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TMZ Is Breaking Up With Starline Tours

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(Photo by Glen Bowman via the Creative Commons on Flickr)
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After nearly six years of partnership, celebrity-stalking behemoth TMZ.com is ending their relationship with Starline Tours, Los Angeles' oldest and largest tour bus company. The L.A. Times reports that TMZ has accused Starline of refusing to pay TMZ their fair share of revenue on time, declaring that they will officially sever ties with Starline on Thursday. After "Termination Date," as TMZ's ever-subtle proprietor and "high prince of sleaze" Harvey Levin has dubbed it, TMZ will stop using all Starline buses and drivers.

The relationship began, like so many in Hollywood, as a mutually advantageous partnership. Levin first approached Starline with the idea in late 2010. TMZ would provide the guides and content, while Starline would supply the infrastructure (tour buses, drivers, dispatchers, maintenance, ticket sales personnel and marketing personnel, etc). According to the Times, the two businesses would split the revenue 50/50, minus expenses.

The TMZ-branded Starline tours existed at some strange nexus of vertical integration and postmodern metanarrative from the beginning: With TMZ's guidance, the buses would be able to cruise past the very sites where the gossip juggernaut had reported their biggest scoops, all while four 26-inch TVs simultaneously screened footage of celebrity incidents that had previously aired on the TMZ website or TV show. And as the Times reported in 2011, the buses would also be equipped with video cameras to tape any celebrities who happened to be spotted in their native habitats along the route (that footage could then be sent back to TMZ studios for broadcast later in the day). The New Yorker reports that certain stars were known to call ahead with their locations and then act surprised when spotted by the tour group. "It’s almost like an African jungle safari—they’ll come up to the bus," Levin said.

According to the Hollywood Reporter, TMZ unexpectedly threw the first relationship punch earlier this year with a termination letter sent to Starline in February, followed by a lawsuit filed the next month. TMZ alleges that Starline has "missed every payment deadline for the past two years, sometimes by more than four months" in the suit.

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Carlos Villar, senior marketing manager for Starline Tours, told LAist that news of any trouble from TMZ came without warning. "In general, we’ve always had a great working relationship with TMZ, until it abruptly changed in February with the allegations of late payment," he said. "But, as others have stated, [TMZ] never actually brought up that there was a late payment made until February in the entire time that we’ve been in relationship since 2010."

TMZ has said that they will run the tours without participation from Starline starting Thursday, but things might not be so cut-and-dry: Starline's attorney told the Times that without showing "good cause" to end the contract, TMZ will be violating their partnership agreement, thereby triggering a non-compete clause that would bar TMZ from operating a tour bus business for at least two years.

Some have suggested that TMZ's abrupt allegations could be a convenient way of getting out of that pesky non-compete. In the meantime, Starline has filed a countersuit against TMZ in U.S. District Court to bar TMZ from operating competing tours and asking for $1 million in damages.

"We just wish we could have amicably worked out this relationship the way good businesses seem to be able to do, but that no longer seems possible," Villar told LAist, adding that the TMZ-branded tours are a relatively minor part of Starline's tour empire, comprising just 6.25 percent of the total population of tourists Starline moves a year.

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"At the end of the day, we are a huge colossal tour company that's been in business since 1935," he said. "We are the original and most historic celebrity tour operation."

In an unrelated but particularly great detail, the TMZ tours are actually managed by Harvey Levin's longtime partner, a Beverly Hills chiropractor.

We will update our readers with any and all news on this important breaking story as it comes, because—as the TMZ guides say at the beginning of every tour—you are all paparazzi today.

Note: This article was corrected to say that TMZ-branded tours comprise 6.25 percent of the total population of tourists Starline moves a year, as opposed to 6.25% of their annual income.