Hollywood versus Halo

So it looks like Master Chief will have to keep waiting in the lobby a bit longer. The gruff cyborg hero of the Halo series (the crown jewel of Microsoft’s Xbox consoles) was set to star in a film adaptation produced by Lord of the Rings auteur Peter Jackson, in a deal Microsoft signed in 2005 with both Fox and Universal Studios.

(In a display of adorably geeky charm– or total ballsy arrogance– Microsoft put their approved screenplay up for bid by sending copies through couriers dressed up in Master Chief’s gleaming battle armor, who’d then sit uncomfortably in the studio foyer, waiting for executives to finish reading the script.) In a statement released last Friday, Microsoft reported that Universal wanted to renegotiate financial terms, and rather than do that, Microsoft trudged out of the deal altogether, sniffing (with a hint of hurt peevishness), “We are already in discussions with potential partners who recognize the value of the ‘Halo’ brand.”

That Universal balked is no suprise: with an estimated budget already pegged at $145 million, the project would have to earn over $350 million at the box office, to break even. (Rule of Hollywood thumb: a movie needs to gross 2.5 times its budget, to become profitable.) The economic track record for game adaptations is unrelentingly mediocre (except for the first Tomb Raider movie), and the Halo movie’s closest precedent, 2005’s Doom, took in a pathetic $55 million worldwide.

The real mystery is why Microsoft is still plowing ahead. Has anyone bothered to tell them a Halo movie must be one of the most ill-inconceived film projects ever?

I say this as someone who still enjoys playing the PC version of the first game, but as a movie project, the plot is basically Aliens slapped on top of several Star Trek: Next Generation episodes (just with cooler, Biblical-sounding names), and little appeal outside its hardcore fanbase. And that’s not even the worst of its problems, to wit: The protagonist is a faceless killing machine with no personality who wears an opaque helmet through the whole thing. It’s as if Microsoft decided that basic, time-tested Hollywood storytelling rules don’t apply to them. (For example, that a hero should be likeable, sympathetic, and someone that an A list star would want to play– which usually involves, you know, being able to see their face.)

There has to be an explanation for Microsoft’s stubborness, other than a desire to go Hollywood (a common affliction among game developers, many of whom secretly yearn to see their work cross over into the more respected, glamorous medium.) The most likely explanation, I think, is that box office success is not Microsoft’s main goal with the Halo movie; instead, they need the movie to promote the Xbox 360.

Think about it: Set for release in Summer 2008 release, the Halo movie would come out a few months after Halo 3 (scheduled to go on sale in the 2007 holiday season), with the DVD available just in time for the 2008 holidays. All this would come at a time when Xbox 360’s current head-start advantage in the next generation console wars had long ended. A Halo movie would keep the Xbox momentum going at that most crucial time, while providing promotion and content throughout. (Think Halo movie trailers and excerpts downloadable only on Xbox Live, the Halo movie DVD packaged with Halo 3, and so on.)

If that theory is right, it doesn’t matter that much to Microsoft if the only people who watch a Halo movie are Xbox gamers, and it loses money at the box office. For the most part, the console market is already a loss leader competition; all Microsoft has to do is find a studio gullible enough to help them fund and distribute it. That, and an actor who’s willing to wear a face-obscuring outfit for a cult sci-fi project with limited mass market appeal. I’m thinking John Travolta.

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