Venue Firms Vie To Run L.A.'s Greek Theatre, Despite Millions In Needed Upgrades

Michelle Shiers/Greek Theater
Harry Styles played the Greek Theater in Los Angeles in July.

On a warm October night, the sun had just set when Sturgill Simpson stepped upon the stage of the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles. A breeze barely moved the brightly lit trees around the amphitheater as a hush swept over the audience.

Only a few vintage amplifiers and a large rug decorated the stage, a markedly spare set compared with past shows by the acclaimed country singer. Gone were the shiny suits, big horn section and psychedelic videoboards Simpson had toured with in support of his 2016 Grammy-winning album, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth. The Oct. 6 show was a stripped-down jam session, perfect for the Greek’s intimate 5,800 seats.

The crowd remained rapt as Simpson played one of the last concerts of 2017 at the 88-year-old amphitheater designed to evoke a Greek temple. Owned by the City of Los Angeles and overseen by its Department of Recreation and Parks, the Greek is entering its third year of management by global venue company SMG. The city and SMG have made $5 million worth of improvements to the venue, which is nestled above the trendy Los Feliz neighborhood, and there are more to come. Another $50 million in needed upgrades await the winning bidder for a 10-year contract to manage the Greek beginning in 2019.

“It’s an older building, and it’s going to need continuous maintenance and upkeep,” says Greek GM Becky Colwell.

As with venues worldwide, tightening security became a top priority at the Greek in the wake of the suicide-bomb attack outside the Manchester Arena in England (a venue also managed by SMG) last May and the mass shooting at the Route 91 Harvest festival in Las Vegas in October 2017. Upgrades at the theater have included the installation of metal detectors at all entrances and video surveillance, paid for from a $1.6 million annual fund financed by a $5-per-ticket fee.

Other recent improvements include modernizing freight elevators, redesigning the VIP Redwood Deck and building unisex bathrooms for day visitors who stop at the Greek while hiking in Griffith Park.

Those updates followed the construction of a large bar and coffee stand on the amphitheater’s plaza in 2016, and the addition of a new point-of-sale system to accept credit cards everywhere in the building. Planned for 2018 is the renovation of the open-air box seats that sit along the rear perimeter of the lower bowl.

“We’re upgrading the look with etched glass partitions and new tablet ordering systems,” says Colwell. She adds that the new adornments will match some of the Greek’s original geometric design, uncovered during a recent effort to restore parts of the building as it was first imagined by architect Samuel Tilden Norton.

Big projects remain -- the overhaul of two large seating sections, the raising of the stage and the restoration of the venue’s original Greek columns -- but face an uncertain future in terms of funding.

Management of the Greek is up for bid this year for a contract that will run from 2019 through 2028, and contenders will have a chance to propose private and publicly funded upgrades to the venue, although city officials are not expecting an operator to cover the $50 million needed for additional deferred maintenance.

Some in the city are suggesting a municipal bond against future revenue. But Department of Recreation and Parks GM Mike Shull says he’d like to explore other options before engaging in the complicated civil borrowing process.

“We’re focused on restoring the Greek as much as we can,” says Shull. “Everyone would love to see the historical elements restored. But we’re also careful about doing anything that would require closure of the venue. We’re doing improvements within the five-month window when the Greek is off-season, and we think we’ve made it better each season.”

Bids to manage the building as an open venue were due at the end of January. For the contract to run the Greek for a decade, starting with the close of the 2018 season in October, SMG faces stiff competition from Oak View Group, the firm launched in 2015 by superstar manager Irving Azoff and former Anschutz Entertainment Group CEO Tim Leiweke. “This is an opportunity that Oak View Group is pursuing aggressively,” says Leiweke.

Oak View Group notched a number of successes in 2017, beating out AEG for a plan to revitalize KeyArena in Seattle, and winning approval for a new arena for the New York Islanders on Long Island.

Complicating the competition for future management of the Greek is the recent sale of SMG. Live Nation came close to making a bid for the venue operator but never submitted a final offer, in part because acquiring SMG would have violated the city’s rule that promoters can’t operate the Greek. Had a deal been consummated, it potentially could have nullified SMG’s contract for the amphitheater.

SMG was instead sold to Onex, a private equity firm with $22 billion in assets under management. While Oak View Group may not have Onex’s deep pockets, it’s still a well-financed company that has raised millions for other projects.

“We’re looking for a certain amount of resources from a potential operator,” says Shull. “There’s many different criteria that go into the decision of who we select, including a unique business plan, sponsorships and revenue.”

Meanwhile, Live Nation and the Nederlander Organization, two companies that keenly competed to manage the Greek in the past, have quietly partnered to co-promote events at the venue. Nederlander Concerts CEO Alex Hodges estimates the two companies did 40 shows together in 2017. “We’re maximizing our long history at the building and bringing our expertise as a partner,” he says. “No matter who is managing it, we’ll continue to participate in the building’s success.”

This article originally appeared in the Feb. 17 issue of Billboard.