Microsoft's full-length, Hollywood-style movie based on the next Halo video game has skipped the big screen, premiering instead on YouTube before heading to store shelves as a DVD.
The maker of the Xbox console, promoting the November release of Halo 4, has taken the unusual step of creating its own 90-minute movie, at a cost of almost US$10 million.
Microsoft plans to release weekly instalments of Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn on the web before offering the game and DVD. The film started airing Friday, with its first of five 15-minute segments on the YouTube channel Machinima Prime, leading up to the game's debut on November 6.
"We're either the best-funded web series of all time, a sort of mid-road healthy TV pilot, or a super-low-budget movie," director Stewart Hendler said.
The clips of Forward Unto Dawn will stay online until November 23, then disappear until December 4, when a Blu-ray disc goes on sale that includes an added 15 minutes. The film will also be available for download from Apple's iTunes, Microsoft's Zune Marketplace and other online movie stores.
For Forward Unto Dawn, Mocrosoft hired Hendler, whose directing credits include the horror movies Sorority Row and Whisper, and developed a script based on one of the novels and tied to the pending game.
While the production team hired the actors, Microsoft retained final say, including the decision not to use Steve Downes, according to Matt McCloskey, a Microsoft business director who manages Halo's development. Downes' distinctive voice as Master Chief in the games is known to legions of Halo fans.
By self-producing a movie and then releasing it both online and through traditional home-video outlets, Microsoft has carved a new distribution path, says Laura Martin, a media analyst at Needham & Co. YouTube and other streaming sites traditionally show short-form video.
"They're basically replicating the traditional film-window strategy of movie to home video, but they're releasing it on the web," Martin said. "With this experiment, they've now given us another window into, 'What does the premium online content market look like?' "
Consumers who buy a limited edition of the video game will receive a free Blu-ray, McCloskey said, a tie-in that highlights the marketing possibilities for other videos tied to games.
Produced over five weeks last spring in Vancouver, the movie tells the story of an alien invasion that occurs 25 years before the original Halo video game, with a new hero called Thomas Lasky and appearances by Master Chief, the protagonist in previous games. Actor Daniel Cudmore, who played Colossus in two X-Men movies, dons the armoured suit of Master Chief.
"The web world is making everybody that works within it think outside the normal pattern of film development," Hendler said.
Halo, exclusive to the Xbox, ranks among the 10 largest-grossing video-game franchises of all time, selling tens of millions of copies, according to Michael Pachter, an analyst at Wedbush Securities. The franchise has generated more than US$3 billion in revenue, according to Microsoft.
Microsoft has a lot at stake with the next instalment, said Pachter. Halo 4 is the first title in the franchise to be developed by 343 Industries, the Microsoft-owned studio that was tapped in 2007 to oversee the property after its creator, Bungie Studios, became independent and signed a 10-year publishing deal with Activision Blizzard.
With Halo 4 and the accompanying movie, 343 Industries aims to draw a broader science-fiction audience, Microsoft's McCloskey said.
"You see something that looks like a video game, you're going to get the same crowd you always get," McCloskey said. The movie is "not simply a marketing vehicle, though. It is in and of itself a standalone property."