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Kodak Theatre bets Cirque du Soleil will fill its seats

Except during Oscars season, Hollywood & Highland owner CIM struggles to book shows. An L.A.-backed federal loan would help it sign a 10-year deal with the acrobatic troupe and boost tourism, it says.

August 04, 2009|Roger Vincent

It's an old Hollywood story: a well-liked performer with a pretty face who just can't deliver the goods every time.

In this case the performer is the Kodak Theatre, glamorous temple of the Academy Awards seen one night each year on television by millions of people. But on far too many other nights, the vast theater tucked into the Hollywood & Highland shopping center is dark and not generating revenues or taxes, its operators say.

The development company CIM Group, which owns Hollywood & Highland and runs the Kodak, says it could strengthen the theater and buoy tourism revenues in Hollywood by signing the famed acrobatic troupe Cirque du Soleil to a long-term contract.

But that would mean $50 million in renovations, and CIM wants to fund part of that with a federal job-creation loan, obtained through the city of Los Angeles. The City Council is scheduled to vote today on whether to sponsor the $30-million loan, which supporters say would earn the city $500,000 in administrative fees.

The loan request raises the question of the best way to draw audiences to the Kodak, which is owned by the city and leased to CIM. Designed to accommodate the Oscars and other red-carpet awards shows, the theater has not been an attractive venue for many other types of programs, and a good number have gone to competitors in Hollywood or the LA Live entertainment complex downtown.

It is not clear whether even Cirque du Soleil, which has long-running shows in the U.S., Japan and China, could fill the Kodak during the 11 months of the year that the venue is not needed for the Oscars.

But such a deal could be the right answer, supporters say, because the Kodak would no longer have to try to book show after show -- it would simply rely on Cirque to fill the seats.

"This is the missing piece for Hollywood," said City Councilman Eric Garcetti, who represents the district and has been wooing Cirque du Soleil to set up a show there. "This is what we've been waiting for."

The Kodak's status as kind of an odd-size orphan among the city's performance venues has worked against it, said David Brooks, a senior writer at Venues Today, a trade magazine for the live events industry.

National companies that promote top-flight performances have made substantial investments in competing Los Angeles theaters and lack incentive to send shows to the Kodak, Brooks said. Nederlander Producing Co. of America owns the nearby Pantages Theatre; Live Nation owns the renovated Hollywood Palladium; and AEG owns the Nokia Theatre in downtown Los Angeles.

"Kodak is a well-known building but doesn't come up a lot in the context of wanting to book shows," Brooks said. "Why book there when you have your own venues you recently spent millions on?"

With 3,400 seats, the Kodak is too large to host touring or local productions of Broadway shows, which are some theaters' bread and butter. But it is too small for other events. The Nokia, by contrast, has 7,100 seats and is a preferred venue for concerts by big-name musical performers.

Certainly, the $94-million Kodak has had successes beyond the Oscars. "The Oprah Winfrey Show," "American Idol," "Miss USA" and a debate of Democratic presidential rivals were broadcast from there. Entertainers Tyler Perry, Kathy Griffin, Michael Bolton, Eddie Izzard and David Copperfield have performed on its stage.

It's even hosted big traveling shows such as "Annie," "Disney High School Musical" and the Beijing Opera. But those events have never been numerous enough to keep the Kodak busy, said Shaul Kuba of CIM, which owns Hollywood & Highland and controls the theater through a long-term lease with the city. The city also owns the mall's parking structure.

In good times, the Kodak hosts events about 200 nights a year, Kuba said. However, income from live shows at the Kodak is expected to be less than $2.4 million this year, compared with $4.1 million last year and $4.3 million in 2007, a city report said.

CIM is counting on Cirque du Soleil to bring both tenants and customers to Hollywood & Highland. Earlier this year, the Hard Rock Cafe agreed to move into the shopping center in part to get business from people who would come to see the show, Kuba said.

"People are banking on the idea Cirque will be a successful attraction to new customers," Kuba said. "It's just nice when the theater is operating. It's like something grand is happening. You can see people dressed up and going out to dinner."

The spillover effect of a permanent show would boost Hollywood, said Garcetti, who estimates that Cirque patrons would each spend about $200 in the area, including the $110 price of admission to the show.

"Thousands of people each day would mean a tremendous amount to the Hollywood tourist industry and to the neighborhood businesses," Garcetti said.

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