Keeping The Stars Safe

Most of this year's Academy Award attendees are already familiar with "screen tests"--just not the kind they'll experience on March 24. As they near the Kodak Theater, stars, guests and fans alike will be subjected to the most intensive security screenings to ever take place on Hollywood's biggest night. Every limo will be searched, every evening bag will be checked and every body will be "mag'd" (via metal detectors known as magnotometers). Security has always been tight the evening of the Oscars, but in the wake of 9/11 and with the ceremony's new location, the Academy's taking many additional protective measures.

Attendees will have to show proof of identity before they are permitted to sashay the half-block walk along the famed red carpet to the theater's grand spiral staircase. And for the 450 lookyloos perched in bleachers across the street, snagging a spot will have been almost as challenging as winning an Oscar: fans were required to email seat requests seven weeks in advance and then submit to detailed background searches--just to be considered for a slot on the reviewing stand. "We will know exactly who everyone is on Oscar night," says Bruce Davis, the Academy's executive director. "This is probably the most watched TV show in the world. Even a technical glitch is embarrassing; a security glitch would be unfortunate in the extreme. So we're not gonna let it happen. Hollywood & Highland is going to be the safest area in L.A. the night of the awards."

That will be no easy feat. The Kodak Theater, a 3,300-seat venue specially built to house the annual awards ceremony, is the centerpiece of Hollywood & Highland, a dense, seven-acre retail/entertainment complex intended to revitalize old Hollywood. The multi-leveled complex is designed for easy access to more than 70 retailers, a 640-room adjoining hotel, a four-screen cineplex, a six-level parking garage--and even an on-site metro station. Open corridors join various sites, allowing for a constant and uninterrupted flow of pedestrian traffic. In other words, says security expert Stephen Vale of Citigate Global Intelligence and Security, "The place is like a sieve."

In order to protect it on Oscar night, he says, every hole in the so-called sieve will have to be sealed off. Then there is the "Dealey Plaza factor" to consider, which refers to the spot where JFK was gunned down from a warehouse overlooking his open motorcade. Like JFK, the stars entering the Kodak will be within target range of a number of buildings, including a partially leased tower and the Hollywood International Hostel, where some 168 beds go for $17 a night to foreign travelers on a budget.

In many ways, protecting the president, a single person whose route is scripted and schedule known, is easy compared to guarding a galaxy of the most famous people in the world, who will be wandering at random. "We are going to be rolling out the crown jewels of entertainment all in one place," notes Vale. "The risk profile is very high."

Here's the solution: The Motion Picture Academy has virtually commandeered the entire Hollywood & Highland complex--and the neighborhood surrounding it. The stretch of Hollywood Boulevard on which the Kodak sits will be closed to traffic five or six days before the event. Just after midnight on the Saturday before the awards, the MTA will close the metro stop to all passengers for 24 hours. Shops in the complex will also be shuttered. Then, bomb-sniffing dogs and security agents will move in and begin a series of sweeps of the grounds and facilities. Buildings facing the stars' entrance to the theater will also be emptied and secured. "We've basically been sold to the Oscars," says Jenita Spirtovic of the Hollywood Hostel, where management has agreed to move all guests to a nearby hotel out-of-range of the ceremonies. On the night of the event, 800 private security guards will be on duty. In addition, the LAPD's West Bureau will be fully deployed and working closely with Oscar officials.

Security, of course, is hardly a new issue to the Academy. Celebrity stalking has long been a problem. And Davis notes that every Academy Awards ceremony in recent years has received at least a couple of bomb threats during the telecast. By now, security officials have developed a series of questions for the would-be bomber designed to gauge the reliability of the threat. So far, none have been credible.

More good news: Post-9/11, organizers feared that they might have difficulty filling the house on Oscar night. Instead, the stars will be out in full force--the Academy has had to turn away 250 members who wanted to attend this year's 74th award ceremony. The run on seats may be partly due to the fact that it's been 40 years since the Academy Awards were held in Hollywood, the birthplace of American show business. "Hollywood is back in Hollywood, and the stars are in alignment," says Hollywood Chamber of Commerce President Leron Gubler. And the hope is that at least for one glittering night, all will be right with the world.