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Celebrity Access Shuttered

RESPONSE TO TERROR | SECURITY CONCERNS : COLUMN ONE

Since the Sept. 11 attacks, the Hollywood paparazzi have found that the red carpet and much of their livelihoods have been pulled out from under them.

November 30, 2001|ANN W. O'NEILL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Jim Smeal's phone didn't ring for two weeks. The fax machine stopped spitting out press releases and party invitations. The e-mails dried up. Even when the clatter resumed, all he could hear was the sound of lost opportunity.

Smeal makes a living taking pictures of the stars who stroll Hollywood's red carpet at movie premieres, charity fund-raisers and awards shows. He started September booked solid. Then, suddenly, the party was over.

Now that Hollywood is slowly rolling out the red carpet again, Smeal finds he's persona non grata.

Among other events, the paparazzi weren't invited to the Los Angeles premieres of Ben Stiller's "Zoolander," Mariah Carey's "Glitter" and Michael Douglas' "Don't Say a Word."

For the first time in 16 years, Smeal and his camera-toting colleagues were denied access as the stars arrived at the Shubert Theatre on Nov. 4 for the Prime Time Emmy Awards show. There simply wasn't enough room for everyone, they were told.

Terrorism, war and fear of anthrax have wrought a major shift in the tense but symbiotic relationship between the ubiquitous paparazzi and Hollywood's establishment, including the film studios, celebrities and publicists.

Increased security means smaller events--and less room for the paparazzi, who feed off the glamour but also help perpetuate it.

Like everyone else, the photographers are learning to live with intrusions such as having their backgrounds checked and their bags repeatedly searched. But they also gripe that security concerns have given movie studios and party organizers an excuse to restrict access. By excluding photographers they don't like or can't control, the studios can further influence the images that shape a celebrity-smitten culture.

"This is worse than Diana, big time," Smeal said, referring to the backlash against the paparazzi who were following the princess of Wales in Paris in 1997 when she was killed in a car crash. "That was over in a month and a half. This isn't going to be changing any time soon."

The studio publicists, reluctant to speak on the record about anything related to security, deny they're playing favorites. The rules changed when the world changed on Sept. 11, they say, and they owe it to the stars, the fans and even the photographers to keep everyone safe.

"The security is real for us," said Geoffrey Godsick, director of publicity for 20th Century Fox. He said the Los Angeles Police Department has asked the studios to admit only credentialed photographers.

But the LAPD, which has conducted background checks and handed out its lime-green press passes to about 4,000 media representatives working in the city, won't credential the entertainment media.

So the photographers are scrambling to establish an acceptable credential while they negotiate with the studios for better access.

A group of celebrity photographers already has formed an association that would issue credentials to members. To qualify, a photographer must demonstrate a track record--showing samples of his or her work in a major publication--win sponsorship by two charter members and submit to a background check.

In pre-Sept. 11 Los Angeles, more than 50 freelance and agency photographers could be found on any given night outside posh hotels in Beverly Hills, theaters in Westwood and hip nightclubs in West Hollywood. These are the regulars, mostly male and middle-age, and they provide a scruffy contrast to the glitz as they bark orders to the preening stars.

The work can be lucrative. During the prime party season, January through March, Smeal said, he can make $20,000 a month. He's neither the highest-paid nor the lowest-paid photographer on the line.

These photographers long have bristled at being called paparazzi, preferring to separate themselves from the more aggressive of their craft, the long-lens cowboys who stake out their famous targets at home, at playgrounds, outside supermarkets and, occasionally, exiting the plastic surgeon's office. Instead, they prefer to identify themselves as "red carpet" or "event" photographers.

But as far as the celebrity publicists are concerned, they take and sell pictures of movie, television and pop stars, and that makes them paparazzi.

The paparazzi genre was born Aug. 15, 1958, when one photographer snapped a grainy picture of another being throttled by an exiled playboy king at an outdoor cafe in Rome. Italian film director Federico Fellini used the scene in 1960's "La Dolce Vita," giving the photographer the name "Mr. Paparazzo," after an annoying childhood friend.

More recently, paparazzo "just became a generic term for anyone who owned a camera who wasn't on staff somewhere," publicist Stan Rosenfield said.

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