After a lot of anticipation and some major investments in Hollywood, Microsoft is unveiling its original television shows, dubbed Xbox Originals, for its Xbox Live online entertainment network. And yes, there’s going to be a Halo TV show as well as a Halo “digital feature.”
Much like original TV shows from Netflix and Amazon, Microsoft is expanding beyond its core business into television entertainment in an effort to offer exclusive content for its 48 million Xbox Live members in 41 countries. Xbox Originals could make Microsoft into a Hollywood player or send it down in flames.
Seasoned TV executives Nancy Tellem, the former president of CBS Television Studios, and Jordan Levin, the founder of the WB Network, are overseeing the shows. Over the past 18 months, they have commissioned shows that are expected to appeal to the mostly male, young, hardcore gamers who are the biggest users of Xbox Live. But they will also have elements that could make them much more broadly appealing to larger TV audiences.
“Everyone has a different agenda as far as what they’re trying to accomplish with original series,” Tellem said in a press briefing. “For Netflix, I think original series was a differentiator, and in the future, it may protect against other content providers who’ll be more resistant. Amazon has another model. For us, our focus is on using our console and people who are subscribing to our service. Between these game announcements and releases, we offer content that will keep them engaged and on our service.”
All told, Tellem and Levin are revealing 10 major TV projects. But instead of appearing on TV, these shows will available on video game consoles and computers. They will debut on Xbox Live on the Xbox One, Xbox 360, and PC starting this summer. They include dramas, documentaries, animated features, comedies, unscripted shows, and live events.
One of the biggest efforts is a television drama series set in the Halo sci-fi universe, which is Microsoft’s biggest video game property. Filmmaker Steven Spielberg is the executive producer of the live-action TV series, which is being created in partnership with Microsoft’s 343 Industries game studio and Spielberg’s Amblin Television.
Another Halo project is a “digital feature” from 343 Industries and Scott Free Productions that’s set to release later this year. The project’s executive producers are Ridley Scott and Scott Free TV president David Zucker. Sergio Mimica-Gezzan (Battlestar Galactica, Pillars of the Earth, Heroes) will direct the show.
There’s plenty of competition in TV. But Levin, the executive vice president of Xbox Entertainment Studios, said Microsoft has advantages. The mission is to captivate, connect, and engage. To do that, Microsoft will make the shows interactive and available on multiple kinds of devices, from TVs to Microsoft Surface tablets.
“We’re a bit wary to talk about interactivity because it is experimental,” Levin said. “It’s a buzz word. Everyone talks about extended platforms. But we definitely recognize that this is an interactive platform.”
Microsoft has more than 125 people working at a studio in Vancouver, Canada, to create the technology on top of the Xbox Live social community to bring the original programming to life. The shows could, for instance, include live voting, which happened with the presidential debates on Xbox Live in 2012. But you can imagine a gladiator-style arena where the audience votes on whether somebody survives or not, Levin said, by way of example.
While interactivity is much easier to do with Xbox One, which has multitasking hardware, Tellem said that the shows would target features on both the Xbox One and Xbox 360 in order to reach the widest possible audience.
“We’ll be able to do some things only on Xbox One just because the architecture of 360 has its limitations,” Tellem said. “But we hope to achieve a similarity of experience.”
Among the shows being produced are six documentaries, dubbed Signal to Noise, about how modern technology has changed our world. The series is being produced by two-time Academy Award-winning producer Simon Chinn (Searching for Sugar Man and Man on Wire) and Emmy-winning producer Jonathan Chinn (FX’s 30 Days and PBS’s American High), through their multiplatform media company Lightbox.
The first installment, with the working title Atari: Game Over, explores the mystery around “the great video game burial of 1983.” Legend has that Atari Corp. received such an overwhelmingly negative response to its E.T. video game that it buried millions of unsold game cartridges in a landfill near the small town of Alamogordo, N.M.
Fuel Entertainment began investigating the legend, and, in December 2013, with help from local garbage contractor Joe Lewandowski, it acquired the exclusive rights to excavate the Alamogordo landfill. Fuel Entertainment sold those rights to Xbox Entertainment Studios, and the team will now film an excavation of the site. The show will try to determine if the story is true and interview a huge cast of characters, including Atari founder Nolan Bushnell. Zak Penn (X-Men 2, Avengers, and Incident at Loch Ness) is directing. It will air exclusively on Xbox One and Xbox 360 this year.
Another show is Every Street United, an unscripted series of eight 30-minute episodes and a one-hour finale. It focuses on street soccer stars who compete against each other and will gather for a 4-on-4 street game finale in the shadow of the World Cup in Rio de Janeiro in July. The coaches include legendary soccer players Thierry Henry and Edgar Davids.
The show includes a global search for the most gifted and undiscovered street soccer players in the United States, England, Argentina, Spain, Brazil, the Netherlands, Ghana, and South Korea. Each episode will feature narratives about the stars and the communities that shaped them. Jonathan Hock, an eight-time Emmy-winning producer, is directing the series. Emmy Award-winning producer Mike Tollin and Mandalay Sports Media are executive producing. The show will focus on the drama of stars who wanted to play professional soccer and instead found their calling in street soccer. The show premieres in June via Xbox Video for Xbox One, Xbox 360, Windows 8 for PC and Microsoft Surface, and Windows Phone 8.
Another show will be about Bonnaroo, a round-the-clock live airing of a giant music and arts festival. It will air on Xbox Live from June 13 to June 15 in partnership with Superfly Presents. The video show will be exclusive when it comes to showings of the performances, multiple stages, and impromptu jams. Tellem said that viewers will be able to get a virtual experience, meaning they will be able to select different camera angles for viewing the concert and watch backstage activity, too. Fans will be able to talk with each other via Xbox Live while watching the festival.
“You’ll have a chance to do Skype interviews with the bands backstage and ask the questions,” Levin said. “Music is obviously important to younger audiences, and we will learn from this and build on this experience.”
Tellem said, “Things are changing so rapidly in the media landscape. The audience is controlling what they want to launch, where they want to watch, and how they want to watch it. We are in a unique position to provide that to them.”
But it’s “without the porta-potties” of the live event, Levin said. Tellem added, “Think of all the people who didn’t make it to Coachella or festivals like that.”
Then there’s a new TV drama series based on a successful Swedish TV show. Humans is a show set in a parallel present where people buy the services of human robots dubbed Synths. These servants perform tasks eerily similar to the way real humans do, but they can be used for things like cleaning or sexual slavery. U.K. production company Kudos (The Hour, Utopia, Broadchurch) will produce the hour-long, eight-episode series, which will share a première broadcast window on the Xbox platform and Channel 4 in the U.K. in 2015. U.K. broadcaster Channel 4 is co-producing the show.
The executive producers are Jane Featherstone (Life on Mars, Broadchurch) and Derek Wax (The Hour, Sex Traffic), and British team Sam Vincent and Jonathan Brackley (Spooks, Spooks: The Greater Good) are writing. Humans is an English-language adaptation of Sveriges Television and Matador Film’s acclaimed Swedish series Real Humans.
“What we like about Humans is not only the action but also the characters,” Tellem said. “Looking for prototypes, it’s like Game of Thrones or Walking Dead or Breaking Bad. Not only does it appeal to the millennial man, but it also appeals to women as well. As we’re looking at all these scripted series, we look through that lens. You don’t want to limit yourself as far as where you look.”
Casting for Humans begins in May 2014, and production will start in the summer. (I’m going to audition for this one).
Another show with the working title Fearless is an unscripted series currently in pilot production starring Paul de Gelder, an Australian Navy bomb clearance diver who survived a shark attack. He recovered and trained himself to use prosthetic limbs. He will go on a quest to profile people who risk their lives to make the world a better place and sometimes try to do what they do even with his missing limbs. Fearless will be produced by Australian production company Cordell Jigsaw Zapruder (CJZ).
The next show is Gun Machine, a hard-boiled detective thriller based on The New York Times best-selling novel by Warren Ellis. Ellis will executive produce with Brett Conrad (The Killing, Sons of Anarchy, and Netflix’s upcoming Marco Polo), who has signed on to write the pilot script about a detective tracking a serial killer who is tied to a mysterious collection of guns used in infamous New York murders.
An untitled live comedy show, dubbed JASH Comedy for now, will follow the comedy troupe created by comedians Sarah Silverman, Michael Cera, and Tim and Eric and Reggie Watts. Each week, a different comedian will host a show like Saturday Night Live. Daniel Kellison of Jimmy Kimmel Live will be the executive producer. The series has a pilot underway and will begin shooting in June.
A new hybrid stop-motion show is Extraordinary Believers, which Stoopid Buddy Stoodios, the creators of the Emmy Award-winning stop-motion animation show Robot Chicken, is making. The executive producers on the project are Seth Green, Matt Senreich, and the creators/writers/executive producers are Eric Towner and John Harvatine IV.
This show takes animated characters from a fantasy world and transports them into modern-day Venice, Calif. Film crews go out with improv comics and do live shoots with real people. Then the animated characters are superimposed on the comics in the final show that airs.
Lastly, Xbox Entertainment Studios and publisher IDW Entertainment are developing Winterworld, a limited-event, live-action series based on the graphic novel series Winterworld by Chuck Dixon and artist Jorge Zaffino. In the novel, our world has been encased in ice, and the surviving humans have formed tribes that war, enslave, and trade with one another in an effort to survive the infinite winter. Ted Adams and David Ozer from IDW Entertainment and Rick Jacobs and Dave Alpert from management and production entity Circle of Confusion (Walking Dead) will executive produce.
Tellem said that the company iss also considering making dramas based on a number of Microsoft game properties, including Fable, Gears of War, Age of Empires, and others. Microsoft has acquired the rights to the Deadlands pen-and-paper role-playing game. Created by Shane Lacy Hensley, Deadlands is a genre-bending alternative history of the “Weird West,” with undead gunfighters, card-slinging sorcerers, mad scientists, secret societies, and fearsome abominations.
“There’s another pool of intellectual property that we’d be fools to overlook, and that’s the treasure that is the various game properties that Microsoft owns,” Tellem said. “This is by no means to suggest that we are going to develop every single one of these franchises into more than games. But again, just to give you some insight, these are properties where we’ve started to meet with the game studios, started to meet with the creative heads and the brand managers at those studios.”