I’d like to thank the Academy: Behind the scenes at Hollywood's Dolby Theater

Home of the Oscars since 2002, and used for countless movie premiers, live shows, and more, here's a special inside-look at the Dolby Theater in Hollywood.

Geoffrey Morrison
Geoffrey Morrison is a writer/photographer about tech and travel for CNET, The New York Times, and other web and print publications. He's also the Editor-at-Large for The Wirecutter. He has written for Sound&Vision magazine, Home Theater magazine, and was the Editor-in-Chief of Home Entertainment magazine. He is NIST and ISF trained, and has a degree in Television/Radio from Ithaca College. His bestselling novel, Undersea, and its sequel, Undersea Atrophia, are available in paperback and digitally on Amazon. He spends most of the year as a digital nomad, living and working while traveling around the world. You can follow his travels at BaldNomad.com and on his YouTube channel.
Geoffrey Morrison
1 of 51 Geoffrey Morrison/CNET

Hollywood and Highland

Every year the Dolby Theater hosts the Academy Awards, aka the Oscars. It's part of the Hollywood and Highland Center, so named for being on the corner of Hollywood Blvd. and, you guessed it, Highland. This area also has the famous Hollywood Walk of Fame, The TCL Chinese Theater and my favorite movie theater in LA, the El Capitan

For more on this behind-the-scenes tour, check out Behind the scenes at the Dolby Theater, home of the 2020 Oscars.

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Red carpets

Depending on the event, they'll shut down the whole block. In the rare cases when there's a bit of bad weather, they'll even put up a block-long tent. 

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Generally, the "red carpet" (which isn't always red) will be out on the sidewalk or on the closed-off street. From there, most attendees walk through this entrance. At all other times, this is just another part of the mall, with a few shops and the escalators to the parking garage.

4 of 51 Greg Harbaugh/Dolby Laboratories, Inc.


Here's how the outside of the theater and Hollywood Boulevard looked during the Oscars in 2014. The tent you see on the far right is a portion of what they'd use for the whole block. So that tent, but stretched to cover all the way to the entrance. Beyond, too, if the TCL theater (to the left of this image) is used as well.

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Steps of stars

There are two entrances, behind these stairs, and up them. 

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Best pictures

The columns feature the Best Picture winner from every year since the beginning of the Academy Awards. 

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Check in

Sometimes check-in for an event is here, behind the stairs. Find your name, get your tickets, and pass through a metal detector to get inside. Other times, like for the Force Awakens premiere, check-in was down the block. So I was able to just walk up the stairs, hand over my phone, then pass through a metal detector. 

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Looking up

There are more entrances and exits up there, but those aren't used as frequently.

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Main lobby

If you enter from street level, this is the view that greets you. The purple entrance on the left is the Dolby Lounge.

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Dolby Lounge

The special VIP room off the main lobby. A 120-inch Vizio TV and a full Atmos surround system entertain the guests. The doors in the far wall go to the hallways that weave under and around the theater to get people back, and eventually on, stage. 

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One of Dolby's many technical Oscars.

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This ramp, off to the left side of the lobby, is one of the main ways to get to the dressing rooms and "backstage." This is from the top of the ramp, looking back down toward the lobby.

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Ready for my closeup

The main dressing room, for the hosts of an event, or the main stars of a show.

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The hallways backstage all have a royal purple color.

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Way more convenient to have cables like this than behind walls or under the floor. 

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Being a mixed-use venue, the Dolby Theater has to swap out huge swaths of gear in just a few hours. Most of it is stored on site. 

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As you can imagine, during a show these hallways would be quite busy.

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Dressing room

One of the several dressing rooms for cast members, presenters, and anyone not "worthy" of the main dressing room you saw earlier.

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Elephant doors

One of the oversized "elephant doors" to get gear or people backstage. The door on the right leads out to the house.

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From stage right

Not being designed strictly as a movie theater, the Dolby has an extensive stage.

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Out to the house

Not a view you typically get to see. Behind where I'm standing there are stairs down to the hallways you saw earlier. 

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I'd like to thank the Academy

I have yet to be nominated for an Oscar. So rude.

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Stars galore

During the public tours of the theater, they put placards with actors on them so you can get a photo sitting next to someone famous.

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Looking stage right

Not quite as much space back here as the Vienna State Opera House, but far more than you'd expect if you thought it was just a movie theater.

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To me, the most fascinating aspect was how much smaller the theater seems from the stage, compared to when sitting in the audience. One of the theater employees that was guiding my tour explained that part of that is because the mezzanines are stacked vertically, instead of raked backward. Also, there's "only" seating for 3,400, which is small compared to the size of the stage.

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Though set up with boxes along the walls, most aren't often used. Some live shows will, but the angle is too severe for premieres.

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Dolby Atmos speakers, seen mounted on a support on the back wall, are flown out above the audience before premieres. The screen retracts above the lights when not in use.

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Sometimes the crew only has a few hours to convert the theater from one use to another. Here you can see them setting up for a premiere by dropping the screen from its storage slot, installing it, and mounting all the speakers.

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Sizeable stage

At 120 feet (36.6m) wide and 75 feet (22.9m) deep, this is one of the largest stages in the US. 

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The pit

The area directly in front of the stage is height-adjustable. Here it has additional chairs used during some events. During the Oscars, it descends to house the orchestra. It can also be raised, as it is during premieres, since sitting up here would be way to close to the screen for comfort.

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Special seats

Everything in the theater was designed with TV in mind. The seats, for example, aren't a single shade, but maroon with a textured black striping, which shows up better and has more "depth" to the camera's eye.

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Depending on the event or show, this area might be used for sound mixing. At other times, like during premieres, there's seating.

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This is the theater in its "base" form. Every event or show changes the look to suit its needs.

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There's a bar on each floor. During premieres there's free soda and popcorn. Score.

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Upstairs lobby. Each of the other four lobbies looks about the same.

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Spiral stairs

Generally, during premieres, you're not allowed to visit other floors than the one where your seat is assigned. Even among the Hollywood elite, there's "elite" and there's "elite." 

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Busby Berkeley dreams

Aspects of the lobby design were inspired by "Michelangelo's Campodiglio in Rome and Busby Berkeley's choreography."

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Hidden compartments 1

So this is really cool. The projectors used during premieres don't live at the theater. They're brought in for the show. However, the laser light sources for said projectors, are semipermanently mounted. They hide below the projection booth. And if you know where to look...

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Hidden compartments 2

You can swing open a panel to reveal a nondescript metal door. It isn't, as it looks, just an access panel. It, too, is a door...

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Hidden compartments 3

Which reveals a small hidden room packed with gear like...

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With their own HVAC piped in from the lobby, and enough wires to knit a city-size hat, the lasers for both projectors are hidden in here.

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Projection booth

Built higher than Dolby would usually prefer, the company had to make do with the layout it inherited when it took over the naming rights in 2012. The angle down to the screen isn't ideal, but I doubt anyone but Dolby staff would notice.

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Empty booth

What's in here varies depending on the event. During premieres it has Dolby's dual-projector setup. Other times it might just have this, a single 4K Christie projector.

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Despite its size, this still throws off a fair amount of heat. Multiple AC units cool the space.

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The view down

Not a bad view from up here.

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Audio controls

If they're not on the floor to mix the audio, it can all be done up here.

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No cheap seats

Though they're a little far back compared to most movie theaters, there aren't any "bad" seats here. That said, they don't usually open the top mezzanine, as in the nosebleed seats, during premieres. 

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Atmos mounted

In the mezzanines Atmos overhead speakers are permanently mounted, since they don't get in the way and would otherwise be a hassle to reinstall for every event that needs them.

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The decorative columns aren't just for show. They're hollow, allowing the miles and miles of cables to run to and from speakers, amps, sources, from the basement to the ceiling.

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Dolby told me the best seats from which to see a movie here are actually in the middle up here, not down on the floor. 

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On with the show

So next time you're at the Academy Awards, or watching them or any of the countless other TV shows recorded here, you'll now have a better idea what the Dolby Theater truly looks like, minus all the glitz and glitter (i.e., still pretty cool). 

For more on this behind-the-scenes tour, check out Behind the scenes at the Dolby Theater, home of the Oscars

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