It’s hard to believe, but soon we’ll be seeing a live-action Halo series, the culmination of a project teased way back in 2013, when Xbox One was all about TV and Master Chief Collection hadn’t even been announced. But Halo‘s roots with live action media go back much further; in this video, we’ll talk about the wild and winding road that has lead to the Halo TV show in 2022.
The story really starts way back in 2004, when Halo 2 grosses $125 million dollars in 24 hours. This isn’t just the biggest video game release of all time; it’s the biggest media release in entertainment history. Nowadays, games being such massive cultural phenomenons is a given: the better part of two decades ago, it was mostly a novelty, with only a few video games having successfully breached into the collective pop consciousness. With Halo 2, for the first time, a blockbuster video game outgrosses a blockbuster film (at the time, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Mans Chest.) Halo was not only a massively successful game series; Microsoft clearly had greater ambitions. As they put out novels and planned the next video game, the next obvious step was a feature film adaptation.
It’s sometimes said that the video game industry has an inferiority complex with regards to film. Hollywood evokes glitzy men and women in suits and gowns, glamor and prestige at awards shows and screenings. Video gaming is still grappling with its legacy of being seen as a medium for dorks and computer nerds. Perhaps partially because of this, film adaptations of games haven’t been all that successful. But Microsoft, clutching its multimillion dollar franchise that was dominating the video game landscape, decided it was going to make Hollywood dance to its tune.
The silver screen
Microsoft paid Alex Garland of 28 Days Later fame $1 million to pen a script. Then, with a flair for the dramatic, Microsoft sent couriers dressed as Spartans to the major Hollywood studios on June 6, 2005, carrying the script and Microsoft’s terms—reportedly a $10 million advance, a $75 million below the line budget, and a share of the gross proceeds. The studios only had a few hours to decide whether they were in or out, before the Spartans headed back with the script in their possession. 12
While the gimmick was a fantastic piece of showmanship, it also demonstrated that Microsoft was playing in a sandbox it didn’t quite understand. Microsoft was following the lead of Creative Artists Agency’s Larry Shapiro, who handled the script deliveries; previously, CAA had set up an unusual bid system for the script for the Roland Emmerich film Day after Tomorrow. Microsoft was aiming for the most lucrative rights deal in Hollywood history with the Halo project. But this wasn’t how Hollywood usually operated, and Microsoft was quick to find that Hollywood would not simply bend to this newcomer on the entertainment stage. If Microsoft and Halo were the nouveau riche moving in to the fancy part of town, than Hollywood was the old moneyed Astors on Fifth Avenue who were not enthused by this development one bit.
The fact that Microsoft was expecting studios to shoulder much of the risk while they reaped many of the possible box office rewards was another facet that made the studios bristle, as was the fact that, then as now, video game movies have a rather spotty track record: around the same time as the studios were considering the Halo film, there was the box office success (if critically maligned) Resident Evil: Apocalypse, alongside the failures Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life or the Uwe Boll-directed Alone in the Dark, perhaps the worst video game adaptation of all time.
Microsoft hoped that their Spartan script stunt would play off the movie studios’ competitive instincts and secure them a better deal, but they just didn’t understand Hollywood. Instead, the studios sounded each other out to find out what terms they were willing to acquiesce to. Instead of sparking a bidding war, Universal Studios and 20th Century Fox agreed to partner up.
The culture differences between the video game and movie industries would crop up throughout the production and continue to be a source of friction. But for the moment, Microsoft had their studios, they had their script, and in short order, they had their director.
Microsoft had wanted a big-name director—Guillermo Del Toro was briefly attached to the project and apparently pitched a concept for a Halo film to Bungie3—but Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson signed on to be a co-producer instead. The job of directing would fall to Neill Blomkamp, a new kid on the block cutting his teeth on commercials and some short about alien apartheid. Blomkamp was wary about working on a big-budget film, but was an enthusiastic Halo fan, but almost immediately his vision of a grungy, found-footage-dominated film clashed with the expected summer blockbuster look the producers expected. Blomkamp found himself fighting with studio heads from Fox and Microsoft themselves, who maintained a high level of creative control through their production deal.
By early 2006, Universal had funded development to the tune of $12 million, which went to rewrites of the screenplay and the creation of props and vehicles by Peter Jackson’s effects company, Weta Workshop. Blompkamp would use these assets to product a few test shorts. But development was slow-going, and with the high budget and the number of points-heavy deals involved in the project, obstacles turned into impassable roadblocks. At the end of October 2006, Universal wanted to slash the producers’ cuts; Jackson and the other producers refused, and just like that the movie was dead in the water. On October 31, 2006, the movie was officially put on ice.
While the later script revisions for the Halo film have never publicly surfaced, the Alex Garland draft, dated June 2005, has. It’s interesting to read now, with the benefit of hindsight. I’ll start out by saying that there’s a lot that the script does well. It opens with a dream sequence showing the Spartan-IIs getting overwhelmed, and quickly sets up the stakes of the Human-Covenant war. In an interesting bit of trivia, it seems like Alex Garland deserves some credit for inspiring the opening credits crawl for Halo 3: ODST, with the same “humanity is fighting the Covenant / humanity is losing” structure.
In many ways, the Garland script is a pretty straightforward adaptation of Halo: Combat Evolved, incorporating some elements and characterizations of the novelization, Halo: The Flood. In particular, it spends a lot of time making Master Chief up into an inscrutable machine of war, feared and awed by the mere humans who he encounters.
But it’s got some weird parts, particularly the relationship between Chief and Cortana, and having the Flood represented as villains by the remains of both Keyes and ODST leader Silva, who mostly exists to be an even bigger asshole than he was in the books. The screenplay surprisingly also doesn’t pave much road for the expanded look at the Covenant we’d get in Halo 2. And there are some very, very mid-2000s elements to it.
Would it have kickstarted a Halo film franchise? It’s hard to say. So much depends on the execution. The Halo film’s failure wasn’t really unique; Shapiro helped set up movie deals for other games like The Sims, Gears of War, Doom, and Return to Castle Wolfenstein, with few of these ever actually reaching production, let alone release. Microsoft’s desire to retain creative control would clearly inform their future dealings with their IP, and explain why the movie has never happened, despite sporadic efforts to resurrect the project. Stuart Beattie of GI Joe fame wrote a spec script based on The Fall of Reach in 2008 which went nowhere, and that was probably a good thing too. Likewise, Blompkamp went off and produced District 9, which while a good film, definitely demonstrates how his style would have been very different from the grand space opera of Halo. Also, his track record since is pretty mixed, too.
Microsoft never fully let go of the idea of Halo breaking out of its video game roots, however. As with all good franchises, there’s value—and money—in transmedia offerings. But while Microsoft would commission more novels, animated shorts, an ill-fated comedy series that they have attempted to memory-hole—and an anime anthology, Halo: Legends, live action Halo for the next few years after the Halo film crashed and burned would remain the domain of advertising.
For Halo 3‘s release, Blompkamp would get his opportunity to demonstrate his vision of the Halo movie at a small scale, with the props and test footage produced for the cancelled film showing up as promotion for the upcoming game. 215 McCann, a San Francisco ad agency that has handled much of Halo’s live-action commercial output, started their work with Halo 3 as well. While the Halo 3 “Believe” diorama is what people remember most from Halo 3‘s marketing, they produced supplemental videos—interviews with the veterans who survived the battle and recalled Chief’s heroism. McCann also worked on Halo 3: ODST‘s “The Life” and the Halo: Reach “Remember Reach” campaigns—small vignettes into the lives of characters who were not Master Chief. Filmmaker David Fincher briefly got into the Halo short producing gig too, with the “Scanned” trailer for Halo 4. While McCann is still producing live-action campaigns for Halo—most recently Halo Infinite‘s “Step Inside” campaign—the success of these commercials seemingly revived Microsoft’s interest in longer-form live action in the 2010s, as the newly formed Halo studio, 343 Industries, specifically focused on transmedia as well as new games.
The result was Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn, a five-part episodic tie-in to Halo 4 that released on Machinima.com and Halo Waypoint in October and November 2012, just before the game dropped. This was clearly Microsoft’s attempt to broaden the potential audience for a Halo game, but it also was a conscious effort to possibly kickstart their movie ambitions once more. The series was going to be made on a budget of $10 million—an entire limited series made for $2 million less than had been spent on preproduction for the ill-fated Halo film more than seven years earlier.
Like with the Halo film, Forward Unto Dawn drew in creatives who were passionate about Halo and wanted to adapt it, even at such a reduced scope. Stuart Hendler, a producer and director who had done a bunch of commercials, as well as a number of shorts and the horror film Sorority Row, was only interested in directing a video game adaptation if that property was Halo. Microsoft considered a number of different pitches for the plot of the series, eventually tapping the brothers Aaron and Todd Helbing, who worked on shows such as Carnivale, Entourage, and Smallville in a variety of positions. Helbing’s initial pitch was set on Harvest, but 343 Industries instead had them go back to the writing room and create a new script. Part of 343’s goals with the new series was to introduce a new character from the video game, Thomas Lasky, and Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn, while wrapped in bookends that tie into the fate of Cortana and Master Chief after Halo 3, is really Lasky’s story, as he grapples with his decision to fight for the UNSC at the same time that the Covenant begins their assault on humanity.
What makes Forward Unto Dawn hold up even all these years later is that it’s acutely aware at all times that it’s a low-budget series. The Covenant are hidden wherever possible, which only adds to their monstrous, threatening feel. Like all good budget sci-fi, filming took place in May 2012 in British Columbia, Canada, with the brutalist buildings at Simon Fraser University standing in for a UNSC military academy. The special effects, when implemented, are done in a restrained manner, and it helps keep the focus on the human characters, with the Master Chief serving as an otherworldly savior, harkening back to his original role in the books and early games. Now, to be clear, the seams definitely show at times—such as when other members of Blue Team show up and one is just wearing armor from the Halo Reach live action short, but with a kneepad glued to the helmet—but by keeping its ambitions small, Forward Unto Dawn exceeded expectations.
Forward Unto Dawn didn’t exactly jumpstart talks of a Halo movie, but 343 still had a success under their belt, proof that Microsoft’s focus on creatively controlling their IP paid dividends. Microsoft’s gaming division was also undergoing a shift. With the Xbox One, Microsoft under Don Mattrick was focusing on making the console the central device of the living room, and that meant TV. The Xbox One reveal now is widely lambasted for its focus on television rather than games, and the aborted vision of the always-internet-connected, Kinect-heavy entertainment center Xbox One would be a mistake that even now Microsoft is working to get past. But it did result in Bonnie Ross announcing on stage in May 2013 that Steven Spielberg was attached as an executive producer on a Halo television series. What a winding road that’s been, huh? The television series would effectively end up in development hell, but in the meantime, Microsoft wasn’t sitting back. Not content to have one famous filmmaker attached to Halo, they worked up a deal with Ridley Scott’s Scott Free Productions for a new miniseries.
In many ways, Halo Nightfall, released in late 2014, was trying to recapture the same success of Forward Unto Dawn. The budget was the same, it was again a five-part miniseries, it again was pushing a new character to the fore—this time, Spartan Locke—and it was again releasing to promote a video game, Halo: The Master Chief Collection. It also launched alongside the Halo Channel, an update on the Halo Waypoint app that was clearly an extension of Microsoft’s new TV focus (the Halo Channel even briefly had video versions of the classic weekly text updates that had been a staple of Halo development stretching back to the Bungie era.) This was a true video adaptation for a new transmedia era for Halo.
The problem was, it wasn’t good.
There are defenders of Halo Nightfall, but it’s ultimately a more ambitious product than Forward Unto Dawn that falls flat. It has a greater scope, but the seams on the computer graphics are much more apparent. It has a nonsensical story about an element that is harmful only to humans that somehow was created on a shard of the original Halo ring, and when Agent Locke and his team go to said piece of the ring, the opposition they encounter is not the Floo but a bizarre Lekgolo science experiment gone amok. The characters are generally less likable and even more one-dimensional. And then there was the Yonhet. The supplemental “second stories” that fleshed out background details of the series were arguably more interesting than the main plot, although dealing with the slow and glitchy Halo Channel app made just watching the thing occasionally tedious.
While Microsoft was doing Forward Unto Dawn and Nightfall, however, there were other people trying to capture some of the live action Halo magic: the fans. Throughout the 2010s, especially, there were a number of fan film projects that got off the ground, but they either never reached full production, like Operation Chastity, never saw the light of day, like Halo: Faith, or released in incomplete states and were abandoned, like Halo: Helljumper and Halo: The Fallen. Given the difficulties of producing any large-scale live action production on a shoestring budget, as well as the legal uncertainties involved with unauthorized use of Microsoft IP, it’s not surprising that these projects all sputtered out.
That leaves the Halo television series, which for a long time seemed like it was going to be a casualty of Microsoft’s renewed focus on gaming and leaving behind the TV ambitions of the Xbox One era. Initially, the series was due to release in 2015, and premiere on Showtime. The series saw repeated delays to 2022, and the arrival and departure of show runners and directors. When it releases in March 2022 (now on Paramount+, not Showtime), it will be roughly a month and a year shy of debuting its first episodes a full decade after its existence was announced. Hopefully, it’ll be worth the wait.
What can be learned from Halo‘s track record in live action? Arguably, their biggest successes have been with small projects. As the gaming and film landscape have shifted, it seems supremely unlikely we’ll ever see a big-budget Halo film in theaters, and the future of Halo in live action must be in television. Like with previous efforts, the Halo television series is clearly positioned as a way to bring in new fans, with a completely different canon and timeline to aid in freely adapting from the prime canon, cribbing a page from the (phenomenally successful) Marvel Cinematic Universe. It remains to be seen what successes Microsoft will find with this latest adaptation, and where live action Halo will go from here.