Earlier this week, the new reveal video for Microsoft’s upcoming blockbuster videogame, Halo 4, was released. This is a big game for Microsoft, marking the first time it’s released a traditional Halo game that’s not been put together by the original development studio, Bungie. Such is the importance of the franchise to Microsoft, though, that it was basically willing to part ways with Bungie, as long as it could keep hold of the Halo property. Which it could, as it owned it.
One project that appears stuck in blockbuster limbo, though, is the proposed Halo movie, which appears to have disappeared off the face of the planet, and not for the first time. Appreciating that videogames have yet to inspire a film that you’d go out of your way to describe as ‘really very good’, the ingredients in the Halo world are there to do something quite interesting on screen.
That’s what originally attracted Peter Jackson to the project. Jackson, who is currently hard at work on two Hobbit films, before going off to make the next Tintin adventure, was originally slated to be executive producer on the project, with Neill Blomkamp down to direct. Before Blomkamp, Guillermo del Toro had reportedly been in negotiations, too. This was a high profile project, and interesting filmmakers wanted to be involved in it.
You probably know the next bit of the story. Blomkamp and Jackson eventually turned their attention to District 9, after working on a Halo film for several months beforehand. Blomkamp subsequently declared that his interest in making the Halo movie was over.
So what was the problem? Well, let’s go back around five years.
It was well reported that that Microsoft demanded some tough financial terms to make the Halo movie, in a manner that UbiSoft is reported to be doing with the proposed Assassin’s Creed film.
For Halo, Microsoft originally wanted $10m up front, and 15% of the movie’s gross takings (not net profits, you note). So, crudely, if the film cost $100m to make (and we’ll come to budget in a second), out of the first $100m taken at the box office, $25m would be in Microsoft’s hands, even before any other costs had been accounted for. Perhaps unsurprisingly, especially given the bumpy pedigree of videogame movies, many studios passed on the film.
But Universal Studios didn’t.
It struck a deal with Microsoft that gave the firm $5m for an option on making it, with a 10% gross deal. Slightly better terms for the studio, certainly, but still rich. Throw in the cost of making the film in the first place, though, and Universal began getting itchy feet.
Even appreciating that it had bought in 20th Century Fox as a partner on the project, to share the financial load, the studio eventually asked Peter Jackson and his team, along with Microsoft itself, to reduce their profit deals on the picture. They declined (the filmmakers argued that Universal had sprung this on them at the last possible moment).
Having spent a lot of money on developing the project already, Fox and Universal parted ways on the film, with Fox apparently refusing to share some of the costs that have been accrued to that point. Legal shenanigans followed.
It all left Universal looking at funding a $200m picture itself, of which it would need to make way, way more than double that, considering the profit deals everyone was on, to see a dollar in profit. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Universal closed the project down towards the end of 2006, with many millions of dollars already spent on it. It had not been a cheap exercise.
After all, the script work had been done, at least to a point. Alex Garland had put a screenplay together for the film (he’s since penned the upcoming Dredd movie, of course), and although lots had been done since, attracting scribes of quality had not been a problem.
What happened after 2006? Well, limbo. And lots of it.
There have since been flickers of life in the Halo project. The most tangible came back in October 2010, when it was revealed that DreamWorks was interested in exploring the possibility of a Halo film. However, its approach was to ignore the Halo games, and base the movie on the novels instead (sidestepping some Microsoft issues about tying game narrative into a movie). The fact that we’ve heard nothing in the past eighteen months, though, seems to tell its own story.
The closest we got to some fresh news was last October, when a French press release for the Halo: Cryptum novel suggested that DreamWorks and Steven Spielberg were working on a Halo film, for 2012 release. There’s clearly no Halo film this year, though, and Spielberg’s already booked up, currently doing post-production work on Lincoln, before moving onto Robopocalypse, and then presumably Indy 5. The clearly-inaccurate press release does offer some flicker that the project may still be live somewhere within DreamWorks, but that’s about it.
Microsoft hasn’t given up on a Halo film, though. Towards the end of 2010, Frank O’Connor, of Microsoft Game Studios, gave a widely reported quote, where he said that “We’re going to make a movie when the time is right. We own the IP. If we want to make a movie, the scale of all the other stuff that we do changes dramatically. We make tens and tens of millions of dollars on ancillary stuff, toys, apparel, music and publishing. If we do a movie all of that will grow exponentially. We have some numbers if we do a movie, but it changes everything. It also changes our target and age demographic.”
Nothing like a passion project, is there?
But then, the problem is right there. Halo is Microsoft’s biggest gaming franchise, one that’s tied in to an extent with the success of the Xbox and Xbox 360 consoles. A new Halo game will outgross a movie on its opening weekend, and for Halo 4, there will be widespread disappointment amongst Microsoft bean counters if $200m isn’t in the till within a day or two of its release.
With that in mind, Microsoft is not going to be a silent partner on a Halo movie. Instead, it’s been well reported that it wants to be heavily involved, to check that any film ties into the legacy of the franchise, and meets the blockbuster scale of the games. If you’re a movie studio, with a raft of $200m projects to choose from, then it hardly sounds like the path to a straightforward production.
Any Way Forward?
It seems that, ultimately, the only logical way forward for a Halo film now will be for Microsoft to stump up some of the production costs itself. That, rather than selling the rights and remaining involved as a partner, seems to be the way to get it off the ground. Because otherwise, where’s the incentive? A studio now knows that a good franchise tends to be the heart of a summer blockbuster success, yet when you don’t own enough of it to start with, and are still expecting to pump in nine figures, it all looks a little less endearing.
Will Microsoft relax its terms, or press ahead with the film itself? Good question, and one we suspect will be evaluated around the time of Halo 4’s release. If that hits big, as it should, then it’ll swell the coffers, reaffirm interest in the Halo saga, and open up a possible path for a movie. Until there are changes in approach behind the scenes, though, the Halo film is set for a much longer period in development hell.
Unless DreamWorks isn’t telling us something…