if Blomkamp was flipping the studios the finger. "That's probably true," he laughs.
A live-action Halo movie seems inevitable eventually. There is a huge and hungry audience for it. But the biggest question is: does Microsoft even need Hollywood? Making software is the company's core competency, but it has the financial clout to bankroll a movie if it wanted to. Reflecting on the aborted Halo movie in 2009, Jackson claimed that the company was "just trying to figure out what their relationship with Hollywood is.
"If any company can make a film without a Hollywood studio, it would be Microsoft". One day that almighty boulder might actually get to the top of the hill.
INTERVIEW: Alex Garland
Microsoft's first screenwriter on trying to put Master Chief on film...
How did you get involved with Halo?
CAA's whole thing is about putting packages together. Sometimes to pay the bills I'll take on a bit of CAA generated, Hollywood work. Every time the same thing happens - you detect that there's a much, much bigger game going on and you're a small constituent part of it. It's so different from how I work in the UK, which is what I see as my job by the way. I see those overseas jobs as aberrations.
How much antagonism do you think there is between the videogames and movie industries?
On a corporate level, each of these industries doesn't need the other one. Each can generate massive amounts of money without the other one. It can turn into a pissing contest quite quickly. Each of them is trying to say, "Look, we're in a position of power here."
What did you make of the Master Chiefs invading Hollywood?
It was a nightmare. It's the opposite of how I would do that kind of thing. I'm not dissing CAA or anything. It's just a personality thing. The way I send screenplays to people to engage someone or set something up is to target a particular person and say, "Do you want to make this film in this way?" The fanfare around [the Halo script's sale] makes me want to retreat at top speed. When I heard that was going on I sort of died inside somewhat.