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Paparazzi business being redefined

Biz about volume, feeding ever-expanding market

When Paris Hilton stepped out of the Los Angeles County Jail just after midnight on June 26, the glam ex-con strutted as if she were on the red carpet.

She might as well have been.

In the crowd that greeted her were the predictable camera-toting Hiltonheads trying to snap a shot — along with legitimate news orgs, wire services and photo agencies.

The term “paparazzi” used to refer to a scattered group of independent shooters hoping to sell to a glossy tabloid. But as celebrity-based journalism flourishes via fan magazines and, especially, the Internet, the business has become all about volume and feeding an ever-expanding market.

In theory, the paparazzi biz should be flourishing. Instead, it’s being redefined.

More photographers are entering the field and prices have flattened. The business of the paparazzi has become the well-organized domain of photo agencies like Splash News, Flynet Pictures, X17 and many others.

Popular on Variety

In other words, paparazzi are going mainstream. It’s a big business now, and the independent lensers are working hard to maintain their place in the market.

To be a freelancer now means connecting with one of these photo services. For red-carpet and event shots, magazines pay roughly $200 for a quarter page and up to $500 for a full page. In terms of paparazzi material, the once-common bidding wars are far fewer, as are the exclusive images that engendered them.

Which is not to say that anybody’s going hungry.

“There’s still good money in paparazzi,” says Gary Morgan, CEO of Splash News. “But the more people that do it, the less money there is. We are going from what was a highly specialized method of shooting a few years ago to something that’s being commoditized and is all about volume.”

A unique, one-off shot of a pregnant celebrity that once went for $17,000 “would never happen today,” says one industry professional. “When someone’s about to pop, they’re followed everywhere. There’s so many photographers.”

“Paparazzi style is almost becoming a red-carpet situation, where everyone’s yelling for Paris to look here, look here, where it used to be a much more covert thing,” says Us Weekly photo editor Peter Grossman, who peruses some 80,000 images per week.

” ‘Paparazzi’ is a bit of a misnomer now,” says Splash’s Morgan. “Originally, paparazzi was a select group specializing in a specific kind of celebrity shooting. Now AP, Reuters — everybody’s doing it.”

Paparazzi may have indeed gone pro, but are the pros going paparazzi?

On the other side of the photo fence are the long-established, red carpet-sanctioned agencies.

The acknowledged leader, Getty Images, recently spent $200 million to purchase MediaVast, owner of strictly non-paparazzi agencies Contour, FilmMagic and WireImage (with which Variety has an ongoing deal), consolidating that side of the biz. Though those companies insist they won’t stoop to celebrity-chasing, some wonder whether they’ll be able to resist.

“Most of those big agencies have dabbled in it but haven’t wholeheartedly gone into it yet,” says Morgan. “We’ll see if Getty and others want to get full-blown into the paparazzi world. Certainly, Getty’s trying to buy everything up, by the looks of it.”

Not likely, according to the bullish big dog.

“The reason Getty made the acquisition is to become the No. 1 photo agency in the world,” says Mark Kuschner, Getty’s global VP of entertainment. “We’re never going to get into the business of the long lens, hiding in the bushes, hunting people down. Our business is based around relationships with celebrities and publicists and publications. The way we shoot is we’re invited. Paparazzi business is getting more play, but that’s also a very cyclical business.”

Perhaps. But that cycle shows no signs of slowing.

“If it were the stock market, I would definitely be taking my money out of event photography and putting it into paparazzi for a couple of reasons,” Grossman says. “One, everybody’s using paparazzi pictures now, not just tabloids. They’re finding their way into Time and Newsweek and monthly magazines. It’s just more accepted than it was a couple of years ago. It’s part of pop culture now; there’s no sense that we can’t touch those pictures anymore.”

Getty insists that it only covers events to which it’s been invited, but there’s no denying that the public also wants to see celebs in less formal, unstaged situations.

“It’s crazy, it’s exploding,” admits Kuschner. “People cannot get enough information, especially when it comes to entertainment. On their mobile phones, on the Internet, in newspapers and magazines, TV shows, you name it. And it’s a massive global trend.

More and more, individual photogs connected with existing companies are branching off and forming their own concerns. And there are plenty of non-photographers turning pro: ex-gang members, valets, waiters, dog walkers, even the homeless are working for agencies, bringing their own particular skills and vantage points.

Another upstart player in the photo game are the MOPS, industry jargon for Members of the Public. With cheap, user-friendly digital units and cell phone cameras, a money-making snap can potentially be captured by almost anyone.

“A day doesn’t go buy that a MOP doesn’t contact me,” says Grossman. “The general public has become more aware of what used to be inside knowledge. It’s rare, but in some ways, a MOP is more likely to get a magic moment, because it happens when celebs think they’re not being watched.”

The Internet has certainly amped up the volume, both as a means to transport images around the globe instantly and as an outlet for material. And that includes the MOPs.

The Splash agency offers peoplepaparazzi.com, directly appealing to the “more than 2 billion phones in the world today with cameras. The age of the Citizen Journalist, the People Paparazzi is here,” as its website states.

The site offers cell shooters 60% of every sale.

Francois Navarre, who owns X17 with his wife Brandy, says the Web has transformed his business.

“The main change for us came a year ago when we started the website X17online.com,” says Navarre of the site, which is in the TMZ.com mold. “Suddenly we were not only producing images but editing and publishing images. We could see if we had traffic or not and see what was popular, and choose the stories and be much more of a player instead of an observer.”

The yin to that yang for many in the industry has been notorious bloggerazzi star Perez Hilton. For close to three years, his popular site has featured celebrity images, many of them allegedly stolen: Hilton (whose real name is Mario Lavandeira) contends he’s using the images for satire, thus making them fair game. But he’s being sued by eight agencies in four separate lawsuits for copyright infringement.

“For our agency, it’s like five or six pictures a day,” claims Navarre, who filed a $10 million suit against Hilton in November. “I’m losing an average of $20,000 to $50,000 a day because of him.” (In June, Hilton filed a countersuit against Navarre, alleging that he is seeking to “redress the illegal and unethical business practices of X17.”)

The legal heat mounting against him recently induced Hilton’s main Web server, the Oz-based Crucial Paradigm, to drop his site, the first blow to the blogger’s empire.

As court battles play out — and technology offers new ways to observe the famous being human — the business continues to reinvent itself.

And the public gets what the public wants.

“Everyone knows where Paris lives and everyone knows what Britney does, and you have all these people working on it,” says Grossman. “And as long as the pictures continue to sell, they’re all going to be out there doing it.”

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