Should Larry Shapiro ever write his memoirs, he says he'll call them Pushing Rocks Up A Hill. Back in 2005, the smart suited deal maker was co-head of the videogames division at Creative Artists Agency (CAA), the powerhouse Hollywood talent agency that repped clients like Brad Pitt and George Clooney. His aim was to set up the deals that would drive the film and games industries closer together.
Jamie Russell's Generation Xbox: How Videogames Invaded Hollywood is available now.
When Microsoft decided it wanted to make a Halo movie, the Xbox exclusive, best-selling jewel in its videogames crown, it was Shapiro it reached out to. It seemed like a certain success: neither party suspected that Master Chief was destined to become a modern day Sisyphus.
Back in 2005, Microsoft stomped into Hollywood like an 800lb gorilla. The corporation's representatives were inspired by Shapiro's story of what happened when CAA agent Michael Wimer and director Roland Emmerich set up an auction for eco-apocalypse movie The Day After Tomorrow. With a spec script already written, Wimer called the major studios and asked them to bid.
Each script went out with a terms sheet that dictated everything from budget to salaries to the movie getting an instant green light. The studios only had a few hours to respond. Everyone tried to negotiate, apart from Fox who simply wrote on the term sheet: "Yes."
New players in town
Microsoft was impressed by that story. This was the kind of balls-out, take no prisoners approach it wanted for Halo. It wanted to be in the driving seat. And it also wanted Hollywood studios to pony up the cash for the movie's development. In short, it wanted Hollywood to play by its rules.
Shapiro was worried by how uncompromising it seemed: "To sell a movie into a studio and actually get it made is a lot of work," he says. "It takes a lot of conversations and a lot of pixie dust being thrown about while you're getting the deals done. In the games industry, they're technologists and they're data driven."
"They're looking at data points and saying: 'We need the movie to be made, it's got to be this, this and this. If you get A, B and C to be part of the movie, then great we'll sell you the rights.' You can't do that." But Microsoft was CAA's client and if that's what it wanted, well, that's what CAA would do for it.
First up, they needed a screenplay. Alex Garland (28 Days Later, The Beach, Enslaved) was paid $1 million to pen a spec script supervised by Microsoft and Bungie. Then CAA set up the auction for June 6, 2005. Peter Schlessel, the former president of production at Columbia Pictures, was one of the main negotiators in the Halo movie deal and served as Microsoft's Hollywood liaison.
Together with Microsoft and its lawyers, Schlessel and the CAA team prepared a term sheet. "We were setting out to be the richest, most lucrative rights deal in history in Hollywood," says Shapiro. "You have to remember that no property, not even Harry Potter, was getting [what we were asking for]."
Microsoft wanted $10 million paid in advance against 15% of the box office gross. It also wanted a $75 million "below-the-line" budget (the cost of the production and crew, not including the director, producers and stars) in place as well as guarantees that it would be a fast-tracked project that wouldn't be left to languish in development hell.
On top of all that, it wanted creative approval over the director and cast; and it wouldn't be putting any of their own money into the production itself other than Garland's one-off fee. Finally, Microsoft wasn't even going to sign over the merchandising rights. Clearly, Microsoft wasn't just trying to sell the movie license to Halo. MS wanted to be treated as equal, Hollywood players.
The Halo invasion
On the morning of June 6, Shapiro dispatched a team of actors in custom-made green, red and blue Spartan armour to the major studios. Each carried a red CAA folder containing the script and a terms sheet. For a few hours, Hollywood became Halowood. It was a bold, arrogant move by Microsoft.
"If showmanship and arrogance and Hollywood don't go together, I don't know what does," reckons Peter Moore, who was Microsoft's go-between with Universal during the negotiations, reporting to the software company's point man Steve Schreck. Every major studio - from Paramount to Fox - was invaded by the Master Chiefs.
As the soldiers arrived, Miramax head honcho Harvey Weinstein called up to shout about being left off the list. CAA had assumed it wasn't a property that would interest Miramax. It probably wasn't: but everyone wanted an invite to the Halo party. The only exception was Columbia. They weren't invited to bid since their owner, Sony, was Microsoft's chief rival in the console war.
Once the scripts were delivered, the clock started ticking. Shapiro recalls, "We told them: 'You need to have all your decision makers in a room because we're going to deliver the script for you to read together with a terms sheet. But there's a fuse on it. You'll only have a certain amount of time to make a deal.'"
By the end of the day, there were only two parties standing: Fox and Universal. Microsoft, an alien in Hollywood's close-knit community, naively thought it had the movie industry by the balls. Instead, Fox and Universal struck a deal between themselves.