No ordinary theater would do.
After decades of hopping from venue to venue — the cold vastness of the Shrine Auditorium, the cramped confines of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, and a half-dozen other places around town — the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences decided it was time Oscar had a home of his own.
Hollywood’s biggest night would be better served up, the Academy’s governors reasoned, in a theater built expressly for the purpose, with every last detail designed toward the larger goal of honoring the good work of people who make movies. The result is the Kodak Theater, a $94 million auditorium that opened Nov. 9 across the street from the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, where the Oscars were first handed out in 1929.
Now that it’s up and running — with the Oscarfest itself set for March 24 — it’s easy to forget the meticulous planning that went in to the Kodak’s execution, all of it overseen with stern, unswerving devotion by the Academy’s senior officers. (The Academy’s 20-year contract with Kodak contains an escape clause that’s tied to the success or failure of the complex and the continued revitalization of the surrounding area.)
“It had to be glamorous and beautiful, which we believe it is,” says Bob Rehme, who was the Academy’s president from 1997 until August. “We wanted it designed to hold a live TV show, with a permanent main camera position. It had to have a large stage, like the Shrine or Radio City Music Hall. And it had to have a very large orchestra pit that could hold 75 musicians — no Broadway show has that big an orchestra.”
The Academy also insisted on a jumbo-size ballroom for the Governor’s Ball and a large room for the world’s press (as opposed to the tents of years past). Fine, said developer TrizecHahn, which, helped by city and state tax incentives, put up the money for both the theater and the rest of the $615 million Hollywood & Highland development.
In addition, the Academy wanted to avoid repeating some of the less appealing aspects of the Shrine, such as the miles of heavy-duty electrical and fiber-optic cable running all over the place — especially tricky with high heels and evening gowns. At the Kodak , cables will be strung along underground tunnels and through decorative columns that lead to hidden light positions in the rafters, above a huge tiara-shaped structure hanging over the audience.
“It’s a modern interpretation of a theater, inspired by the theaters of the ’20s,” says architect David Rockwell, who supervised the restoration of Radio City Music Hall and built Cirque du Soleil’s new home in Orlando.
Rockwell was also inspired, he says, by the Paris Opera House, where much of the space is taken up by the lobby, a place to see and be seen. In Hollywood, that’s a crucial component.
Indeed, the whole question of arrivals is of paramount importance to the Oscars, and Rockwell has dealt with it by creating the Orchid Walk, which runs from the huge archway on Hollywood Boulevard, along a promenade bearing the names of best picture Oscar winners, up a staircase with red-tile inlays to suggest the notion of a red carpet, to the entrance of the theater. On Oscar night, the storefronts that line the Orchid Walk will be closed and covered.
One requirement for the show was that all 700 nominees had to be within four seats of an aisle in the lower orchestra. Done. Another was that there must be 14 fixed camera positions, six of them in opera boxes on either side of the stage (there are 24 opera boxes altogether). Done. The usual 3,565-seat capacity will be reduced to 3,300, primarily because of the camera spots.
The auditorium was designed to “look good from all angles,” Rockwell says, since so many shots on Oscar night show members of the audience.
“The show is not just on stage,” he says. “One of the requirements was a house that felt intimate, where the audience felt they were part of the show, which of course they are. The audience is close, and the opera boxes on either side of the stage lend to the intimacy.”
Rockwell showed Academy officers a series of computer-generated sight lines from what he jokingly called the worst seats in the house. “They approved them,” he says, “so every seat is a good seat.”
Every material and color — from the cherry wood that’s used in seat frames and around light fixtures to the red- and rust-colored fabrics decorating the walls — were evaluated from the point of view of how they would look on television.
“The entire facility, from Hollywood Boulevard to the stage, is predesigned to work as a TV production facility,” Rockwell says. “There are places to hang lights, to hide cables, all worked into the design.”
Rockwell and his bosses hope that the space will become iconic, a permanent pantheon to Oscar. But it will serve many other purposes, including a stage for musicals, concerts and recitals.
“What makes a good theater for the Academy Awards,” Rockwell says, “makes a good theater for every other day of the year.”