Thursday, June 21, 2007
A Photo Trove, A Mounting Challenge
Mr. Shenk, who will take over from Mr. Davis at the end of June, is most likely the biggest reason for that growth. When Mr. Shenk left Universal for Corbis in 2003, he took five people and an impressive Rolodex with him. Now nearly 30 Corbis employees work in rights clearance, in offices in Los Angeles, New York, Europe and Asia.
Mr. Shenk, a Hollywood veteran who is an expert in what he calls “new ways to sell media,” said he believed Corbis was offering something unique in building a worldwide network of rights experts. The business of rights clearance, he said, is often a matter of knowing whom to call, and the idea is to make Corbis the first place that comes to mind when, say, an advertising agency is trying to clear the rights to use an image, video clip or song.
Such was the case when the band U2 made its most recent video, for “Window in the Skies,” which braided together some 100 clips of old stars like Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra, synched to the new song's music and lyrics.
Corbis helped the band's production company negotiate a thicket of publicity rights.
Roughly one-third of Corbis's 1,100 employees are in downtown Seattle, in an old bank building well suited to the company's hip self-image. The vast, open, two-story space has retained several enormous vaults that once held gold bars and now serve as photocopy and office supply rooms. Conference rooms are named after famous photographers, and copies of their work cover many of the walls.
The Corbis photographs themselves are not stored in Seattle, except digitally on the computers there. And those digital images constitute only a small fraction of Corbis's holdings. Of the 50 million items in the Sygma collection, just 800,000 have been digitized.
The prints and negatives from Otto L. Bettmann's archive, as well as those from a few smaller collections, are kept 220 feet underground in a former limestone mine in rural Pennsylvania. In February, Corbis announced that it would be storing the Sygma collection in a preservation facility near Paris.
As ventures go, Corbis represents a small investment for Mr. Gates. He pays for large expenditures, and the company uses its revenues to cover smaller projects within the firm.
Mr. Gates's involvement in the company is minimal. He spends only two to three hours each month meeting with Corbis management. Yet it is clear that he makes the big decisions. He has no interest, for example, in treating the undigitized portions of the image collections like one of his charities by, say, donating them to a public entity.
Despite the hands-off approach, Mr. Gates is apparently never far from the minds of Corbis employees. Mr. Shenk is in the process of relocating to Seattle from Los Angeles, and his sparsely decorated office in Seattle is evidence of the commuter life he has been leading. The only work of art in evidence one recent afternoon was on Mr. Shenk's whiteboard, where a colleague had drawn the unmistakable likeness of Mr. Gates, peering out from behind his glasses.
“Keep up the good work, Shenk,” Mr. Gates says. “Or I'll kill you.”
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