Microsoft is serious about breaking into Hollywood. And it plans to do so by launching television shows based on its spectacularly successful Halo sci-fi game series, which has generated billions of dollars and sold 50 million copies.
The TV projects are part of Microsoft’s plan to turn its Xbox Live online entertainment network into a larger business that goes beyond games. The hope is to create original shows that will keep subscribers tied to Microsoft’s platform — much like rivals Amazon and Netflix are doing with their own original shows.
As previously announced, one of the big efforts is a television drama series set in the Halo universe. Filmmaker Steven Spielberg is the executive producer of the live-action series, which Microsoft’s 343 Industries game studio (which inherited Halo from Bungie) and Spielberg’s Amblin Television are partnering to create.
Another Halo project is a “digital feature” from 343 Industries and famed director Ridley Scott’s Scott Free Productions that’s set to release later this year. The project’s executive producers are Scott and Scott Free TV president David Zucker. Sergio Mimica-Gezzan (Battlestar Galactica, The Pillars of the Earth, Heroes) will direct the show.
“We embarked on a Halo digital feature [Forward Unto Dawn] a couple of years ago,” said Nancy Tellem, head of Xbox Entertainment Studios and former head of CBS Television, in a press briefing. “It was a risk at the time because we weren’t sure how the fans would react. As it happened, it was really well-received.”
She added, “It showed [the fans’] appetite, wanting to learn more about the characters and flesh out the mythology that’s revealed in the games. I think about 50 million unique viewers watched that, which in my world would be fantastic. But it also highlighted the love of the game, how a rich storytelling opportunity with Halo was something [the filmmakers] were very sensitive to, making sure they were respectful of the fans. We are developing another digital feature.”
She made it clear that 343 Industries is in charge of the Halo universe.
“We’re working very closely with 343. They’re guiding us through this,” she said. “We’re bringing our own expertise and supporting what they ultimately want to accomplish.”
But Tellem and Jordan Levin, executive vice president of Xbox Entertainment Studios, said they brought in Scott Free Productions to produce the drama.
“We start shooting next week on a digital feature that augments the storytelling that already exists,” Tellem said. “We hope we’ll have that done and be able to release some time at the end of the year. In active development is the series with Steven Spielberg, which we’re working on as well. Again, for us it’s an amazing opportunity to work so closely with a game studio and help them execute their vision.”
Levin said the new project has a higher budget than Forward Unto Dawn.
“We’re biting off something a little bigger,” he said. “We’ll be shooting in Ireland and Iceland. It’s not following Master Chief.”
As for the collaboration on the project, he said, “A lot of it’s about making the right marriages. A lot of different entities come together to make something. You don’t want to force marriages. You want everyone to feel comfortable with one another. We’re in that marriage-making process with some good possibilities.”
He added, “This is a content company. It may be a different content company than people in Hollywood are used to, but there’s a greater level of common understanding than there is a disconnect. A lot of it, for us, is about bringing together a process where both sides understand the common language and put in place processes that make sense for everyone.
Asked how Microsoft would release the series, Tellem said, “What’s great about this is there aren’t any models. We’re going to be experimenting with a lot of different ways in which we can distribute. Obviously, we can start with our platform. You look at the Xbox platform, at tablets. The service we’re trying to build can live on the console and off the console as well.”
She added, “As you look at the portfolio and the types of shows we’re looking at, each will be dictated by a different model or a different distribution plan and strategy. Unlike our old business, where you had to fill slots, it’s a pretty open-ended platform. We’re not restricted by formats. We’re not restricted by length of content. We’re seriously looking at certain things that will be in front of a paywall or behind it. The focus is to enhance the value proposition for the Xbox Live subscribers. Original content, for us, will be the differentiator. We can always say that either it will be only on Xbox or best on Xbox. That leaves a little bit of room.”