The Department’s Hamish A. Jenkinson on Arkham Asylum – and how brands can thrive with immersive experiences

To find out more about the development process behind next year’s Arkham Asylum experience, we spoke with Hamish A. Jenkinson, Founder and Executive Creative Director at The Department and Co-Founder of Dept. Studios, Inc.

Autumn 2022 will see Arkham Asylum – a new immersive experience set in the psychiatric hospital from the Batman series – open in London.

The show is a collaboration between Dept. Studios Inc, Myriad Entertainment, Warner Bros Themed Entertainment and DC. According to the announcement release, it will combine futuristic technology, interactive theatrics and an original story to create a ‘chilling, once-in-a-lifetime, live immersive experience’.

To find out more about the development process behind Arkham Asylum – and learn what brands need to do to thrive with immersive experiences – we spoke with Hamish A. Jenkinson, Founder and Executive Creative Director at The Department and Co-Founder of Department Studios, Inc.

Hamish, it’s great to catch up. So to start things off, how would you position the work of The Department and what your team does?
It’s an age-old adage but we’re storytellers. We try and take a brand, look at its core DNA and find unique ways for people to engage with that. It tends to involve a combination of human touch and ground-breaking technology. Recently, we did one of the largest projection mapping projects in Europe where we transformed BMW’s HQ – a 98 storey building – with projection mapping content.

Hamish A. Jenkinson, The Department
When the World Wildlife Fund were looking to create an environment for their State of the Planet address, they came to us. We used technology in the form of projectors to create a 180-degree immersive environment in a circular oil tank. 500 people entered the building as the alarm calls of animals and fires blazed across the screen – it was a powerful introduction for Christiana Figueres’ State of the Planet address.

When we work with brands, we’re always looking to create something the audience hasn’t seen before. We want to reimagine how they can engage with the key touchpoints that are important to the brand, and express brand values through experiences.

Hamish A. Jenkinson, The Department
Interesting, those two examples aren’t character brand or film properties. Do you see vast potential for brands coming from all sorts of sectors – whether you’re Marmite or Batman – to embrace immersive experiences?

100%. I draw a line at something like the M&M’s World store in London. For what it is, it’s wonderful. It’s M&M’s in your face; it’s product, product, product. But what it hasn’t looked at are the values, the history and how those elements can be conveyed in a deeper, richer way. For me, that’s not an immersive experience; it’s the opposite.

That said, the M&M’s story is fascinating. Kids get messy with chocolate melting on their hands, and M&M’s was born out of a desire to give kids chocolate without it melting in their hands. I think you could spend hours in the M&M’s World store in London and have no idea that’s where it all started. It misses the immersive element, but there’s lots within the M&M’s story that could be brought to life in that way.

“When we work with brands, we’re always looking to create something the audience hasn’t seen before.”

There are some brands where it wouldn’t make sense to create an immersive experience – I can’t imagine it would be the first port of call for an accountancy firm – but in fashion, luxury, lifestyle, food… It works. Look at the Carlsberg brewery in Copenhagen, it was a functional place but it’s now one of the most visited places in the area because it’s an immersive experience. Same with Guinness in Dublin.

Hamish A. Jenkinson, The Department
You mentioned Marmite earlier. That brand is crying out for an immersive experience – and there is an entire network of brilliant immersive experience creators that could take on the challenge of creating the immersive Marmite experience.

We know there is huge currency in the experience economy, which shows no sign of slowing down. Couple with our lives being online with social media and that desire to capture yourself in extraordinary environments… Give me a million quid and I will create the Marmite experience; I’ll make it one of the top ten experiences in London on Time Out or Secret London and I’ll have millennials and Gen Zs flocking to it!

Well, we’ve put it out there now so let’s see if Unilever gives you a call! Building on what you were saying there, what does a brand need to translate successfully into immersive experiences?
It’s always nice to have historical touchpoints to lean into. I’m looking at the Volvo brand at the moment and it’s been around for a long time, so there’s some incredible moments in that brand’s journey – the inventor of the three-point seatbelt was a Volvo engineer and he didn’t patent the technology so all car makers could use it for free. He’s probably saved more lives than anyone else on the planet!

“As an agency, we believe we are one of the best in the world at creating immersive experiences. That gave us the belief that we should go after the biggest IP we could find, and that’s why we went for Batman.”

Elements like that are helpful, but it’s not the most important thing. The most important thing is that the brand has realised what its purpose is. Consumers now know they have the power. If brands do not behave in a way that we deem right and proper in relation to challenges – environmental, social, economic – then they’ll walk away.

An immersive experience could be used to launch a brand no-one’s ever heard of. It doesn’t matter if a brand is 100 years old or three years old. What matters is a clear purpose and well-defined brand values.

Great stuff. Now, we should talk about some recent exciting news; Department Studios is teaming up with Myriad Entertainment and Warner Bros Themed Entertainment to launch Arkham Asylum in 2022, a new immersive experience set in the world of Batman. What can you tell us about it?
It’s been a labour of love for many years. We’ve been working on it for seven years. Batman is one of the richest, most loved brands around. For us as an agency, we believe we are one of the best in the world at creating immersive experiences. That gave us the belief that we should go after the biggest IP we could find, and that’s why we went for Batman.

The reason it’s taken us seven years to launch this project is that we went to Warner Bros and DC and said: “We believe there is an entirely new revenue stream here and we are the ones to launch it for you. You already make films, TV shows, video games, comic books, but imagine an urban theme park – 60,000 sq ft – in Manhattan or London. Allow us and Myriad Entertainment to write a brand-new theatrical story that works specifically for a free-roaming immersive environment.”

After a great deal of development and back and forth, they signed off on our creative vision late last year.

Hamish A. Jenkinson, The Department
And without giving too much away, what should we expect from the experience?

It will play on themes that touch us all, especially in light of this new situation we’ve all found ourselves in. It will be an unbelievable experience.

We’re so excited with what we’ve done with the character of Jeramiah Arkham. The Joker had his own movie, and it was the first billion-dollar R-rated movie. The depth we’ve gone into this character is so great that it wouldn’t surprise us if we could help elevate him to a position where he could get his own movie.

It sounds remarkable. So how did you prepare to write a new story for this character? Was it a case of watching the Batman movies, reading the comics…
We were lucky to have launched The RX for Lexus and worked with Jude Law and a director called Simon Evans. He was the theatrical lead on a few projects we’d done over the past nine years. He’s a total fanboy so having him on board as the director and one of the key writers, as well as his partners at Myriad, it gave us a huge head-start when it came to entering the world of DC.

I look forward to checking it out when it opens next year. Now, I’m interested, how did you first start working with brands?
I came from an arts background. I’d been running two cult venues in London – the Old Vic Tunnels and the now legendary Vaults – both underneath Waterloo train station. It was while running those venues that I got the opportunity to produce a show with Punchdrunk, collaborate with Secret Cinema, work with Banksy when he built his underground cinema – which he called the dirtiest, dankest, skankiest cinema in the world… It was a bit wet and edgy down there! That was to launch his film, Exit Through the Gift Shop.

What was extraordinary to me was that this 80,000 sq ft venue would be reimagined every time by these incredible immersive experience creators – sometimes with decent budgets and other times with limited budgets. Their ability to create amazing worlds that people could step into and get lost in was life-changing for me.

Was there an event you hosted that really opened your eyes to the potential for brands to embrace immersive experiences?
Amplify – a brand experience agency I admire a great deal – came down and created an incredibly immersive experience for the Converse brand. That was the beginning of me understanding that brands could really use experiential and immersive theatre techniques to create unbelievable experiences for their customers.

We also did the launch for one of the Game of Thrones seasons at the Old Vic Tunnels. Seeing audiences wandering through the tunnels as if they were at a castle in The North, having a chance to sit on the throne and while actors walked around animating the space… It really made me recognise how streaming companies like Netflix and Amazon had an incredible opportunity. They weren’t doing it back then, it’s only really happening now with shows like Money Heist becoming an immersive experience in London. It will continue and I imagine we’ll see multiple Money Heist experiences pop up all around the globe.

“Give me a million quid and I will create the Marmite experience; I’ll make it one of the top ten experiences in London!”

When I moved on and started The Department, I knew that brands could create deep, rich experiences that were not so much focused on the product, but on the values, ethos and attitude of the brand. If brands do that, they create deep, long lasting impacts and spawn life-long advocates of the brand.

I remember a Stella Artois experience created by Punchdrunk. At the time, Stella Artois had a reputation as a ‘lads lager’ that you drank before being rowdy at a football match. It wasn’t anything other than that, despite the multi-million-dollar campaigns to try and position it differently. Yet, Punchdrunk’s Stella Artois experience gave you a very different perspective on what the brand stood for. That’s lived with me forever and I don’t think you can say that for a lot of experiences that brands put out there.

On the flip side, what are some of the things you think hold brands back from doing these kinds of experiences?
Well, marketeers need to understand how they can create a measurement and a matrix for the value of these experiences. It’s much easier and much cheaper to design a digital marketing campaign than it is to create a fully immersive experience. That said, marketeers are wising up to the power of immersive experiences.

Before we wrap things up, I wanted to ask where you see this space going in the near future? Are there any trends that you think will have a big impact on how immersive experiences are executed?
Facebook has changed its name to Meta, Epic Games has just raised $1.7bn to value the company at $17.3bn to build the metaverse, Roblox continues to acquire new and young users… The metaverse is going to play a significant role in our lives moving forward. If anyone wants a taster of what that’ll look like, you can experience that in Goliath: Playing With Reality. It’s a free VR experience on the Oculus Quest; a 30 minute deep dive into 3D environments that touch on emotion, storytelling and gaming.

Hamish A. Jenkinson, The Department
Currently the metaverse is being built by those with the technology and the experience, the games makers. They come from a particular mind-set: Solve the puzzle, complete the riddle, open the door, shoot the zombie… Myself and others in the immersive theatre space don’t necessarily share that mind-set. We want to move hearts and minds.

Brands are going to need help navigating this new landscape and I’m excited for that. There’s a lot of mistakes that could be made but lots of opportunities too.

Thanks for taking time out for this Hamish, I really appreciate it. My last question is: How do you fuel your creativity?
There are two creative tools I lean on when it comes to creating immersive experiences. I studied drama at university and two things had a major impact on me – one is fairly recent and the other goes back to Aristotle.

The idea that there are archetypal stories: Poverty to Wealth, The Quest, Rebirth, Overcoming the Monster and Voyage & Return. I always try to see where a brand’s story fits into those. This is the one that goes back to Aristotle. The other main inspiration is Robert McKee, who wrote Story. It’s a seminal book on the three-act film structure and it’s a really useful tool when creating an immersive experience.

They are my two key creative tools.

That’s fascinating. A huge thanks for this Hamish; some great insights there. I know The Department also recently published a report called The Value of Immersive that I’m sure our readers will find interesting. That can be accessed here. Thanks again!

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