Movie Talk

How Peter Jackson’s Long-Awaited ‘Halo’ Movie Morphed Into Steven Spielberg Xbox-Only Series

Movie Talk

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Halo 4

"Halo 4" (Photo: Microsoft)

Burning Question: How did that "Halo" movie end up being sliced and diced into a Steven Spielberg Xbox series instead?
— Wallace A.

Agonizingly slowly. How's that for an answer? Think of how long it's taking Theon Greyjoy's torturers to flay him on "Game of Thrones." Then multiply that by — oh, I dunno — seven years or so.

The saga you're asking about is kind of a sad one, at least for "Halo" video game fans who have been waiting since 2005, the year that Columbia Pictures and "28 Days Later" screenwriter Alex Garland first started working on a movie script. Microsoft reportedly paid Garland a cool $1 million to write a spec screenplay that the company could take to studios.

In a much-publicized and dramatic strategy, suits at the talent agency CAA hired actors to dress up as super soldiers from the "Halo" series; deliver scripts and terms sheets to studios such as Fox; and then invite them to bid, auction-style, on the project.

One element of note: Microsoft reportedly wanted a huge, huge piece of the film's profits — specifically, according to Variety, $10 million against 15 percent of the box office gross, in addition to a $75 million "below-the-line" budget and fast-tracked production. The New York Times also reported that Microsoft wanted creative approval over director and cast; 60 first-class plane tickets for Microsoft personnel and their guests to attend the premiere; and ownership of merchandising rights.

That's an unusually generous deal compared with industry standards.

Eventually, the tale goes, two studios, Universal and Fox, partnered and took the bait. Uberdirector Peter Jackson hopped on board as a co-producer and suggested his then-protégé, budding helmer Neill Blomkamp, as the project's director. Weta Workshop, Jackson's elven factory of oddities and wonders, began to create costumes and guns and things.

But then the fall of 2006 rolled around. Development costs started to rise. Uneasy, Universal approached the producers, including Microsoft, and reportedly asked that their shares in the project be cut. And that's when the movie went to hell.

"Microsoft's unwillingness to reduce their deal killed the deal," CAA's Larry Shapiro told Wired last year. "Their unwillingness to reduce their gross in the deal meant it got too top-heavy. That movie could have been 'Avatar.'"

Jackson and Blomkamp instead turned their attention (and FX budget) to the Oscar-nominated "District 9."

So the "Halo" project floundered — that is, until late last year, when Microsoft thought it might try again. It hired a former CBS TV executive and managed to recruit Steven Spielberg to executive produce a series. The choice does have some merit; Spielberg has a track record for adapting other people's franchises (such as "Tintin"), if not a strong reputation in the world of TV. (Read: for every "Band of Brothers" and "Animaniacs" there's a "seaQuest" and "Terra Nova.")

It's not clear whether Microsoft has learned any lessons from the "Halo" movie deal debacle, whether it's figured out when to hold tight to a franchise and when to let go.

"We'll have much more to share regarding the overall creative team behind the 'Halo' television series in the future," a Microsoft spokesperson told me.

But no matter what, it's likely that the new deal grants plenty of control to the tech company.

After all, it will be released through Microsoft's upcoming Xbox model, Xbox One, and the device's online service, Xbox Live.

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