Cut to death
As the power struggle between these three giant corporations continued, the gross-heavy deal and the increasing costs led to unease at both Fox and Universal. In October 2006, right before a payment was due to be made to the filmmakers and Microsoft, Universal demanded that the producers' deals be cut. Jackson consulted with his co-producers and Blomkamp, as well as with Microsoft and Bungie, and refused to yield. In a stroke, the Halo movie was pronounced dead in the water.
Nobody at Microsoft was quite sure what had just happened. Peter Moore, then corporate vice-president of the Interactive Entertainment Business division who'd been part of the movie deal negotiations (he'd even set up a merchandising agreement with Mattel for toys based on the film) remembers being shell shocked. "It was all a mystery to me," he says. "The deal was done. Then we got a call saying, 'Oh, we've changed our mind, all done. Off.'"
The Halo movie's ruin was money. "Microsoft's unwillingness to reduce their deal killed the deal," says Shapiro. "Their unwillingness to reduce their gross in the deal meant it got too top-heavy. That movie could have been Avatar." Blomkamp agrees: "One of the complicating factors was that Microsoft wasn't the normal party that you'd go off and option the IP from and make your product.
When you have a corporation that potent and that large taking a percentage of the profits, then you've got Peter Jackson taking a percentage of the profits and you start adding all of that stuff up, mixed with the fact that you have two studios sharing the profits, suddenly the return on the investment starts to decline so that it becomes not worth making."
Infuriated by the deal's collapse and how badly things had been handled, Jackson and Blomkamp went off to make sci-fi movie District 9, a $30 million sci-fi movie based on the Alive In Joburg short. Its computer-generated aliens clearly owed a debt to the Halo development and to videogames generally, although its masterful apartheid subtext was all its own.
Distributed by Tristar, the film became a sleeper hit in 2009. It grossed $211 million worldwide, won a stream of critical plaudits and picked up four Academy Awards nominations. To many it looked as if Blomkamp was flipping the studios the finger. "That's probably true," he laughs.
A live-action Halo movie seems inevitable eventually. There is a huge and hungry audience for it. But the biggest question is: does Microsoft even need Hollywood? Making software is the company's core competency, but it has the financial clout to bankroll a movie if it wanted to. Reflecting on the aborted Halo movie in 2009, Jackson claimed that the company was "just trying to figure out what their relationship with Hollywood is.
"If any company can make a film without a Hollywood studio, it would be Microsoft". One day that almighty boulder might actually get to the top of the hill.
INTERVIEW: Alex Garland
Microsoft's first screenwriter on trying to put Master Chief on film...
How did you get involved with Halo?
CAA's whole thing is about putting packages together. Sometimes to pay the bills I'll take on a bit of CAA generated, Hollywood work. Every time the same thing happens - you detect that there's a much, much bigger game going on and you're a small constituent part of it. It's so different from how I work in the UK, which is what I see as my job by the way. I see those overseas jobs as aberrations.
How much antagonism do you think there is between the videogames and movie industries?
On a corporate level, each of these industries doesn't need the other one. Each can generate massive amounts of money without the other one. It can turn into a pissing contest quite quickly. Each of them is trying to say, "Look, we're in a position of power here."
What did you make of the Master Chiefs invading Hollywood?
It was a nightmare. It's the opposite of how I would do that kind of thing. I'm not dissing CAA or anything. It's just a personality thing. The way I send screenplays to people to engage someone or set something up is to target a particular person and say, "Do you want to make this film in this way?" The fanfare around [the Halo script's sale] makes me want to retreat at top speed. When I heard that was going on I sort of died inside somewhat.