While Beyonce, Pharrell Williams, Miley Cyrus and other pop music stars are wondering whether they’ll walk away with honors from the 2014 MTV Video Music Awards, another contender looking to emerge a winner isn’t a person at all: the Forum in Inglewood, Los Angeles.
This year’s VMA show is the first awards event to be held at the rejuvenated arena, which reopened this year after a $100-million makeover by its new owner, Madison Square Garden.
The Forum, which opened in 1967, fell on hard times after Staples Center opened downtown in 1999. Since its reopening, the venue has hosted dozens of shows with established acts such as the Eagles, Justin Timberlake, Paul Simon & Sting and Arcade Fire.
Even so, an internationally televised awards show like the VMAs will introduce the facility to millions more viewers Sunday night. Meanwhile, the Forum has been hosting a virtual open house all week for potential clients as they try out the nation’s largest indoor venue specifically designed to showcase music.
“This is the highlight of our year,” veteran talent manager Irving Azoff, chairman and chief executive of Azoff MSG Entertainment, said of his new partnership with Madison Square Garden Co. “We were offered many television opportunities, but we turned everybody down and waited almost nine months until we felt we had the brand that was truest to the statement we want to make for the Forum — that this is where iconic acts have broken and continue to be broken and where they will always remember having played.”
One question to be answered is whether the Forum will be able to remain financially healthy without the guaranteed income that a sports team can generate — or in the case of AEG-owned Staples Center, three: the Lakers, the Clippers and the Kings. AEG officials declined to comment for this story.
On Wednesday, crews were working intently to customize the Forum for the awards show. In one corner of the venue’s parking lot, a crew was plastering posters along the length of the red carpet that leads directly into the arena.
Across the lot, pieces of a shiny 50-foot stage that will form Maroon 5’s logo waited to be assembled. Plans call for 3,000 fans to crowd the stage during the group’s outdoor performance during the main event, with the illuminated Forum as the backdrop.
“(Having the show) at the Forum is a huge deal for me,” Maroon 5 frontman Adam Levine said. “Our band was born and raised in Los Angeles, and it’s such an iconic staple. For the first time in our career we’re stepping out as our band on its biggest platform. Everything led to here.”
Playing up the Forum’s intimate arena feel, the floor will be a standing area for fans with a secondary stage that can be positioned anywhere in the room. The main stage features a velodrome-like curtain inspired by the Forum’s architecture, and winners — and maybe even a performer — can traverse a part of the stage that swirls around part of the crowd like a cinnamon roll.
“This show has always been about audience energy,” VMA executive producer Jesse Ignjatovic added during rehearsals.”When you’re in an arena space you can do more. It affords you the opportunity to stage things differently, and every performance will feel different from the other.”
In the 31 years MTV has held the Video Music Awards, network executives have bounced the ceremony among various venues, predominantly in L.A. and New York, although the show shifted to Miami in 2004 and 2005 and Las Vegas in 2007. Last year the show was held in the new Barclays Center arena in Brooklyn.
MSG and Forum officials say they’re focused primarily on assisting in the production demands of Sunday’s telecast. Azoff notes that “most artists stay locked up in their dressing rooms” when they’re not onstage rehearsing. Still, many artists, managers and booking agents will be getting their first look at the amenities built into the arena when it was rebooted without having to cater to the needs of a sports franchise.
“The Forum has such a pedigree of great music history,” MTV President Stephen Friedman said this week. “Given that they’ve invested so much in upgrading it, it’s going to be kind of a coming-out party. A lot of people have no idea how spectacular it looks now. It really pushed the artists to say, ‘If I’m going to be on that stage, I need to take it to the next level.’”
Mick Jagger got drenched when the Rolling Stones played the Forum in Inglewood on July 9, 1975.
Friedman said it’s likely the show will take time out to highlight the Forum’s storied concert history, from Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan and Led Zeppelin on through to Queen, Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen and Coldplay. But how much of that will register with viewers remains to be seen.
“The rebirth of the Forum is a great success story, but I don’t think hosting the VMAs has a substantial impact on the public,” said Gary Bongiovanni, editor of Pollstar, the concert industry-tracking publication. “It is a TV show, and the home viewing audience doesn’t really care about the venue.”
Van Toffler, head of MTV’s parent company Viacom Music Group, disagrees, citing last year’s presentation.
“Brooklyn was insane,” Toffler said. “We love coming back to L.A. and making a statement in such a historic, iconic venue, particularly given what they did with it. They made it sound great, and we’re going to make it look and sound great with the energy of the show.”
Whether there will be another cultural flash point like Miley Cyrus’ endlessly debated performance last year is anyone’s guess.
“Look,” Toffler said, “we always want things bigger and better. The mantra of MTV and the VMAs is to reinvent and never do the same things twice. ... We feel like we just put all the combustible elements in a room, light a match and watch things light up.”