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Studios Merge as L.A. Gets In Vogue

As the city becomes more fashionable, demand for its high-end photography picks up.

September 20, 2006|Alana Semuels | Times Staff Writer

The image business is getting a new power couple: The trendy Los Angeles photography studio where the Vanity Fair cover of a pregnant and nude Demi Moore was captured is joining forces with its biggest cross-town competitor, which once played host to Snoop Dogg.

Smashbox Studios and Quixote Studios, two of Los Angeles' best-known photography houses, will pool their resources to create a new company, starting Dec. 1.

The new entity will operate under the Smashbox name, which brothers Dean and Davis Factor -- great-grandsons of makeup legend Max Factor -- have spent years cultivating. The studio has gained prestige in recent years as the host of the biannual Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week, L.A.'s answer to Fashion Week in New York.

"We can become an innovator in the photo service industry, providing a better range of services for the photographer at better rates," said Mikel Elliott, chief executive of Hollywood-based Quixote Studios. He'll become the CEO of the new Smashbox, which will have revenue of about $10 million and offer 80,000 square feet of rental studio and office space in 10 locations around Los Angeles.

The announcement comes at a vibrant time for photography studios in Los Angeles. Photo shoots were traditionally done in New York to cater to the many fashion magazines located there. But some industry experts say this is slowly changing.

The growing ranks of magazines in L.A. have boosted demand for local studios to shoot art for the publications, said Ilse Metchek, executive director of the California Fashion Assn.

Los Angeles is also increasingly becoming a center for photography shoots because of the number of celebrities who live here, said Federico Pignatelli, the owner of Pier 59 Studios, New York's biggest and best-known photography facility.

"Magazines and advertising are involving more celebrities now," which means that there is higher demand locally for places to photograph them, Pignatelli said. There is also a growing market for high-end fashion photography shoots.

"There is a whole trend that is involving clients in the fashion industry abandoning Miami and coming here to Los Angeles," Pignatelli said.

Pier 59 opened a branch in Santa Monica in August, a move some in the industry say might have helped spur the merger of Quixote and Smashbox. As a high-end photography studio, Pier 59 will provide the new Smashbox with competition.

"I am shaking up the market obviously because they see me as a potential customer and they don't want to lose their best clients," Pignatelli said. "I come to the market and the two major players fell to the defensive."

But the owners of Smashbox and Quixote say they've been thinking about a merger for a long time. Negotiations on the deal began in 2004 when Elliott and Dean Factor met by chance at the same hotel while vacationing in Hawaii with their families.

Seeing his competitor breakfasting at the next table, Elliott had decided to introduce himself to Factor and invite him to play a game of golf. The two said they hit it off, attending a luau in Hawaii and then getting their families together from time to time back in Los Angeles.

Although Factor had thought about trying to buy Quixote or another studio to expand, he said his friendship with Elliott made a merger more appealing than an acquisition.

"We're both interested in staying in the business," Factor said. "We don't want to sell and Mikel doesn't want to, so the merger really made sense."

The new venture will be 60% owned by Smashbox and 40% by Quixote.

The companies will continue to pursue their nonphotography businesses separately. Quixote will still produce videos, a service that accounts for 75% of its business. Dean Factor, current president of Smashbox, can expand the company's cosmetics brand thanks to the merger, and Davis Factor will continue his fashion photography.

Smashbox opened in 1990 when Davis Factor, then a student at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, thought L.A. lacked upscale studio spaces. It was one of the first studios in the area to model itself on New York spaces that cater to high-profile photographers. Elliott started Quixote in 1995 with Jordan Kitaen, a college pal from UCLA.

"Los Angeles is changing with new studios opening up, but Smashbox really paved the way," Davis Factor said. Factor said the brothers wanted to create a "groovy but simple canvas for photographers to be able to create their work." The studio rents equipment and provides in-house catering, entertainment and communication facilities for clients.

Similar amenities are offered at only a handful of studios around Los Angeles. They appeal especially to celebrities, who usually prefer spaces with accommodations such as private bathrooms and that provide seclusion during a photo shoot, said Jill Greenberg, a portrait and fine-arts photographer who frequently shoots at Quixote.

"There are a handful of studios that stand above the rest due to the extent and nature of the services they provide," said Danelle Rondberg, studio manager for fashion photographer Dominick Guillemot. "Smashbox and Quixote are two of these studios."

The Factors and Elliott hope the positive buzz will help the new company distinguish itself in an increasingly crowded market in Los Angeles, and perhaps even take the business further afield.

"What this offers us," Elliott said, "is an ability to go into other markets and leverage the Smashbox name."

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alana.semuels@latimes.com

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