Microsoft readies vidgame for first pic

Bestselling vidgame franchise “Halo” has taken its first major step toward the bigscreen, but without the studio system that has ruined so many of its brethren.

Microsoft has quietly put the finishing touches on a million-dollar deal to hire Alex Garland, writer of Danny Boyle’s post-apocalyptic thriller “28 Days Later” and Gen X travel novel “The Beach,” to adapt the games into one movie.

Garland’s screenplay will then be offered to studios as a complete “turnkey” script and rights package.

This strategy, insiders say, is the handiwork of ex-Columbia Pictures prexy Peter Schlessel, who ankled the studio to become a producer just over a two years ago. He is expected to serve as a producer in some capacity on the “Halo” film.

Deal was confirmed by Creative Artists Agency, which reps both Microsoft’s game division and Garland.

Made Xbox

The “Halo” franchise is one of the most popular in vidgame history, having sold over 12.8 million units and grossed approximately $600 million since its 2001 debut. Last year, “Halo 2″ sold 6.4 million copies and was the second-bestselling vidgame of the year. “Halo” is largely credited with making Xbox the hottest game console among hard-core gamers who love its intense multiplayer action.

Speculation about whether and how “Halo” would make its way onto movie screens has been flying around Hollywood and the vidgame world for years. As nearly every producer in town expressed interest in the title, it became clear that Microsoft wasn’t interested in licensing it out of fear that a poorly received adaptation similar to “Final Fantasy” or “Super Mario Bros.” could hurt the lucrative franchise.

Instead, those inquiring about a license found out that Microsoft decided it would develop its own script and shop it to studios once satisfied (Daily Variety, Dec. 22).

That’s a highly unusual move for a tech company such as Microsoft, which has published videogames but has never before gone into the business of producing films.

Japanese precedent

The strategy is not quite unique, though. Japanese vidgame giant Square Enix plowed $140 million into a film version of its “Final Fantasy” games that turned out to be a major flop. (Col’s Schlessel presided over the studio’s distribbing of “Final,” but the studio had nothing to do with its creative development.)

Perhaps learning from that experience, Microsoft isn’t expected to be involved beyond script development and consultation on the production along with its developer subsidiary Bungie, which produces the “Halo” games.

It’s unclear what kind of a deal Microsoft will seek once a script is completed, but given the intense interest in Hollywood and popularity of the franchise amongst young males, it’s likely to be quite lucrative, including significant gross points.

‘Master’ player

“Halo” will present Garland with an adaptation challenge. It’s one of the richest narratives in the vidgame world, developed over both games and three novels that extend the storyline. Plot concerns a warrior soldier known only as “Master Chief” battling a group of alien religious zealots who believe one of their most sacred artifacts is located on Earth.

But the characterization is spare. Little is known about “Master Chief.”

Deal appears to have been kept largely under wraps, even within Microsoft’s corporate bureaucracy. When asked for comment on Garland’s hire, a rep would only say that the company does not yet have any “official movie announcements.”

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