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Originally published July 20, 2011 at 9:16 AM | Page modified July 21, 2011 at 12:57 PM

Corbis buys L.A. firm that specializes in celebrity photos

Corbis buys Splash News. Its scoops have included the first images of Michael Jackson's first child and Sandra Bullocks' first public appearance with her newly adopted son.

Seattle Times business reporter

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Look out, Angelina Jolie.

Bill Gates owns a piece of you now — or at least your image.

His photo and video-warehousing company, Corbis Images, announced Wednesday it has bought Splash News, a Los Angeles firm that buys and sells photos of celebrities. The deal price was not disclosed.

Splash's scoops have included the first images of Michael Jackson's first child and Sandra Bullocks' first public appearance with her newly adopted son.

It buys work from more than 3,000 photographers scattered around the world snapping photos of celebrities — including Bill Gates — and sells them to celebrity magazines, newspapers and online media.

"The content almost sells itself," said Corbis CEO Gary Shenk. "I think demand for entertainment photography is insatiable on a global basis, particularly for celebrities."

That's good news for a company that has had to downsize in recent years because the industry it traditionally served — magazines, newspapers and print advertising — has shrunk.

The only company bigger than Corbis in the image arena, Seattle-based Getty Images, was sold in 2008 to private investors for $2 billion after being hammered by the stock market.

Corbis has shrunk from more than 1,000 to 660 employees in five years, Shenk said.

It closed sales offices, opened call centers in London and New York, and began offering more service and access to images online.

To improve its online presence, Corbis has hired 110 people over the past year at its downtown Seattle headquarters, which now houses 250 employees.

In 2007, it bought a company called Veer that handles content from amateur photographers, a growing business now that so many people carry cellphones that take pictures and video.

Another Corbis division specializes in images that are used in everything from TV commercials to motion pictures. The latest Harry Potter movie included modified Corbis images of smoke, the sky and clouds to create scenery.

Buying Splash puts Corbis in a growth market with the widest base of photographers taking candid pictures of celebrities, Shenk said.

The L.A.firm has about 100 employees, including the former British journalist who founded it in 1990.

Splash takes red-carpet photos of celebrities but specializes in candid shots.

It can send images from a photographer's camera to a magazine in seven seconds, he said.

That is, unless they are sensitive photos that require discussion before being released.

Splash recently decided not to sell exclusive photos of Prince William and wife Kate honeymooning in the Seychelles Islands, Shenk said.

"They could have made a ton of money, but they chose not to distribute them although they were shot in an ethical and legal way. They didn't want to violate the relationship or the trust of the royal family," he said.

Shenk prefers that Splash's photographers not be called paparazzi.

"That is a term of several decades ago," he said. "This is a very professional industry, and we're committed to delivering the pictures customers need, but doing it in a manner that's completely ethical and respects their right to privacy. That's a critical part of the success of Splash. We don't cross lines."

As for Corbis' own celebrity, Bill Gates, there will be no special rules now that he owns the, uh, professionals who chase down celebrities and take their pictures.

"He recognizes that a person of his status is expected to be in the public eye, and there are certain realities of life that come with that status," Shenk said.

Melissa Allison: 206-464-3312 or mallison@seattletimes.com

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