Oscar-winning documentary filmmakers. Legendary soccer players. The guys who make Robot Chicken. These are the people that Microsoft's throwing money at to help them make TV shows.
Despite the fact that their plans to create all-new filmed entertainment have long been rumored and confirmed, it's kind of weird to think that the same company that makes Windows and Kinect is getting into the TV business. It's really happening, though.
Last week, at a meeting with executives Nancy Tellem and Jordan Levin, I saw clips from a handful of shows currently being filmed or developed by Xbox Entertainment Studios. The newest division of Xbox has comedies, sci-fi dramas and adventure reality shows all in the works, in their bid to join companies like Amazon and Netflix who are offering quality streaming entertainment. That New Mexico dig that unearthed the massive Atari dumping ground long thought to be a modern-day myth? It's part of a documentary series that will air on Xbox. The full slate, in Microsoft's own words, is below:
"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 throughXbox 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.
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.
Tellem and Levin are both well-connected television veterans. She served as a top executive at CBS from 1997 to 2012 and he helped to found and run the WB Network, now known as the CW. But the TV viewing landscape has shifted dramatically in the last few years.
"It's a disruptive, challenging time," Tellem said, when discussing the climate that these shows will be making their debuts in. There's going to need to be some serious differentiation in the Xbox Originals slate and Tellem, Levin and their partners are looking to the core function of Microsoft's gaming hardware for inspiration.
Xbox Entertainment Studios wants to build in interactive features into many of the projects that they've got brewing. For adventure reality series Fearless, viewers might be able to be able to create their own alternative cut of an episode with feeds from GoPro cameras taking in the action. So, if you want to see another point-of-view when Paul De Gelder—a former soldier from Australia's elite military special forces exploring other death-defying professions—goes poacher tracking or smoke jumping, you'll be able to do that.
Levin said that having content made for an inherently interactive device like the Xbox One means that there are advantages to creating a completely integrated experience with regard to connecting viewing to social networks. One of the features that they're exploring is a time-shifted comment stream that will hold an archive of internet reactions from a show that's already aired.
Tellem and Levin also said that they might implement real-time polling into some shows, like they did for the 2012 presidential debates. Some of these interactive features might be specific to individual shows, while others will be platform-wide. Tellem also said that discussions are still being had about what offerings might or might not be behind a paywall. When Xbox airs the Bonnaroo Music Festival this June, it will be free of charge.
One look at the shows being worked on for Xbox Originals will tell you that they're targeting the same coveted young male viewers who presumably already own an Xbox 360 or Xbox One. But Tellem said they're hoping their programming can go wide in the way that something like Game of Thrones has and pull in a broad, non-core audience.
As for gaming-related shows, a teaser that ran during the presentation made it seem like spin-offs for first-party Xbox games like Forza Motorsport, State of Decay and Fable are practically certainties. In person, the pair of executives could only say that explorations are underway for the creative partners that would bring these shows to life. Levin added that they'll be looking to "talk up" to their potential audience, since they won't have the pressure of a ratings race to create lowest-common-denominator content. Right now, it's tough to predict if Microsoft has a House of Cards or Orange Is the New Black in its portfolio. Nevertheless, he said they're in this business for the long haul. "Microsoft knows how to be patient," Levin observed. "We know this is a long process."