Not long ago, when a magazine paid a celebrity more than a person might earn in a lifetime in return for a set of pictures, media critics questioned the ethics of both the publication and the star.
That is so passe. Writing an enormous check for a celebrity photo spread and interview has become pretty routine for People magazine and OK! weekly.
So the better question now is, is it worth it? Can a few snapshots of a baby or a bride, accompanied by a fawning article, really be worth millions of dollars?
On the whole it probably is, industry executives and consultants say, acknowledging that is a tough question to answer.
Million-dollar payouts were unheard of a few years ago, but that changed when the US version of OK! was introduced. Now there is about one a month. In March, People set a record, paying what industry executives say was US$5 million or more for the first public pictures of Jennifer Lopez, Marc Anthony and their newborn twins.
That kind of inflation makes it harder to argue that publishers get their money back directly. In most cases, the magazine is paying only for the exclusive rights to use the pictures for a week or two. (Magazines usually buy the photos through an agency, partly to avoid the appearance of directly paying celebrities for access, though publishers and editors no longer bother with any pretense about where the money goes.)
But executives at the magazines, while refusing to discuss specific photo fees, insist that the widely reported prices are wrong or misleading and that the true costs to their companies are much less. And they say that the most important factors are impossible to measure: the value of being known as the place to go for those pictures and of keeping them out of a competitor’s hands.
“The consumer’s expectation is if the photos are going to be available, I’m going to see them in People,” said Paul Caine, the publisher of People magazine, a Time Warner property.
“If we don’t get them, we miss that brand promise; we lose the halo that goes with that,” he said.
Larry Hackett, People’s editor, said: “Last year, we lost a couple of weddings because OK! magazine was willing to spend more money than we thought made sense.”
If that sort of thing becomes common, he said, “They’re going to get traction, and I don’t want any competitor to get traction where I can stop it.”
OK! does not turn a profit, said its publisher, Tom Morrissy, but it spends heavily for big exclusives to establish itself and gain a following. This may be working: The magazine, part of the British media conglomerate Northern and Shell, had a circulation of more than 900,000 in the second half of last year — far behind People’s 3.8 million, but growing fast.
Magazine editors need an acute sense of how a celebrity cover will sell at a particular moment, and sometimes they get it wrong. Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie have been money in the bank for years, but putting Christina Aguilera and her new baby on the cover in February did not do much for People’s sales. Anna Nicole Smith and those around her attracted readers while she lived, but were a bigger attraction in the months after she died.
“It’s always a bit of gamble,” said Sarah Ivens, editor of the US version of OK!. “You have to trust your instincts.”
An exclusive set of pictures, with one on the cover, can increase newsstand sales, but rarely by enough to sustain a payout of US$1 million or more. Even at the full cover price, analysts say, each extra copy that a magazine sells above its norm generates less than US$2 in income.