Bent over backward for Cirque du Soleil

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.

To secure the $30-million federal loan, CIM would put up Hollywood & Highland, which the city values at $324 million, as collateral. The money would go toward excavating 45 feet under the stage to make room for Cirque's elaborate sets and constructing a rehearsal center.

Cirque du Soleil would commit to putting on 368 shows a year for 10 years, starting in 2011.

But there is no guarantee that enough people would attend the shows. The recession has affected Cirque du Soleil along with other entertainment businesses. Performances at some theaters are running at about 80% occupancy instead of selling out as they used to do. Cirque has had to conduct aggressive marketing campaigns that include ticket sales through group discounters.

Still, the theatrical company has already designed the stage and cast the 75-member production of a Los Angeles-centric show that would salute the history of movies, Chief Executive Daniel Lamarre said in a phone call from Canada.

"We believe that when tourists come to visit Los Angeles, this will become one thing on their menu to do -- a Cirque show in Hollywood," he said.

The troupe has yet to close any of its permanent shows, the oldest of which has been running for 15 years, Lamarre said. Cirque's full-time productions include shows in Orlando, Fla.; Tokyo; and Macao, China. In Las Vegas alone it has six, and a seventh with an Elvis Presley theme is in the works.

"We know how to manage ticket sales for a permanent show," he said.

Los Angeles is held fondly in Cirque lore, Lamarre said. The Montreal-based traveling circus, founded in 1984, was running out of money early on, in part because Canada was too cold for six months of the year to put on tent shows. Founder Guy Laliberte told his performers that Cirque's last shot would be a run near Santa Monica Pier. If that failed, he would sell the tent and buy everyone plane tickets home.

The 1987 Santa Monica performances were a hit and Cirque survived. The troupe will return to Santa Monica in October with a road show called Kooza.

Los Angeles developer and theater owner David Houk said it's impossible to know whether Cirque du Soleil can fill the Kodak for such an extended period. But he said the colorful acrobatic company has a good chance for success.

"Running a theater is very easy if you have a hit," Houk said. "The trick is getting a hit, and there is no question, Cirque is a hit."

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roger.vincent@latimes.com

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