On March 24, one billion people across the globe got their first look at the Kodak Theatre, centerpiece of the Hollywood & Highland development in the heart of the movie capital, and new home to the Academy Awards. What they saw is a space, designed by the Rockwell Group and Theatre Projects Consultants, that strives to both evoke a sense of Hollywood fun and glamour and serve the nearly overwhelming technical needs of the Oscar night production. Of course, March 24 is only one date on the calendar; the Kodak Theatre has to perform capably year-round.
“So much of what was going to make this theatre unique was being built to be a great, state-of-the-art home for broadcast, as well as a great venue for live theatre the rest of the year,” says David Rockwell, principal of the New York-based Rockwell Group, and star attraction in the world of architectural design. “It unites movies, TV, and live theatre in a multi-platform way: The Oscars are produced as a tribute to the world of film, and it will be seen by most people on TV. But so much of what makes that broadcast special is the relationship between the audience and the performers.”
Rendering courtesy Iomedia/Rockwell Group
It's an understatement to say that most people will see the Kodak Theatre, which has an upper capacity of almost 3,600 seats, on TV. The theatre actually opened in November, and has already hosted live performances of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, The Nutcracker with the American Ballet Theatre, Melissa Etheridge, and Barry Manilow; following the awards, the Broadway musical The Full Monty will open there. But according to David Taylor, project manager from Theatre Projects Consultants (TPC), “More people will see the theatre in that one telecast than would see it from sitting down and watching performances there in 115 years.”
Key players in addition to Theatre Projects and the Rockwell Group include executive architect Altoon & Porter and design architect Ehrenkrantz Eckstut & Kuhn, both Los Angeles firms, and acoustician Robert Mahoney, who was charged with creating an amplified musical theatre house. But driving everyone's work was David Malmuth, the visionary on the whole Hollywood & Highland project. Starting in 1997, he worked with the City of Los Angeles to persuade TrizecHahn Development Corporation to take on this one-and-a-half-block, 1.2-million-sq.-ft. piece of Hollywood Boulevard revitalization, at a cost of $615 million.
There was a precedent: when Malmuth worked for Disney, he had helped anchor the redevelopment of New York's 42nd Street with the restoration of the New Amsterdam Theatre (a project TPC also worked on), now home to The Lion King. Just as the pride of place given to Broadway's legacy rescues that block from being completely overwhelmed by crass commercialism, the Kodak Theatre confers class and a sense of local history on the Hollywood & Highland complex, which also includes the new Renaissance Hollywood Hotel, but is essentially a big, upscale shopping center.
Interior photo: Timothy Street Porter/Rockwell Group
TrizecHahn Development Corporation, a San Diego-based subsidiary of Toronto real estate giant TrizecHahn, hired Malmuth as senior vice president and project executive (he has since left the company), and he quickly got in touch with Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) chairman Bruce Davis. “He called me out of the blue, but his timing was very fortunate,” says Davis. “We had been having problems with each of the two venues that we had been bouncing between for the previous 20 years or so. We had never been able to get quite as much time in Dorothy Chandler Pavilion as we needed, because it was heavily booked with other events. And at the Shrine Auditorium, where we liked the size of the theatre, we had some audience flow problems. Some of these problems later cleared up, but by that time we were excited about the idea of the new theatre.” (It should be noted that the City of Los Angeles, which ponied up $94 million for the theatre, actually owns it; the Academy simply rents it for the month of March. Eastman Kodak bought the naming rights in 2000.)
Davis had to pitch the idea to the Academy Board of Governors — conceivably a tough sell. “At the time, Hollywood was a pretty seedy neighborhood. On the other hand, David Malmuth had credibility, because he had worked in Times Square, and Hollywood at its worst was never as bad as that. But our governors were instantly galvanized by the idea. They saw the theatricality, if you will, of bringing the Academy Awards back to the neighborhood that has become synonymous with the art form. And as long as we were going to do this, we thought we might as well design a theatre that was really specifically for doing our show. That was the intriguing thing, that we could really improve many of the conditions that we had found in all the other places that we've done the show over its history.”
In 1929, the first Oscar ceremony was held at the Roosevelt Hotel, directly across Hollywood Boulevard from the Kodak Theatre. It was in there that several project participants gathered almost five years ago to overlook the site that would represent the Academy's 21st-century public face. AMPAS had quite a laundry list of needs. “There were a lot of specific requirements that you might expect, like size of the stage and number of seats,” says Rockwell. “They wanted a space in which people are going to feel really connected to the experience of the show, even from the upper balcony. They were also interested in comfort, the ease of getting to the stage from the orchestra, how many balconies there were and how deep, what the stair width was to allow people to get in and out, the size of the bathrooms, materials, finishes, and colors, how you get cable from trucks through the theatre…there were a lot of technical issues and a lot of issues that had more to do with a theatre that works emotionally for AMPAS.”
“It was a matter of very, very careful meetings to make sure that the theatre would really work in the way we needed it to work,” says Davis. Representing the Academy were stalwarts from past awards shows. Frequent Oscar producer Gil Cates was consulted, as was Emmy-winning director Louis Horvitz, lighting designer Bob Dickinson, production designer Roy Christopher, live sound mixer Patrick Baltzell, projections designer David Taylor (not TPC's David Taylor), and music director Bill Conti, who laid out masking tape in the AMPAS headquarters lobby to show exactly what kind of orchestra pit he wanted, one that could comfortably hold 77 musicians and instruments.
Out of all these talks and preliminary plans came several mandates. The stage was to be, at 150' × 76', one of the largest in the country, with plenty of wing space and load-in capability, including a loading door at the back of the stage. The seating capacity for the Oscars was to be, if much less than the 6,000-seat Shrine, at least greater than the Dorothy Chandler, where a number of seating positions were lost to television equipment or blocked by camera cranes. With that in mind, a media “cockpit” lift was to be installed in the middle of the orchestra, taking into consideration audience sightlines. And the extensive cabling required for the show was to be rendered as invisible as possible.
“It's based on many precedents,” says TPC design director Brian Hall, who cites the classic Broadway house as exemplified by the New Amsterdam, and the grand movie palaces of the past — one of which, the still-operating Grauman's Chinese Theatre, is just west of the Hollywood & Highland development. “But it's one of the few theatres in the world where modern technology meets tradition. The Kodak had to be a large studio space for producing the Academy Awards, and it had to do it in a way that people could sit in comfort and watch a show.” The result, he says, is “a great American theatre.”
For viewers and attendees, the Oscar experience will start, appropriately enough, at the arrivals area on Hollywood Boulevard. The Kodak Theatre is set back from the street, and fronted by a towering portal, which is designed by Rockwell. From here, a two-story Awards Walk, also designed by Rockwell, leads to the theatre; on Oscar night, the black-and-white terrazzo floor will be laid, naturally, with red carpet. A retail component is included along the walk, which AMPAS was adamant about disguising for the ceremony, so bronze bars for curtaining off store facades are part of the design. For most of the year, the only sign of an Academy presence on Awards Walk are backlit glass plaques for each Best Picture winner on a series of limestone portals. There are 144 of these plaques in place; more will need to be installed around 2072.
“The whole space becomes kind of a broadcast studio, with rods built in for sound and lighting,” says Rockwell. “You see the portals with the Best Picture awards, and this stair with lead mosaic tile comes swooping down like a fabric piece. The red carpet path in here will become like the ultimate cocktail party.”
The party continues in the five-level lobby, which centers on a large spiraling stairway and is topped by an oval, uplit dome. Rockwell specified a number of elegant finishes in the lobby, including cherrywood stair balustrades and newel posts capped with backlit cast glass, silver leaf accent on the walls, and most aptly, wall panels made of a glass bead material from Forms + Surfaces called Silver Screen; when front-lit, the panels indeed have the reflective look of a move screen. Rockwell conceptualized the Awards Walk and lobby area first, he says, partly because “so much of what makes going to the theatre special is everything that leads up to it.”
Interior photo: Timothy Street Porter/Rockwell Group
Of course, the main attraction is the auditorium itself, where form, function, and style share equal billing and are often impossible to separate. The look of the space is comparatively flamboyant, as befits a theatre that wants to project a Tinseltown buzz. The colors are bold and warm, dominated by cherrywood finishes, the deep plum of the velvety chair upholstery, and by the fabric wrapping the outer-wall acoustical panels, which blend in a Mondrian-style ombre pattern upward from red to blue.
The auditorium is capped by a silver-leafed “tiara”: an elaborately looping structure, inspired by the floor pattern of Michelangelo's Campidoglio and Busby Berkeley's ever-expanding choreographic shapes, that both supports and disguises an immense ceiling grid. Reflective ribs from the tiara extend down between the theatre's boxes, creating a continuous flow from wall to ceiling. The mirroring form of the house and proscenium reinforce the seamless enclosed feeling. “We did a lot of research into large houses that seemed to work, from Radio City Music Hall to Louis Sullivan's San Francisco Auditorium,” says Rockwell. “There seemed to be a relationship between the shape of the proscenium and the rest of the house, that acted as a kind of camera iris to focus your attention on the stage.”
The form of the seating is a Theatre Projects classic: a widely curved and shallow front orchestra, with a parterre and three balconies stacked and raked to bring all the seats as close to the stage as possible. Four boxes progress on either side from the balconies to the proscenium; the overall impression, says Davis, is of a house that's “wrapping around you and hugging you.” “It has a feeling of a house of 2,000 seats,” says Hall.
Since everyone attending the Oscars should, in the words of Rockwell, feel like “a VIP of sorts,” extensive sightline studies were conducted to ensure views from all seats were not only good, but something more: “There's no seat that has a view of the stage that isn't framed by other audience members,” says the designer. The intimate feeling extends to those onstage. “You can stand at the lip of the stage, and just feel how close all of the audience feels.” That sense of proximity should also come through to the viewer at home, given that the Academy Awards tends to involve more audience shots and interaction than other televised shows with a live audience. “Around the time we were planning this, Shakespeare in Love came out,” Rockwell says. “That reinforced the notion of the Globe Theatre, and how people surrounding the performance added to the excitement.”
That's particularly true if a number of those people are movie stars, who will be filling the front orchestra on Oscar night. Not everyone up close will be as recognizable as Jack Nicholson in his sunglasses, but all should have a potentially major role in the night's proceedings. “One thing that was very interesting for us in working with the Academy was their requirements for the nominees,” says Hall. “I think there are generally about 750 of them, and we designed the lower part of the orchestra to accommodate them, for easy access to the stage.” Embedded structure on both sides of the orchestra pit provides support for those stairs the lucky winners get to climb.
If needed, some nominees in the lesser categories can spill over into the parterre, which will also hold the media pit in its front center position. (Many of the roughly 300 seats the Kodak will lose to telecast requirements March 24 are from here.) The design of this 29' × 8' broadcast center, which will contain all the show's sound mixers and consoles, Vari*Lite consoles, three cameras, two cranes, and TelePrompter, was crucial to the Academy. “One of our ongoing irritations has been the big central camera position, with a guy riding a boom right in the middle of the auditorium, and the TelePrompter right below that,” says Davis. “It renders all of the seats behind it pretty awful.” The media pit and step-up parterre rear seating effectively take care of that problem.
“An absolute driving force of the design of this building is the relationship between the stage floor and all the technology and people in the media pit,” says Taylor. “There's no other place like it — a solid environment for cameras and people and controllers, but which also can be seen over, and where people in front of those cameras are out of the way. When the Academy goes elsewhere, they have to rip out hundreds of seats. We did a whole mess of 3D visualizations — views from the podium back, and from the cameras back to the podium.” Beyond the media pit, there are four side camera positions, and seven positions at the second balcony, while more technicians and a press box are housed in a large booth at the back of the auditorium.
The lighting system in the Kodak Theatre is designed mainly for legit purposes, with a number of front-of-house positions and circuits on the elliptical bridge that makes up part of the ceiling structure. The backbone of Bob Dickinson's huge lighting rigs for the awards are Vari*Lites, yet as Taylor says, “the house rig is very supportive of Vari*Lites, but doesn't include them.”
What it does include are 446 ETC Source Four ellipsoidals and 120 Source Four PARs, along with 80 Altman focusing cyc lights, Lycian followspots, and Morpheus color faders, all provided by Entertainment Lighting Services. The lighting console is an ETC 1,500-channel Obsession II with full dual processor crate and full designer remote. One possibly hyperbolic statement made about the theatre is that it contains more power than any other performance space in the world.
Installed in the space are 800 permanent ETC Sensor dimmers, but, Taylor continues, “We also put a huge amount of accessible power adjacent to those dimmers. We weren't throwing power around the building in a very expensive way; there's a place to put the Academy's rental dimmers, and the Vari*Lite racks, very close to where our racks are.” A flexible lighting ethernet system offers a choice of DMX in all control locations.
The house sound system infrastructure is installed by SPL, designed in conjunction with Baltzell and Engineering Harmonics' Dave Clark, to meet Broadway and broadcast A/B routing requirements, with 248 loudspeaker circuits distributed in A/B pairs among 105 locations. Equipment includes 80 Renkus-Heinz A/B loudspeakers for frontfills, boxes, and underbalconies, eight single-channel JBL speakers covering seats in the “nosebleeds,” 42 channels of QSC amplifiers, and BSS Soundweb networks for lobby paging and other capabilities. A portable house sound reinforcement system, which will not be used for the Oscars, was provided by IPR Services. It includes two identical Meyer Sound arrays flown on either side of the proscenium, each comprising six Meyer MSL-4 two-way speakers for downfill and balcony coverage and two DSP4P two-way boxes for additional balcony cover; two DF-4 two-way cabinets to bolster downfill coverage; three UPA2Ps for short-throw fill; and two 650P subwoofers to handle the low frequencies for the floor and balcony, with another 650P positioned on the downstage wing.
Taylor says, “We decided pretty early on that the best way to spend the money was on infrastructure. We absolutely filled the building with fiber and copper, with tielines. We designated two operational zones for the building — front-of-house and lobby, and auditorium and backstage. We have a SVC hub in the front-of-house area, and then we have a vast central equipment room at the northwest corner of the basement level below the stage. Everything in terms of patching and termination is there, and incoming systems can just roll into the room, which joins to the cable tunnel as well.”
Said tunnel is just one piece of a complex system designed to manage the miles of cable needed to power an enormous undertaking like the Oscars. This was another common headache from past productions that the Academy was eager to alleviate. “If you went to the Shrine,” says Hall, who along with Rockwell and other key figures attended the last several shows, “there was foot-high gaffer-taped cable everywhere.” Taylor says that TrizecHahn project manager Doug Curtis “beat us up every day about cable management systems. We needed to get a cable from anywhere to anywhere, out of view of the audience.”
Rockwell's form-and-function sense yielded particularly ingenious results here, as those aforementioned ribs extending down from the decorative ceiling structure double as cable distribution shafts from the catwalks, which branch off into troughs inside the pretty, backlit cast-glass balcony and box fronts. (Six of the 24 boxes, by the way, are to be used strictly as platforms for projection screens and other equipment during the Oscars.) The cable runs then continue into the basement, hooking up with tunnels that lead under Hollywood Boulevard and into remote production trucks. “Rockwell did some beautiful work on the architecture, but as an armature for equipment and technology, it also works beautifully,” says Hall.
The 64'-wide, 35'-high proscenium is covered by what Taylor calls the “fastest house curtain in the world,” designed by Rockwell in a grid pattern of alternating iridescent colors. The main stage space encompasses a 114' × 70' area, with 89', 6" to the grid. Pook Diemont & Ohl has installed a rigging system that includes 79 underhung single-purchase counterweight linesets with side tabs, ladder battens, and a 2,100lb capacity. In addition, a forestage grid extends 48' over the proscenium wall. “They've ripped holes in the Shrine ceiling every show to hang stuff up,” Taylor explains. “Not only do we have a great forestage grid with elevator access to it, but we also extended that with arena rigging beams beyond to the first catwalk. If you want to hang a car over the center of the auditorium, you can do it.”
We could go on to discuss the Kodak Theatre's 60 toilet fixtures for men and 80 for women (is that enough?), or its dressing-room capacity for more than 100, or the Winner's Walk that takes newly Oscared luminaries from the stage to the second-balcony level to the pressroom. And don't forget the adjacent, 40,000-sq.-ft. Grand Ballroom (designed by Diane Wong), where the Governor's Ball will be held after the ceremony, and which offers sweeping views of the Los Angeles skyline and the Pacific Ocean. Views that should remind one of the mythic Hollywood that, for one night of the year, the Academy Awards still manages to conjure, and the Kodak Theatre means to perpetuate.
Kodak Theatre Project Credits (partial) Hollywood & Highland developer
TrizecHahn Development Corporation
Project executive: David Malmuth
Project manager: Doug Curtis
Altoon & Porter
Principal-in-charge: Gary Krenz
Ehrenkrantz Eckstut & Kuhn
Kodak Theatre/Awards Walk architect
The Rockwell Group
Principal-in-charge: David Rockwell
Kodak Theatre planner, theatre and equipment designer
Theatre Projects Consultants, Inc.
Project manager: David Taylor
Director of design: Brian Hall
Rigging specialist: Michael Nishball
Principal-in-charge: Richard Pilbrow
Robert F. Mahoney and Associates
Dimming and control
Electronic Theatre Controls
Sound system designer
Project managers: Dave Clark, Philip Giddings
Rigging and curtain
Pook Diemont & Ohl, Inc.
Brintons US Axminster
Theatre Solutions, Inc.
PDO, using Gala Lift technology
Lighting system supplier
Entertainment Lighting Services
Sound system contractor
Portable house sound system
McCarthy Building Companies, Inc.