Feeding the Dream Business Inside the World of the Hollywood Paparazzi

Paparazzi have a bad reputation for bending the rules to satisfy the world's insatiable demand for celebrity photos. But the business is also incredibly lucrative, something that prompted Bill Gates' Corbis photo agency to buy the world's top paparazzi shop. Some in the industry are trying to free it from its sleazy image, but upstart agencies have few moral qualms.



The place feels like a temple to photography. A giant image of Marilyn Monroe, taken by star photographer Paul Rice in 1956, hangs in the lobby of the Corbis Corporation. Andy Warhol's portrait of John Lennon dominates the company's open-plan office in Seattle's historic Dexter Horton Building.

Printed on fine gauze, it adorns a staircase leading up to the executive floor, where we meet with Gary Shenk. He is wearing jeans and a T-shirt. The dark rings under his eyes suggest he is not getting enough sleep.

Shenk is the CEO of Corbis, one of the world's most renowned high-quality stock photography agencies. The company, owned by Microsoft founder Bill Gates, holds the rights to more than 100 million images. They include the photos of the legendary French agency Sygma, as well as photos from the historic Bettmann Archive, whose inventory dates back as far as the American Civil War.

The agency sells icons of photography: a nude of Brigitte Bardot in the bathtub; Albert Einstein sticking out his tongue; the black-and-white photos of Vietnamese children fleeing from America napalm bombs.

Recently, however, this traditional citadel of quality photography has been selling more trivial fare: There's "Her Royal Hotness" Pippa Middleton wearing pink jeans in London, model Kate Moss drinking and smoking on the beach and French President Nicolas Sarkozy jogging in a blue T-shirt on the Côte d'Azur.

The change results from Corbis' acquisition of Splash News, the global market leader for paparazzi photos. It is a breakthrough for a business that, until recently, was still viewed as the street urchin of the industry.

The thugs of the telephoto lens are becoming presentable -- and mainly because the pictures they take can be worth a lot of money. In fact, Shenk estimates "that anywhere from 50 to 60 percent of images that are sold into media these days are entertainment images," most of them taken by paparazzi.

Shenk refers to the celebrity snapshots as "candid celebrity photography" --- "candid" in the sense that they are "taken from real life." They revolve around themes of love, sex and tears -- and the satisfying feeling that even the rich and beautiful can occasionally have their embarrassing moments and failures in life.

In the Lair of the Paparazzi

It takes a trip south from Seattle to Los Angeles to discover how the paparazzi industry works. The small editorial office of Splash News is located at the top of a narrow staircase in a building in the city's western Venice district. The covers of celebrity magazines hang on the walls like trophies. A large photo shows a group of paparazzi at work, bunched together like students posing for a class portrait.

The people at Splash News are proud of their work -- and of their successes. Company revenues grew by more than 20 percent in the last year alone, says Kevin Smith, one of its founders.

These days, the British native and former London-based journalist heads a paparazzi empire. The company has supplied the photography for 500 magazine covers over the last five years, he says, adding that Splash News sells photos in close to 70 countries. "I was amazed when we hit the million dollar (mark) in revenues," says Smith, who drives a Bentley. "Now I am laughing about it."

Celebrity news from the company's field offices around the world have trickled in overnight. As he does every morning, news editor Paul Tetley delivers a brief status report: Jennifer Lopez is in Chile and allegedly sleeping with someone from her team of dancers. Irish singer Sinéad O'Connor plans to get married, for the fourth time, in Las Vegas. A rumor from England says that Prince William's wife, Kate, is pregnant.

And, of course, there's always Alec Baldwin. "He refused to shut off his mobile on a flight yesterday," Tetley reports. The actor allegedly became verbally abusive and was ordered off the plane. It's a mini scandal -- and a hit for Splash News.

A Vast Intelligence Operation

Indeed, the celebrity news agency thrives on the missteps of the stars. "We always used to say 'Your misfortune is our fortune,'" Smith readily admits. Being in the right place at the wrong time -- for the celebrities at least -- is the art of the paparazzi, who ply their trade with the virtuosity of skilled investigators.

The agency employs roughly 1,000 photographers across the world and operates an extensive network of paid informants. Smith has his "tipsters" in hotels, restaurants, theaters, hospitals and airports, including about 100 doormen, bartenders and chauffeurs in Los Angeles alone. Among other things, Splash News uses this network of tipsters to keep track of who is flying when and where, and it closely monitors publicly accessible police reports.

"Hardly anything happens in this city without our finding out about it," says Smith, who claims he could find almost anyone within a day. For this knowledge, he depends primarily on his photo reporters, a close-knit group that refers to itself as the CIA, or "Celebrity Intelligence Agency."

"The job is a bit like bird-watching," Smith says. "You have to have a certain tenacity, and you have to be able to blend in."

And be fast, he could add. Indeed, Smith's photographers can transmit their photos directly to the editorial office via a high-speed cell-phone network, thereby giving customers access to the images within seconds.

"People pay for speed," Smith explains. "The first picture runs; the second just doesn't."

Out on the Hunt

Owing to this pressing need for speed, Splash photographer Darren Banks always has his Canon EOS 1D Mark IV within reach. The compact 36-year-old is wearing white sneakers and jeans. He was once a marksman with the British Army. "It's the same training, exactly the same business: Have a recon, shoot the prey," he says in a strong British accent, maneuvering his large SUV out of a parking spot.

We drive toward Hollywood, the 20-square-mile (50-square-kilometer) zone surrounding Sunset Boulevard that is the hunting grounds of the paparazzi. Banks always drives up and down the same 12 blocks, along Melrose Avenue, Rodeo Drive and Robertson Boulevard, past "Ivy," a restaurant popular with celebrities, the "Boa" steakhouse and the Fred Segal boutique. Eventually, he heads toward Beverly Hills, where the stars live.

In Benedict Canyon, Banks monitors the situation in front of David and Victoria Beckham's $22-million (€17-million) mansion. A few blocks later, he drives past Tom Cruise's former house.

Banks knows the area like the back of his hand. Three months before Cruise's daughter Suri was born, Banks practically lived in front of the estate's gate, sitting in his car from 5 a.m. to 11 p.m. every day while taking only short breaks. He calls the practice of waiting for weeks on end for just the right opportunity "doorstepping."

At times, he says, there were eight paparazzi lurking in front of the house, but "in the end, I got the largest number of exclusive photographs." The haul consisted of eight "sets" of photos, little vignettes from the life of the Cruise family that are worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.

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