Splash News & Picture Agency

Splash News & Picture Agency





Agency makes Splash thanks to Warne and Hurley - 30th May 2011
(Credit: The Australian)

BREAK-UPS, hook-ups, affairs, divorces, secret liaisons and parked-car kisses. It's all in a day's work for paparazzi king Kevin Smith. And a very lucrative day's work, too.

"It's true, when we make money is when there's divorces and that kind of thing," the former Londoner says cheerfully down the phone from Los Angeles, home-base of his Splash News and Picture Agency. "Our motto is, 'Their misfortune is our fortune'. We were going to get that translated into Latin.

"My wife's a nurse and when she goes out to work in the morning I say, 'Good luck saving lives!' and she says, 'Good luck ruining them!' . . . but we're only reporting the truth. And it's what the people want."

Trained on London's "red-top" tabloids, Smith moved to LA about 20 years ago and founded Splash with fellow Fleet Streeter Gary Morgan. Today it claims to be the world's No 1 paparazzi agency with 110 staff, about 3000 regular contributors and offices in LA, New York, Miami, London, Rome, Milan and Berlin.

And next month, add Sydney to that list. The agency is expanding its global operation into Australia, with its Sydney bureau set to officially open on June 12. Reporter Grant Hodgson, for two years Splash's sole local representative, is being joined by a team including British imports Rob Henderson and Tom McShane and staff photographers Mike Emory, Guillaume Gros and Brendan Beckett.

"It gives us a true 24-hour presence and it's also a staging post for Asia," Smith says. "Australia is an absolutely huge market for us, the fourth-biggest territory in terms of dollars. We sell thousands of pictures down there and we're talking millions of dollars.

"And there really was a need for an agency that does import and export: not just selling Hollywood into Australia but getting the Australian stories out to the rest of the world."

Top of the agency's hit list are visiting overseas stars, currently including British celebrities Mel B and Ronan Keating, locally based boldface names such as Brian McFadden, Cate Blanchett and Russell Crowe, and purely domestic personalities, such as anyone appearing on Dancing with the Stars.

And then there's ex-cricketer and paparazzi favourite Shane Warne, whose off-field exploits helped Smith and Morgan finally decide to invest in an Australian branch. When Warne locked lips with actress Elizabeth Hurley in LA in January it was a Splash photographer who snapped the magic moment through a car window. The shot became one of the agency's biggest sellers.

"The Warne (story) was a classic. The intelligence on that started in Australia and if we hadn't had reporters and photographers there we never would have got it," Smith says.

"They would have come in, had their little tryst and no one would have known. And he would have gone back to his missus and she wouldn't have known, either."

The Warne-Hurley clinch was just the latest in a long line of scoops for the agency, which made its name in 1993 when it broke the story of the child abuse allegations against Michael Jackson. (According to company legend, Smith and Morgan coined the "Wacko Jacko" nickname.)

It was also the first to get photos of Hugh Grant after his 2007 encounter with prostitute Divine Brown and the first to track down "Canoe Man" John Darwin, who in 2002 faked a fatal canoe accident for an insurance payout and hid out in Panama, not even telling his sons it was a stunt.

But it isn't only celebrities looking nervously over their shoulders: Splash's imminent arrival in what is already a fiercely competitive market is also causing consternation among the existing local agencies.

For its size, Australia supports a large paparazzi pack, including Snapper Media (which previously handled Splash's local picture syndications), OMG News, Scope Features, Big Pictures, Picture Media, Austral International and Melbourne-based Barcroft Pacific.

OMG News's Jamie Fawcett, perhaps Australia's best-known paparazzo, says the agencies have reacted to the Splash launch with "fear and loathing".

"A multinational company coming down under in a market that is struggling with falling circulations and difficult economic conditions -- (it's) the last thing you want," he says. "Personally, I enjoy competition. But I think a few agencies will fall by the wayside because of it. I don't think they're ready for the fight for market share."

Other agency heads, although reluctant to speak publicly, also predicted the cutthroat competition for juicy exclusives was about to get even more aggressive. (Although, as one commented: "how low can they go?")

Conversely, Picture Media managing director Jo Terry doesn't believe there will be a shake-up. "Splash's content has been in this market for over 10 years so it will not really be much different," she says. "It is really a sign of the strength of the Australian market over the past few years that overseas photographers are setting up shop here."

Splash's move is definitely good news for women's magazine publishers, having to tighten their belts as a tough retail environment squeezes discretionary consumer spending. "Budgets have dropped and magazines, newspapers and other media are not willing to offer what they did in the past (for pictures)," says Robyn Foyster, a publisher at Nine Entertainment Co's ACP Magazines. "Competition is a great thing. When there's more competition people have to be more innovative and they need to look at their prices."

The agencies supply still photos, video and stories to local and international magazines, TV networks and newspapers, with online sites a burgeoning and increasingly important market. But the local business is still underpinned by the string of women's weeklies published by ACP (which has Woman's Day, NW, OK! and Grazia) and Seven Media Group's Pacific Magazines (New Idea, Who and Famous).

Their readership of mostly 20-something women has a powerful appetite for celebrity news and gossip: in the three months to March the seven weeklies had a combined average circulation per issue of 1.18 million copies and a readership of more than five million people.

However, while still enormous, the audience has been steadily shrinking: combined average sales were down 8 per cent on the 2009 March quarter while readership was down almost 6.6 per cent year on year.

Nevertheless, Hodgson says the photo-sales market remains strong, with prices starting at a few hundred dollars for a red-carpet shot and climbing well into six figures for an exclusive "set" of an international star. "When you compare it to London, which has suffered greatly since the GFC in 2008, Oz hasn't been as affected," he says. "(The celebrity weekly category) is still a big market, there's a lot of competition and a lot of money being spent."

Smith is confident Australia will yield plenty of material. "There's a lot of stories going on there that people aren't even aware of," he says. "We've built a fantastic team that have proved themselves elsewhere in the empire, they've honed their skills, and they're going to be looking for more stories like Shane and Liz.

"We're going down there to shake things up a bit."

For celebrities, the message is clear: more than ever, they need to think twice before doing something (or someone) they shouldn't.