Xbox is ready to be a major player in TV programming. Looking to expand beyond gamers, and inspired by the success of streaming services like Netflix, Microsoft's newly formed Xbox Entertainment Studios is announcing the first original series for its device at a Monday presentation to advertisers.
The company has ordered a bunch of projects to premiere in the next two years, including two different takes on the Halo game franchise. The first project, a digital feature to be released later this year, comes from Ridley Scott's Scott Free Productions and director Sergio Mimica-Gezzan (Battlestar Galactica), and will be streamed on a chapter-by-chapter basis. A live-action Halo TV series from Steven Spielberg and his Amblin TV label is also in the works.
Also, the soccer-themed reality show Every Street United, which is timed to this year's World Cup in Brazil, premieres in June. The show, from producer Mike Tollin and Mandalay Sports Media, follows famed soccer players Thierry Henry and Edgar Davids as they search for undiscovered soccer players from eight countries (including the United States, England, Argentina, Spain, Brazil, the Netherlands, Ghana and South Korea). Xbox will air eight half-hour episodes plus a one-hour finale.
Xbox is also broadcasting a live feed of the Bonnaroo music festival in June and has picked up the tech documentary series Signal to Noise, from the team behind the Oscar-winning feature Searching for the Sugar Man. The doc series' first installment, Atari: Game Over, made headlines this weekend when a big dig in New Mexico found long-buried E.T. video game cartridges that were dumped there in the 1980s.
In the works for 2015: The British coproduction Humans, an eight-episode adaptation of a Swedish sci-fi drama about synthetic people. Humans comes from executive producers Jane Featherstone (Broadchurch) and Derek Wax (The Hour) and will be written by Sam Vincent and Jonathan Brackley (Spooks).
What makes Xbox think it has a shot in the programming game? "People are watching more video content than playing games on our platform," says Xbox Entertainment Studios president Nancy Tellem, who was once one of CBS' top execs. "There is a demand for this. You're looking not only to keep [users] on our platform instead of going from game to game to game, but bring in other people in the household."
Microsoft has sold 85 million consoles, and its premium Xbox Live service (users can stream movies and TV shows and get access to apps, the Internet and more — some of which requires an extra "Gold" membership) has 48 million subscribers, which puts it in more homes than DirecTV or Netflix. Xbox has not yet determined whether it will require a Gold membership, or just a traditional Xbox Live account, to view its original programming.
Tellem and executive vice president Jordan Levin are already developing their second wave of series, including a comedy show from JASH (a comedy collective founded by Sarah Silverman, Michael Cera, Reggie Watts and Tim and Eric), which has a pilot commitment that will shoot in June. Also in the works is the hybrid animated/live-action comedy Extraordinary Believers from Seth Green and the other producers behind Robot Chicken.
Dramas in the works include Gun Machine, based on the detective novel by Warren Ellis, about a serial killer tied to guns used in New York murders; Deadlands, based on the role playing game created by Shane Lacy Hensley; and Winterworld, a live-action adaptation of the graphic novel from Chuck Dixon and Jorge Zaffino about the surviving humans after Earth is encased in ice.
The studio is also looking to create more programs based on such Xbox games as State of Decay. "This company has a wealth of intellectual property that it owns and controls," Levin says. "It gives you a lot of things to develop." Also, he adds that all of the Xbox series are being developed with interactive and gaming components.
The two executives say their background in traditional TV is helping them bridge the divide between the worlds of tech and Hollywood. They also have realistic expectations about how long it might take to find a hit. "We have a lot in development," Tellem says. "We're at the very beginning here. We have to figure out what works, what isn't gong to work, and how to engage people to use the interactive features, which can overwhelm them. It takes time. [But] we have a company that's really committed to it."
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