In amongst the dusty annals of the best films never made, one blockbuster lies atop the pile. Widely known and anticipated for the last eight years, the ultimate videogame film adaptation, and the one film that could never make the final jump to our cinema screens: Halo. So what if one of the biggest videogame franchises had made it to the big screen? What if Alex Garland (Dredd, Sunshine)’s script had been accepted by all? What if money was no object? What if the two industries could just get along?
What if Neill Blomkamp had directed Halo?
Microsoft had it all figured out. Hollywood studios would fall over themselves to write blank cheques for their Golden Child. They were right, to an extent. Halo had bags of potential both commercially and creatively. By 2005, the year of the first attempt to adapt, the Bungie Studios game had sold 13 million units grossing a tremendous $600 million dollars. With a fanbase of millions, a deep and well-layered storyline (depending on your P.O.V.), as well as hundreds of potentially kickass action/shoot-em-up scenes, it’s understandable why Microsoft were feeling confident when entering the film market for the first time.
Microsoft meant business, and wanted lucrative business in return. Their first move: pay scriptwriter Alex Garland an impressive $1 million to write a draft script. However, Garland did not have free reign to create his own project. Microsoft supervised the entire process. Although it is tough to truly judge their influence, in a recent interview with IGN for the promo tour of Dredd, he discussed his Halo script. He admits from the outset, “On something like Halo, I’m a writer for hire. They have a thing they want to do. I’m not bringing anything to the party as it were. They are saying ‘we would like you to do this’ and I’m trying to do it as well as I can.”
The leaked copy of Garland’s 2005 script further hints that Microsoft made their presence felt. The script follows the plot of the game strongly, and I could provide a description of this closeness but 1) I’ve never played Halo; 2) Someone did a much better job over at ScriptShadow. Therefore, I’ll review it based on my personal reaction. It’s a balls-to-the-wall violent sci-fi war movie. It’s ruthless. Regardless of whether you like the story of Halo or not, it reads like the videogame adaptation you dreamed of. Dredd’s brutality and bloodiness is highly evident here as well. Imagining this script in the hands of Blomkamp is simply mouthwatering, yet one will we never see… Form your own views here.
So, with a script in hand, Microsoft were ready to win Tinseltown over. On 6 June 2005 they attempted one of the boldest, bravest and potentially best pitches in cinema history. One of Hollywood’s leading agencies, CAA, had been brought in to ensure that everything went off without a hitch. Larry Shapiro – leading the deal on behalf of CAA – and his team beamed with creativity as they aimed to unite the two industries through a little of the ol’ razzle and dazzle.
At the strike of midday, six actors adorned in green, blue and red Spartan armour burst onto the lots of all major studios. Fox, DreamWorks, Paramount, Universal, Fox – all of them invaded. The actors’ instructions were to deliver two items, whilst sworn to remain silent throughout: one script and one terms sheet. That terms sheet, according to Variety, showed Microsoft’s demands of $10 million upfront against 15% of the box office gross. As Shapiro notes, “No property, not even Harry Potter, was getting [what we were asking for]”. Notably Miramax, owned by Harvey Weinstein at this point, was ignored as they were considered to be uninterested in the project and, more intriguingly, they were not big enough. Weinstein would cry outrage for years at his snub, but Microsoft would not budge. Their movie had to be the greatest. It deserved to be.
The executives were given less than six hours to read the script and make their decision; whether they were in or out. Immediately, most studios passed. The razzmatazz was all well and good, but Halo was a worldwide brand and studios knew what they were letting themselves in for. Microsoft’s bold, almost arrogant, demands for a first-time adaptation deterred many with the script-delivery fanfare nothing more than a gimmick. Their downpayment of $1 million to Garland was all Microsoft were willing to pay towards production – their collaborative studio would have to foot the bill. On top of this, they insisted upon a representative being flown into the editing suite for every cut of the movie during post-production, as well as creative approval over the cast and crew, plus over 50 VIP tickets for Microsoft personnel to attend the premiere and set.
Nevertheless, by the end of play, Fox and Universal remained. This is where the differences between the two industries became wholly apparent. Microsoft, according to Jamie Russell, had a ‘one adaptation, one studio’ mindset, yet Hollywood doesn’t work that way. It’s about lunches and late night soirees. It’s about smooth-talking and handshakes. To translate, Fox and Universal didn’t just enter a bidding frenzy – Fox simply rang Universal to ask their thoughts on the deal, which resulted in the pair agreeing to join forces. As Russell notes, Fox would take foreign and Universal would take US domestic – “Microsoft’s bargaining position had been pole-axed”. However, Microsoft would still get $5 million, and 10% of the grosses. As my nan says, better than a poke in the eye with a sharp wooden stick.
Once the deal was struck, Peter Jackson’s name entered the fray after coming off the back of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Jackson decided upon a co-producer role instead, promoting his talented protégé Neill Blomkamp. Blomkamp adored the Halo universe: “I was genetically created to direct Halo… I know that my version of Halo would have been insanely cool. It was more fresh and potentially could have made more than just a generic, boring film.” Blomkamp’s directorial flair and passion for the genre was obvious as shown in his promotional work Halo 3: Landfall, for the release of the third game. Released after the full-feature project fell into development hell, these shorts are far from perfect. Rough around the edges and lacking the depth of other shorts I’ve seen, it still has enough energy and enthusiasm to engage and enthuse over the prospect of a Halo movie. Interesting to note that as the shorts go on, the quality increase.
However, as Indiewire points out, Fox and Microsoft were never Blomkamp’s bosom buddies. Fox disagreed with the director’s intense, P.O.V., lo-fi visuals as well as misunderstanding his youthful intellectual style. Blomkamp’s Nike commercials and short film Alive in Joburg – that would later expanded into District 9 – had all made the South African director a talent to watch, but all the studios were never convinced, especially Fox. Blomkamp notes “The way Fox dealt with me was not cool… I’ll never ever work with Fox ever again because of what happened to Halo – unless they pay me some ungodly amount of money and I have absolute fucking control.” Not close at all then.
Universal, easily the more positive of the pairing, funded $12 million of initial development. The majority of these resources were spent on hiring writers such as Josh Olson, D. B. Weiss and Scott Frank to edit and tinker. Alongside this, they funded Jackson to use his beloved Weta Workshop to create real-life versions of Halo’s weapons, soldiers and vehicles. Despite these developments, progress was slow. Fox and Universal weren’t getting the shoot-’em-up space blast-a-thon they had in mind.
Relationships were so fraught that in October 2006 when Universal asked for a reduction in the producers’ deals and they refused, Halo was stopped dead in its tracks. Shapiro, Jackson and Blomkamp have all gone on record to say that money and control were the two major reasons the project died.
On the press tour for District 9, Blomkamp stated he would not direct Halo if offered the job: “I worked on it for five months… I put a lot of sweat and blood into Halo… but when you work that long on something and you have it bottom out and collapse… I mean, I got District 9 out of it, I think I’m probably better off because it’s more of a personal film. I love the world of Halo. I don’t think I would go back there.” As of 2009, the rights have reverted back to Microsoft. Since then, Halo 3 and 4 have been released to worldwide success and Steven Spielberg hovered around the project in 2008/9 – but no activity has generated into turning this franchise into a film epic. Blomkamp has moved on to bigger and better things with District 9 and Elysium, but the question remains: what if?