LOS ANGELES: The king of Hollywood made an appearance here this month.
No, not David Geffen. This royal personage was Harvey Levin, purveyor of the celebrity-driven Web site TMZ.com and its associated "TMZ TV" show, both owned by Time Warner.
Levin showed up, only a tiny bit late, to address a conclave of lawyers and others who had gathered at the Gould School of Law at the University of Southern California for an annual review of the big issues in entertainment law and business.
These were people whose names you would know - or, at least, those who represent them.
The proceedings were led by Bruce Ramer, a lawyer whose client list has been capped by, but not limited to, Clint Eastwood and Steven Spielberg. Lunchtime entertainment was a folksy chat between Ramer, of Gang, Tyre, Ramer & Brown, and Leslie Moonves, the chief executive of CBS.
"I wish it would die already!" Moonves blurted out in a delightfully unguarded moment. He was referring to "American Idol," that persistent competitive annoyance on Fox.
But the real star power attached to Levin, who looked equal to his introduction as a lawyer, producer, investigative reporter, host, managing editor and, in the words of a panel moderator, "the guy who rules Hollywood."
Taut and tanned, Levin, 58, was dressed in jeans and a black jersey.
He had scarcity value: the whisper said you had better catch him at the first of his two scheduled panels on celebrity rights, because he did not plan to stick around for the second. It was true.
On the dais, Levin sizzled with stories about stuff that, even for him, was too hot to handle.
Yes, he had gone directly to the police in Florida when he received an unsolicited e-mail message that purported to locate the body of a murdered girl. No, he was not about to spill the details of an "amazing" Michael Jackson story he had rejected. because it was based on what he believed to be real, but stolen, documents.
"I have seen things that are just, like, wow," Levin said. "Every day we get tested."
One of the most successful online ventures of the past few years, TMZ.com claims more than 10 million unique visitors every month.
For the few who have not yet looked, the site specializes in catching the famous, on video if possible, in what are not always their finer moments.
Those can be as trivial as a shot of Matthew McConaughey emptying the waste tank on his trailer. Or as consequential as TMZ's story about Mel Gibson's anti-Semitic rant, a break that made the new Web site's reputation back in 2006.
Like many Web sites, TMZ employs its own photographers, writers and producers and also acquires content from freelancers.
A lawyer by training, Levin takes pride in TMZ's efforts to curb offensive behavior by its operatives with contractual strictures on photographers' aggressiveness and other measures.
But the site's hyper-intense coverage of celebrity foibles has pushed other media outlets to become sassier, while upping the stakes for packs of paparazzi who are pressing limits in ways that have even Levin fretting about the next Princess Diana.
"There's a huge problem out there," Levin said at USC. "Somebody is going to get seriously hurt, maybe killed."
Still, he argued, new laws were not likely to help.
After all, the payoff for a shot can be so high, that even the hypothetical threat of a little jail time can seem acceptable to some. "What's a year or so for assault, if I can get $200,000 for a picture?" Levin said, in describing both the bad guys' thinking and the state of an overheated market for celebrity news.
Surprisingly, the assembled lawyers - bumps and bruises of their famous clients notwithstanding - appeared disinclined to challenge Levin's contention that new local, state or federal laws would accomplish little, except to make work for themselves.
A proposal in Los Angeles to surround registered celebrities with a 20-yard, or 18-meter, personal safety zone met with general derision. "No chance in hell," said Kent Raygor, a media law specialist at Sheppard Mullin Richter & Hampton, when asked to assess the constitutional prospects of celebrity licensing.
David Wienir, a lawyer with Ramer's firm, said he could find no evidence that anyone had even tried to use an existing California law that since 2006 has imposed stiff penalties on those, like magazine or Web site editors, who cause others to commit invasive behavior in pursuit of photographs.
"So California has passed this innovative law which serves no real purpose," said Wienir, who seemed a tad befuddled by the situation.
But Levin saw no mystery. That is why he is the king.
"Almost all of them want it," he said of the celebrities who show up on TMZ and in other parts of the peepshow media.
The real issue, he added, is how those involved can make a buck. "You've got to understand, this is a business," Levin said. "How do you make money off of a business?"
Only the day before, the rapper Snoop Dogg had proposed more or less the same thing, but from a celebrity point of view.
Speaking for a TMZ camera, he advised Levin to pay up if he intended to keep using the performer's face on a billboard that was advertising the Web site.
"You know my slogan, 'Break bread or fake dead,"' Snoop Dogg said.
For those slow on the uptake, a sidekick translated: "Harvey Levin, send the check."
6 months ago