Live-action skein could lead to another bigscreen attempt

While it will take years before a “Halo” movie ever makes it to the bigscreen, Microsoft could revive the idea again with a live-action Web series it will launch ahead of “Halo 4″ this fall.

The company’s Xbox gaming division is putting considerable coin behind “Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn,” which will play exclusively on male-skewing entertainment website Machinima and online community Halo Waypoint in the weeks leading up to “Halo 4′s” release Nov. 6.

Project represents “the largest investment” Microsoft has made in live action to date, the company said.

Xbox is keeping a tight lid on additional details, including the Web series’ director and cast, preferring to hype the involvement of its creative team at Comic-Con in San Diego this July.

After several pricey live-action shorts and commercials for previous “Halo” installments — helmed by Neill Blomkamp (“District 9″) and Rupert Sanders (“Snow White and the Huntsman”) — caught on, Microsoft wants to use the “Halo 4″ Web series as a way “to make ‘Halo’ accessible for people who haven’t played the games,” according to Matt McCloskey, director of franchise business management at 343 Industries, which is taking over the “Halo” franchise from Bungie Studios.

“We wanted to do something unique from a narrative standpoint that’s big in scale,” McCloskey added.

“Forward Unto Dawn” will play out over five weekly installments, around 15 minutes each, telling an original story about the game’s Master Chief and how he inspired a young UNSC cadet who will eventually become a leader aboard the UNSC Infinity spacecraft. Introduction of the new character will tie in with the plot of “Halo 4,” while providing a flashback to the beginning of the “Halo” franchise’s war between the humans and the evil Covenant.

“Every time we do a live-action commercial the audience says, ‘We want to see more so that we can explore the ‘Halo’ universe a little bit more,” said Frank O’Connor, franchise development director at 343 Industries. “Demand grew more and more out of the two little vignettes we’d previously produced.”

But Microsoft had to make sure that the Web series didn’t just appeal to hardcore “Halo” fans.

Playing the games and reading the books or other “Halo” spinoffs is “a big commitment,” O’Connor said. “We needed a way to ensure there was a way for people to get onboard this universe without feeling intimidated.” As a result, the Web series is “an origins story that teaches you about a lot of different facets of the (‘Halo’) universe.”

Microsoft faces fierce competition this fall with “Halo 4′s” launch, exclusive to the Xbox 360, with Activision Blizzard also releasing its latest game in the “Call of Duty” series, whose previous titles have consistently broken sales records over the last several years.

“Halo 3″ became the biggest entertainment launch in history when it was released in 2007, earning $170 million in its first day in the U.S. and surpassing $300 million worldwide in its first week. Last year’s “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3″ blew away that record with a $400 million first-day haul in the U.S. and U.K. and $775 million globally in its first five days.

Still, the “Halo” franchise has generated revenue of more than $2 billion, selling 40 million copies worldwide and spinning off a series of bestselling novels, comicbooks, anime series and toys.

Microsoft considers the Web series “the next step” for the franchise as an entertainment property that could eventually lead to a theatrical feature — after the plug on one was pulled by Universal and Fox that Blomkamp was to direct and Peter Jackson to produce in 2005.

“I don’t think anybody needs any reminding of (the potential),” McCloskey said. “Everyone keeps reminding us of that.”

Once the Web series ends its run, Microsoft plans to package the entire production in some form to “live on” on other platforms, McCloskey said.

Microsoft isn’t alone in turning to live action to promote its games.

Last year, Warner Bros. scored with the Web series “Mortal Kombat: Legacy” (which also unspooled on Machinima) to hype the reboot of Midway Games’ “Mortal Kombat,” while Bethesda Softworks produced a live-action short for fantasy game “The Elder Skrolls V: Skyrim.” More recently, Ubisoft enlisted “Logorama” helmers Francois Alaux and Herve de Crecy and Ridley Scott’s RSA to produce “Ghost Recon: Future Soldier” as a 30-minute live action short to serve as a prequel for the upcoming game. Videogame publisher also produce live-action shorts for its “Assassin’s Creed” franchise.

McCloskey stresses that the “Halo 4″ Web series is “not just a marketing piece” to promote the game. “We wanted to go way beyond that and transform this live-action exploration from advertising into a full standalone product that people will enjoy.”

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