How Do the Paparazzi Sell Their Pics?

An introduction to the celebrity photo game.

A collision with the press

A paparazzo photographer crashed a minivan into Lindsay Lohan’s sports car on Tuesday; he now faces a possible charge of assault with a deadly weapon. The next day, Cameron Diaz filed suit against the National Enquirer for publishing a candid picture with the headline “Cameron Caught Cheating.” How do the paparazzi sell their photos?

Most turn their snapshots over to a celebrity photo agency, which in turn sells them off to the highest bidder. (Some paparazzi do work independently or start their own agencies.) A typical deal gives 60 percent of the proceeds to the photographer and 40 percent to the middleman. If the photographer used information from the agency—such as, say, “Lindsay Lohan will be driving an SL65 coupe near the Beverly Center at rush hour”—the agency might take an additional 10 percent. That extra money often goes toward paying off inside sources such as bodyguards or personal assistants.

The word “paparazzi” comes from the celebrity shutterbug in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. Today, the term is often used to distinguish between reckless star-chasers and more conservative photographers who work official events and studio shoots. (These conservative types sometimes call their competitors the “stalkerazzi.”) There are plenty of agencies that represent paparazzi—some of the best-known in Los Angeles are MB Pictures, Bauer-Griffin, X17, and Splash News.

Agencies try to sell pictures within 24 hours. The agency crops the images, adds captions, and wires them in digital form to publications around the world. (Sometimes these are sent in low resolution or with a watermark to discourage freeloaders.) Typically, a different deal gets cut for every country; the biggest players are the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, and France. A publication will typically buy exclusive rights to print the photo for a few months.

Celebrity magazines and tabloids will also commission agencies to get certain pictures. If the editors at People wanted a shot of Denise Richards coming out of the hospital with a baby in her arms, they might offer photographers a few hundred dollars a day.

Smile! Photographers on the set of Lohan’s movie

Publications often bid against each other for exclusive footage, and prices can get very high. Pictures of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie on the beach are said to have gone for $500,000 (though some paparazzi claim the actual figure was half that). The value of a photo depends on the story behind it: Shots of Denise Richards with her baby, for example, are worth more because of her separation from Charlie Sheen. Details are also important: An image of Denise smiling would be worth considerably more than a bland-faced equivalent.

With about 150 paparazzi in Los Angeles alone, it can be hard to find a photo that no one else has. If everyone gets the same red-carpet photo, it might only fetch a “space rate”—about $75 to $200, depending on the size of the published image. Exclusive shots net a great deal more, whether they’re taken by the most aggressive paparazzi or a more austere agency like WireImage. An exclusive shot of a celebrity, taken by invitation in his or her home, can be worth tens of thousands of dollars.

Next question?

Explainer thanks Jay Williams of Shooting Star and Frank Griffin of Bauer-Griffin.