By Sahil Patel
A lot of eyes have been on Xbox Entertainment Studios ever since Microsoft’s console unit announced it was entering the original programming business.
The foray began in a big way — with the appointment of former CBS Television president Nancy Tellem as Microsoft’s president of entertainment and digital media, and the announcement of a “Halo”-inspired TV series executive produced by Steven Spielberg — signaling that Xbox planned to compete in a premium VOD space that’s currently dominated by Netflix and to a lesser extent Amazon and Hulu.
However, if you believe what Tellem and XES EVP Jordan Levin had to say in advance of the studio’s coming-out party at this afternoon’s Microsoft Newfront, Xbox doesn’t see itself as a true competitor to a Netflix or Amazon.
“We don’t really have competitors,” said Tellem. “Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, are all on our platform.”
Instead, the executive pointed to the unique nature of the Xbox Live platform, and the ability to combine premium programming with “unique interactive features” to serve its core audience of millennial men and women. (In total, there are 48 million who subscribe to either the gold or silver Xbox Live packages.)
Most of the programming unveiled by the XES team had already been announced or reported on: the aforementioned “Halo” TV show with Spielberg; the street-soccer documentary series “Every Street United”; a documentary-film series from award-winning producers Jonathan and Simon Chinn called “Signal to Noise”; an inspirational documentary series called “Fearless”; the sci-fi drama “Humans”; and a “Halo” digital feature/series to be executive produced by Ridley Scott.
Overall, Xbox previewed a slate of original programming that spans unscripted, comedy, drama, animation, documentary films, and live events — all at various stages of the production cycle, from series orders to pilot commitments, to still being in the development stage. (Full list is below.)
Of those, it was in the fields of unscripted, documentary, and live events where Xbox is already planning to take advantage of audience interaction.
For instance, Xbox is partnering with Superfly to exclusively live-stream the 13th annual Bonnaroo music and arts festival from June 13 to June 15. Via a custom Bonnaroo app, viewers will be able to control how they want to experience Bonnaroo from their couch. This will include the ability to select different camera angles, as well as join a Skype queue to have a live backstage chat session with performers. (Skype is owned by Microsoft.) For this year, Xbox has wired two stages, with plans to eventually cover the entire festival in future years.
Then there’s “Fearless,” a documentary series hosted by a former Australian Navy veteran and double amputee Paul de Gelder. With an unscripted series such as this one, which follows de Gelder as he goes on dangerous missions with people who are trying to make the world a better place, XES wants to take “advantage” of the interactive platform, said Tellem.
In “Fearless,” Xbox’s interactive team got involved from the pitch stage, added Levin. This led to a production process that involved shooting everything with many camera angles. The idea is that this will enable viewers to “create their own cut,” according to Levin, and share that version with others.
“Specific to this device and this platform, we have the ability to create interactivity that is relatively seamless — especially when compared to most networks,” said Levin, pointing to how Xbox can even weave its storefront into this process when applicable.
Where this could really come in play, outside of the unscripted category, is the shows Xbox produces that are based on popular video games.
As part of its “Microsoft Studios Content Portfolio,” Xbox listed a number of popular gaming titles it’s eyeing television series for. In
addition to “Halo,” it’s possible you see shows based on “Age of Empires,” “State of Decay,” “Fable,” “Forza Motorsport,” and “Gears of War.”
Levin and Tellem cautioned that so far XES has only had “exploratory meetings” with the game studios and publishers who own the aforementioned franchises, but realize there is an “opportunity there.”
As reported numerously before, Xbox is moving forward with two shows based on its “Halo” franchise. The digital feature — which was put into motion after the “overwhelming” success of “Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn,” which was watched by more than 50 million uniques according to Xbox — is set to shoot in Ireland. It will have a “slightly bigger budget than in the past,” said Levin.
There’s no singular model that Xbox is looking to follow in terms of distribution, windowing, monetization, as well as whether the company wants to own or buy its original content, or even how it plans to release its episodes. Everything is in play. The goal, according to Tellem and Levin, is to see what works on the platform, and go from there.
“We are approaching [everything] methodically,” said Tellem. “Who we are, who we want to be, who our audience is… The minute you start actually putting [content] out there, it’s going to evolve based on all the feedback.”
Added Levin: “We are adopting a tech ethos, where everything is perpetually in beta.”
Here’s all of the production info on Xbox Entertainment Studios’ current programming slate, including projects that have received series orders, pilot commitments, or are in active development.
“Halo” television series
The “Halo” television series is a groundbreaking original series based on the award-winning “Halo” franchise. Award-winning filmmaker, director and producer Steven Spielberg will executive produce the live-action TV series, created in partnership with 343 Industries and Amblin Television.
“Every Street United”
“Every Street United” is an unscripted series of eight, thirty-minute episodes and a one-hour finale, featuring legendary soccer players Thierry Henry and Edgar Davids, focused on the global search for soccer’s most gifted and undiscovered street stars scouted across eight countries (United States, England, Argentina, Spain, Brazil, the Netherlands, Ghana and South Korea). The series culminates this July in a 4v4 street game finale in the shadow of the World Cup in Rio de Janeiro.
Each episode will feature unique and incisive narratives about the grassroots street stars and the communities that shaped them. Industry veteran and eight-time Emmy-Award winning producer, director, writer and editor Jonathan Hock (“Streetball,” “30 for 30: The Best That Never Was”) is directing the series. Emmy-Award winning producer Mike Tollin and Mandalay Sports Media are executive producing. Professional soccer luminaries, Henry and Davids, will serve as coaches for the 4v4 street game in Rio. “Every Street United” will premiere in June 2014. All episodes will be available through Xbox Video for Xbox One, Xbox 360, Windows 8 (PC and Surface) and Windows Phone 8.
Xbox owners around the globe can experience the magic of the 13th annual Bonnaroo music and arts festival with a live concert destination on Xbox Live Friday, June 13 through Sunday, June 15, 2014, brought to viewers in partnership with Superfly Presents. With the Bonnaroo app, fans can enjoy live music like never before, with a virtual experience featuring the best performances, multiple stages, biggest artists and amazing SuperJams, and explore this year’s lineup to see the best of Bonnaroo’s past with exclusive performances. Fans can also join the conversation with fellow virtual-Bonnaroovians and get connected to their friends and the festival. Xbox is the exclusive broadcasting partner for Bonnaroo and the only location to get all of the interactive features.
“Signal to Noise”/“Atari: Game Over”
Xbox is creating a new six film documentary series, “Signal to Noise,” (working title) with two-time Academy Award winning producer Simon Chinn (“Searching for Sugar Man” and “Man on Wire”) and Emmy winning producer Jonathan Chinn (FX’s “30 Days” and PBS’s “American High”), through their multi-platform media company, Lightbox. The series will expose little known stories of how modern technology has radically altered the way we interact with our world.
The first installment, “Atari: Game Over” (working title), explores the fabled Atari mystery, dubbed “The Great Video Game Burial of 1983.” As the legend goes, the Atari Corporation, faced with overwhelmingly negative response to the E.T. video game, disposed of millions of unsold game cartridges by burying them in the small town of Alamogordo, New Mexico. Fuel Entertainment took an interest in the legend, and in December 2013, with help from local garbage contractor Joe Lewandowski, acquired the exclusive rights to excavate the Alamogordo landfill. Fuel Entertainment then brought the opportunity to Xbox Entertainment Studios. The team will head to the landfill in question to determine if the story is true, interviewing a cast of characters related to the game and its mystery along the way. “Atari: Game Over” is directed by writer/director Zak Penn (“X-Men 2,” “Avengers,” and “Incident at Loch Ness”). It will air exclusively on Xbox One and Xbox 360 in 2014.
“Humans” is a bold new drama co-produced with UK broadcaster Channel 4. Award-winning UK production company Kudos (“The Hour,” “Utopia,” “Broadchurch”) will produce the hour-long, eight-episode series, which will share a premiere broadcast window on the Xbox platform and Channel 4 in the UK in 2015.
Executive produced by Jane Featherstone (“Life on Mars,” “Broadchurch”) and Derek Wax (“The Hour,” “Sex Traffic”), and written by British writing team Sam Vincent and Jonathan Brackley (“Spooks,” “Spooks: The Greater Good”), “Humans” is an English-language adaptation of Sveriges Television and Matador Film’s acclaimed Swedish series, “Real Humans.” “Humans” is set in a parallel present where the latest must-have gadget for any busy family is a ‘Synth’ — a highly-developed robotic servant eerily similar to its live counterpart. In the hope of transforming the way they live, one strained suburban family purchases a refurbished synth only to discover that sharing life with a machine has far-reaching and chilling consequences. Casting for “Humans” will begin in May 2014, and production will commence later this summer.
“Halo” digital feature
343 Industries and Scott Free Productions are creating a “Halo” digital feature to be released later this year. The project will be executive produced by Ridley Scott and Scott Free TV President, David Zucker. Sergio Mimica-Gezzan (“Battlestar Galactica,” “Pillars of the Earth,” “Heroes”) will direct.
Projects in Development
Xbox Entertainment Studios has committed to a script based on the successful pen-and-paper role playing game created by Shane Lacy Hensley. “Deadlands” is a genre-bending alternative history of the Weird West, filled with undead gunfighters, card-slinging sorcerers, mad scientists, secret societies, and fearsome abominations.
Xbox Entertainment Studios is developing an innovative, hybrid stop-motion show dubbed “Extraordinary Believers” (working title) with Stoopid Buddy Stoodios, creators of the Emmy-Award winning “Robot Chicken,” the longest running stop-motion show on television. The executive producers on the project are Seth Green, Matt Senreich, and creators/writers/executive producers are Eric Towner and John Harvatine IV.
“Fearless,” (working title) is an unscripted series currently in pilot production starring Paul de Gelder, an Australian Navy bomb clearance diver and shark attack survivor who takes on an adrenaline-fueled quest to aid individuals who risk their lives to make the world a better place. “Fearless” will be produced by Australia’s International Emmy-Award winning production company, Cordell Jigsaw Zapruder (CJZ).
Xbox Entertainment Studios acquired the rights to “Gun Machine,” a hardboiled detective thriller based on the New York Times bestselling novel by Warren Ellis. Ellis will executive produce with Brett Conrad (“The Killing,” “Sons of Anarchy,” Netflix’s upcoming “Marco Polo”) who has signed on to write the pilot script about a detective tracking a serial killer who is tied to a mysterious collection of guns used in infamous New York murders.
Untitled JASH Comedy/Variety Half Hour
In this unique comedy format developed by Xbox Entertainment Studios with JASH (a comedy collective founded by Sarah Silverman, Michael Cera, Tim and Eric and Reggie Watts), the biggest names in comedy will showcase the people that make them laugh. Each week, a different comedian will host/curate a show featuring new and unsung talent, in various video formats. Sarah Silverman will host the pilot episode and Daniel Kellison (“Late Night/Late Show with David Letterman,” “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” “Crank Yankers”) will executive produce. The series has a pilot commitment and will begin shooting in June.
Xbox Entertainment Studios and IDW Entertainment are co-developing a limited event live-action series based on Chuck Dixon and artist Jorge Zaffino’s seminal graphic novel series “Winterworld,” in which our world has been encased in ice from pole-to-pole. The surviving humans have formed tribes that war, enslave and trade with one another in an effort to survive the infinite winter. Ted Adams and David Ozer from IDW Entertainment, and Rick Jacobs and Dave Alpert from Circle of Confusion (“Walking Dead”) will executive produce.