Unless you’ve been asleep for the last month and missed all of the advertising, you are aware that the haunted attraction season has arrived in SoCal. Fright fans have their choice of numerous haunted attractions — ranging from home haunts to haunted theme parks. This year, the haunt crop features a distinguished new entry from Warner Brothers Studios, who have stepped up their game in the haunt arena, and one of the crowning glories in their Horror Made Here: A Festival of Frights appeals to two new demographics: gamers and Batman fans.
In addition to the haunted WB lots featuring of attractions based on their horror properties, The Exorcist, The Conjuring, It, and a mash-up of Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street, A Festival of Frights features a maze based on the Batman: Arkham video game series. Guests will not see Batman in this maze, but they will experience a trip through the notorious Arkham Asylum, where Batman villains Penguin, The Riddler, Scarecrow, Poison Ivy, and Two Face have been incarcerated. True to the game, The Joker has taken over the asylum with the help of Harleen Quinzel (aka Harley Quinn).
WB guests have a unique opportunity to traverse an environment that is impeccably designed after one of the most popular video game franchises. In the midst of Arkham’s arrival onto the haunted attraction scene, the Weekly spoke with Gary Soloff, Director of Marketing at Warner Bros. Studio Tour Hollywood, about WB’s recent entry into the pantheon of haunted theme parks and about the development of their Arkham maze.
OC Weekly (Scott Feinblatt): What led to the development WB having its own full blown horror event?
Gary Soloff: The impetus of the whole thing started three years ago when we wanted to do something for Halloween. You know, obviously Southern California is a big halloween market and we decided to barely dip our toe into the market by hosting a screening of The Conjuring and The Conjuring 2, and [have] a creepy night tour on the back lot, and it was great. I mean it was very small, very intimate, and the guests said, “You should do more. You have all these great, great movies. Have you ever thought about building haunted attractions and mazes?” And so really there was a studio-wide initiative around horror, and we decided: “Let’s give it a go”. I don’t know if you knew about the Neibolt house on Hollywood and Vine, it was an experiential promotional vehicle for It last year because It was obviously our big blockbuster horror film in 2017, and they had this two-story maze, essentially, that they had created for guests to go through at Hollywood and Vine, and we said, “Right, we’ll bring that to the lot and add a couple more mazes and see how, how it goes.” And everyone loved it! Everyone thought it was a little bit different because our mazes and experiences were so much more immersive and interactive. The feedback from last year, when we had three mazes — we had The Conjuring, It and A Nightmare on Elm Street walkthrough — [was that we] should go bigger. And so this year we decided to do just that, and we added two additional mazes plus The Exorcist: Forbidden Screening. We engaged the jungle [portion of the back lot], so we increased our footprint, which was where the Camp Crystal Lake set is, and we wanted to activate the whole street so that we had a real fun party on the back lot here on hallowed ground.
How did you guys choose to focus on Arkham to develop into a haunted maze?
As the studios, Warner Brothers and New Line Cinema’s tent poles obviously [include] horror, but [another is] the DC universe. So we thought, “How do we engage our super villains? They’re quite scary; they’re quite evil and sinister. What can we do around that?” And we kind of brainstormed in our creative development team and said, “Arkham Asylum could actually be turned into a really cool maze. It has this great following in terms of the Arkham series of games that have come out as well as, you know, Joker is this great evil character, and all his friends like Harley Quinn and Penguin and The Riddler, the whole crew really could be a fun thing to bring to life in a maze, and that’s really exactly what we did. We worked with the game designers in the UK and our WB games team and said, “What are your thoughts? What do you think? How should we create each scene?” And we just sort of took a stab at a script and said, “All right, as guests, you have to escape Arkham Asylum.” And we came up with the booking, the trial room, the elevator, and literally a walkthrough at the asylum that has been taken over by Joker and his friends.
When you consulted with the game designers, did they also have an influence on the design of the maze itself?
Not so much. We shared them our creative deck, and they basically just gave a few notes to make sure that we were being true to the design of the game. So, they didn’t necessarily have hands on the actual designs. They were so pleased with what we had come up with, with our creative team and our artisans, that they were like, “Oh, just make sure you do this, take note of that.” And they just made some fine tweaks to make sure that it was as authentic and as on point to the game as possible.
What other steps or personnel were involved in adapting the visuals into an actual physical maze?
In terms of actually going from concept to design, we worked with a group of creatives that we hired on as part of the overall team that really were all gamers and had a passion for Arkham, and they took these renderings. They took images from the games, and it’s almost like magic because we looked at the rendering — especially of the trial room — and it was like Joker on top of all these upside down desks and this great color. I was a little skeptical in the beginning, [wondering] “Can we really bring this to life?” And sure enough, as it was being built, I was just blown away by our art director and the set decoration team who literally went through the prop house to find things that looked like they could’ve come out of the game, and if we couldn’t find anything, they just created it. We had a whole design room where they were just taking pieces of furniture and artifacts and spray painting them and putting color to them and shaping them or you know, creating, like, that room with the Poison Ivy and Penguin set…One time you went through it was Penguin’s room and another time you went through it was Poison Ivy’s lair…and she’d have her set-up and then we [could] flip it around and [then Penguin would be] trying to sell you guns and contraband within the asylum.
Did you have different teams for the other respective mazes?
We worked with a company called Mycotoo. They’re sort of known in the haunt space to bring things to life, and they worked on Arkham and It. Then our direct team — a company that we work with here on the lot called Planet C Studios — they actually did Conjuring and Exorcist and Camp Crystal Lake. And then throughout it, Daryl Latter, who’s our art director, she was the one who was kind of overseeing the fine touches and making sure that we had this down to the detail of everything, like in the relic room [in The Conjuring], every scene within the It house and every scene within Arkham — all those fine details she went through to make sure that guests really had an amazing experience.
Since the park has opened, how has the reception been?
It’s a subjective experience, but for the most part I’d say 90 percent of the people that I’ve talked to, that were here, love it. It’s not like other attractions. It’s not all about jump scares and scare zones; it’s really about storytelling, which is true to the Warner Brothers brand. So we want people to step into scenes, and I think if you were to compare it to some of the other product in town — where it’s about storytelling and you’re walking through scenes — our scenes come to life where Judge Joker, sentences you to the asylum and Harley Quinn takes you into the elevator and you encounter Scarecrow, and there’s really a story that’s being told, and you’re being put into the game essentially. Same thing with The Conjuring, where we have our paranormal experts and they’re telling the story and putting you into it and make you go. I’ve gone through Conjuring six times, myself, and I still get scared — I still jump even though I know where all the scares are.