Halo: How Clashing Media Cultures Lead to the Demise of a Blockbuster

Curator's Note

 In 2005 Microsoft’s video game title Halo was enjoying massive success. They had recently released a sequel and a third installment was imminent. It was during this time that Microsoft set out to turn the popular video game into a cross-media franchise by bringing it to the big screen. They paid 1 million dollars to have the script penned to their specifications before it talked to a single producer or executive in Hollywood. By mid-2005 the movie was set to start pre-production with Peter Jackson on board to produce and rumors of Denzel Washington in the lead. Less than a year later, the Halo movie was declared dead in the water.

How does a sure thing fail? The official story was that Microsoft was seeking an unprecedented rights deal that neither Fox nor Universal could get behind. When looking closely at the abandoned blockbuster it becomes clear that vastly different corporate cultures contributed to a breakdown in communication between Silicon Valley and Hollywood. This is exemplified in Microsoft’s attempt to play Fox and Universal against each other only to find out that the two studios had been talking to one another about the project the whole time. This type of collaboration, while not uncommon in Hollywood, is virtually unheard of in the software world.

In a world of media convergence where synergy often appears natural, it becomes easy to oversimplify these complex relationships - as this video does - by implying that Bill Gates and Peter Jackson personally struck a deal. In drawing attention to the complex system of relationships that exist within a franchise, these instances of failed synergy support Keith Negus’s argument that the cultural industry is a “less stable and predictable entity” than it is typically imagined to be. The failure of the Halo movie provides a rare moment where the curtain of the entertainment industry is pulled back to reveal the “micro relations” and various (often conflicting) business practices that are part of the process of cultural production. 

It seems, at this moment Microsoft is comfortable using Hollywood primarily as a promotional tool. They have recently produced and self-distributed a short film aired in segments on YouTube and have tapped Academy Award-winning director David Fincher to produce the official trailer for Halo 4. How these new relationships with Hollywood insiders will differ from the previous ones remains to be seen. 


Thanks for this, Nicholas. I feel like far too often we see arguments about the failures of game to film adaptation framed in terms of content ("games have terrible stories and thus make for bad movies" or "what is so great about a game is its mechanics and you can't represent that on film") without recognition of all the industrial complexities structuring these attempted adaptations. The role of personal investment certainly plays a part, as there seems to be a general acceptance that only filmmakers who "get" digital games or like them themselves can turn a game into a successful film. However, there's just as many examples of this backfiring. I've got to bring up Uwe Boll here, who is a perfect example of someone who understands and loves games, but makes the most abysmal (and commercially unsuccessful) filmed adaptations of them, proving that emotional attachment and ludic knowledge aren't the answer. The reasons why Boll has been able to make these awful films is exactly what you're describing here: a complex industrial scenario involving the specificities of German tax loopholes, personal dealings with game developers and fan communities, foreign location shooting incentives, DVD/Blu-Ray/digital distribution deals, etc. I think where all of this will become increasingly interesting is with game companies working much more closely with film and television production companies on the establishment of franchises based on transmediality. Ubisoft has already been working closely with the film industry on sharing technology, and THQ was trying to partner with Syfy before their recent financial meltdown. But I'm more thinking of something like Trion's Defiance that attempts to intertwine television show and MMO from the outset. If there isn't a "lead" medium and the property begins as a brand, translated outward into a variety of media, then it will be really interesting to see if this fares any better than one-way adaptations.

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