The recent news that former Xbox chief Don Mattrick was leaving Microsoft to help revive the social gaming company Zynga as its new CEO sent shock waves through the $78.5 billion games industry. Whammo! Xbox lost its leader on the eve of rolling out the state-of-the-art Xbox One console. Double whammo! Zynga founder Mark Pincus, who has always told employees that he’d leave the company "feet first," was handing over the reins to an outsider.
But Mattrick’s sudden departure has created other ripples, too. One of them involves Halo. Not the video game, but the TV series based on the video game that is planned as Xbox’s first foray into the kind of original programming that’s going on at Netflix. The series, not so incidentally, is being executive-produced by Steven Spielberg.
The Halo series will, of course, proceed without Mattrick, but given that Mattrick’s close relationship with Spielberg was key in signing the deal, one has to wonder whether new snags might arise now that he’s gone. Microsoft, after all, is famously protective of its properties and tends to have a heavy hand in creative decisions related to them—one of the reasons the Halo movie that was being developed by Fox and Universal fell apart. Meanwhile, Spielberg is Spielberg, i.e., the most successful filmmaker of all time, and he tends to expect—and get—complete creative autonomy.
With Mattrick on hand, should any differences in opinion have come up while developing Halo—which is still in the very, very early stages (no writer or director has been hired yet)—he could have calmed the waters. After all, he and Spielberg go way back, having first become close when Electronic Arts, the company where Mattrick spent 15 years before coming to Microsoft, bought DreamWorks Interactive, Spielberg’s short-lived video game company, in 2000. Back then, Spielberg would "literally just show up unannounced at the end of the day" and say, "‘Hey, what’s going on?’" Mattrick told me recently, while he was still at Microsoft.
"We would sit in rooms and kind of look at content, and he would talk about emotion and the creative processes of storytelling, and we would talk about what it meant to build interactive versions of that," Mattrick went on.
Specifically, they discussed Medal of Honor, the WWII video game that Spielberg developed at DWI, and that went on to be a huge hit for EA.
Over the years, Spielberg and Mattrick, who is that rare tech exec who not only relates to creatives, but has a high regard for the entertainment world (he once considered starting a film company), remained close both personally and professionally. They both sit on the board of USC’s School of Cinematic Arts. One of the things that frequently came up in conversation, Mattrick said, was the idea to adapt Halo.
"Steven had been super consistent over the last five-plus years [in discussing Halo] and he said to me, ‘Look. This is a project that I am personally interested in. I want to work on it. I’m going to do a great job.’"
According to Nancy Tellem, head of entertainment and digital media at Microsoft, Spielberg’s interest in Halo is indeed real. "He’s not just lending his name," she says, as is sometimes the case with the multitasking filmmaker. "This is something that he’s very much involved in on a personal basis."
The presence of Tellem, the former president of CBS and a veteran Hollywood executive, will certainly help lessen the blow of Mattrick’s departure as far as Halo and Spielberg are concerned. She speaks the language of creatives, and understands the idiosyncrasies and nuances that go into dealing with Hollywood talent. But it still remains to be seen if this project will fall prey to the same issues that dogged, and ultimately destroyed, the Halo movie that Neil Blomkamp was in line to direct. (One of the issues there was that Microsoft wanted a bigger-name director than Blomkamp, according to a source involved in the film—District 9 had not yet been released or received a Best Picture Oscar nomination.)
When I asked Tellem about this, she said: "I think, in some respects, television production is a little different than feature production. And, again, working with Steven, it’s very much a collaborative process.
"To work with someone who understood the fans, who understood the game, who understood the mythology behind it. And, you know, I do believe that television production is a very different cadence than that of a feature."
Still, she made a point of underscoring how Spielberg’s "relationship with Don" was at the heart of the collaboration. Or at least it was. (Our chat occurred several days before Mattrick announced he was leaving Microsoft.)
Time will tell how that collaboration will shake up in the new Xbox world order. It’s clearly in Microsoft’s best interest to make the situation work. The pairing of Spielberg with one of the most popular video games of all time is a huge win, and creates the kind of "event" programming that Netflix has pursued with high-profile shows like House of Cards.
In the meantime, stay tuned for more updates as Halo starts to take shape. We’ll be offering details about talent deals and dates as soon as we uncover them.
[Image courtesy of 343 Industries]