AMPAS’s Highland fling

The Acad has a new home at the Kodak Theatre but for how long?

Will the Kodak Theatre work as the Oscars new home? Absolutely. The Academy will make it work.

Every year the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences produces the most complex live awards show on TV and they never screw up. (OK, it’s too long but that’s another matter.) The telecast employs the top people in their fields and has a budget that runs as high as $16 million. Rain, shine, with or without Whitney Houston, the show will go on.

The more pertinent question is will AMPAS want to stay at the Kodak. (Yes, there’s a 20-year lease but exit options abound.) Whether this really becomes Oscar’s permanent home depends on how the new theater works and how the Academy members respond to it.

Numerous sources both inside and outside the Academy say Hollywood & Highland developer TrizecHahn promised AMPAS a much more elegant theater in a classier environment done with higher quality materials. But for now, that almost doesn’t matter.

To be sure, the Kodak has many pluses:

  • Oscar comes back to Hollywood. This can’t be stressed enough. The Academy wanted the show to originate from the mythical show biz capital and that wish was fulfilled.

  • The Academy gets the 3,300-seat theater it wants. The Dorothy Chandler is elegant, but too small. The Shrine is more than large enough, but timeworn. The Kodak has the Goldilocks quality of being just the right size. Of course, reaching the seats in the steep upper balcony might require mountaineering skills, but the theater does have the requisite number.

  • There’s an intimacy to the Kodak (which partially comes from its “pushed forward” steepness) that should help the show’s host establish a rapport with the live audience. Past emcees and producers have said it was easier to work the Chandler than the Shrine because of its smaller size. As an example, there won’t be the problem of having a half-second delay getting the laughter back from a joke as there is at the Shrine.

  • There’s a consolidation of elements (telecast, Governors Ball, press) all in one place. The press area should work well, especially when compared to the cramped quarters at the Chandler. Plus all the parking for those attending the awards (but not the press, who will be shuttled over) is in the same building.

  • The Academy hopes that having a designed arrival area, as opposed to making do with whatever was outside the venue, will add to the theatricality of the pre-show experience. Just having the red carpet go down Hollywood Boulevard with fans in bleachers on the right and the press on the left should add excitement to the arrivals.

  • The Grand Ballroom works fine. Some sources say the best experience the Academy had was working with ballroom interior architect Dianna Wong. Sequoia Productions’ Cheryl Checchetto is expected to make the room look fantastic. (The Academy doesn’t cut corners on the ball: according to official Academy documents, the 2000 affair cost $879,000.) Chef Wolfgang Puck is happy with his kitchen. Though there are plenty of bathrooms, there’s the minor hassle that they are outside the room. More tenting is being installed for Oscar night in case of rain.

  • The Academy gets its own home. No longer will the Academy be a vagabond, moving from one venue to another. They may only be tenants at the Kodak, but it’s still home.

Those are a few of the positives. But there are also a number of questions regarding the Kodak that have to be answered.

The Kodak has to work as a theater for both live performance and live broadcast. This type of double-use venue is not exactly common. New York’s Ed Sullivan Theater, where “The David Letterman Show” originates, is one of the few places in the country that does both.

The theater audience needs to be comfortable and have an acceptable in-house experience. (The Academy is taking special care that the acoustics, which were panned in early reviews, are as good as humanly possible.)

The TV producers have a whole slew of other concerns. As an example, the show’s signal and the flood of TV stations covering the event have to hit satellites. Hollywood & Highland is surrounded by high-rise buildings and is backed against the hills. The transmission situation is delicate now, if another tall building goes up nearby, there could be problems.

The Kodak’s stage has only a minimal stage left. This means the entire show has to load-in from the right. This can be worked around, but considering the size of sets involved it could have been better executed. However, AMPAS says the above stage grid is exceptionally well designed.

The relative intimacy of the Kodak means the sight lines are easily obstructed by production equipment. Lots of thought has to go into making sure the cameras and monitors don’t block the audience’s view.

Urban density

The Hollywood location is a relatively dense urban environment and AMPAS says its even more crammed than being in downtown Los Angeles at the Chandler. There’s less space to put production trucks, equipment and star dressing trailers. As a result, some trucks will have to be parked relatively far away and cables run into the building.

Then there are points of contention with local stores, neighbors and apartment buildings. With Hollywood Blvd. blocked off and some lanes of Highland Avenue obstructed, there are even more traffic issues than there were at the Chandler.

The most commonly heard comment from guests attending post-premiere parties at the H&H complex has been: “The Oscars are being held in a mall?” Academy Award night will be the first time most AMPAS members will experience the new complex. How they feel about being in a mall is to be determined.

Admittedly it won’t be a mall on Oscar night (the stores will be closed and most signs covered) and the Academy will spend a fortune lighting and dressing the place to obscure Hollywood & Highland’s more mercantile side. But will going there ever be as elegant and dignified as going to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion?

One way the Academy downplayed the mall aspect is they insisted that their entrance to the Kodak, the Orchid Walk, be completely different from the rest of the complex. The signage is in drapery pockets and is removable. The walk becomes an extended lobby.

(For those wondering why the Kodak is in the back of the mall at the end of this elongated lobby, it’s because the original Hollywood & Highland plan had an aboveground parking structure where the theater is now. When the Academy came on board as the star tenant, five-levels of parking went underground and the Kodak was built where the garage would have stood.)

Gowns vs. escalators

The experience of attending an elegant black-tie gala doesn’t usually involve riding an outdoor escalator. It will on Oscar night. The elevators in the theater are not enough to rapidly transport the 1,650 guests who will attend the ball on the top floor and the 1,650 who will be going to their cars at street level. This might not be the best night to wear a gown with a long train.

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