A sea of screaming faces beckons movie stars to the sidewalk, where they conjure photographs, baseballs and, when Johnny Depp appears, even a replica Freddie Krueger glove for him to sign. Outside Grauman's Chinese Theater, they downright beg for an autograph, yelling until their voices are hoarse. But these people are not crazed fans; they are Hollywood's autograph pack. Their very living depends on whether a celebrity signs or declines.

Comedian Ricky Gervais has called them “the bane of my life,” moaning, “Even trainspotters look down on autograph hunters. They're a mess, and I don't mean their clothes, I mean their DNA.” These night crawlers trawl Los Angeles, hoping to spot a star and convince them to sign multiple photographs, before selling them online. But in a week spent on the wrong side of the velvet rope, we find an industry in decline and a workplace that is becoming increasingly volatile.

“I got jumped by Kid Rock and seven of his security guys,” admits Mike Medlin, Hollywood's most infamous collector, “I got my ass kicked.” It's Monday night before the Dark Shadows premiere and the autograph gang is outside Mixology 101 at the Grove. A Dancing With the Stars wrap party is in full swing. Known on the circuit as “Redbull Mike,” Medlin is packing a messenger bag full of color photographs, and a fist full of Sharpies. Medlin's left leg is in a medical brace after another fight he says occurred with a cameraman– but injury won't deter him. He says he has “a reality TV deal pending,” and won't talk to the press.

Katherine Jenkins signs autographs; Credit: Jeff Maysh/Coleman-Rayner

Katherine Jenkins signs autographs; Credit: Jeff Maysh/Coleman-Rayner

You see, the pack is notorious for not sharing its secrets and hating reporters. When veteran autograph dealer Steve Woolf told ABC News that autographs were a “$50 million a year industry” and spoke of collectors earning “six-figure salaries,” it sent a swarm of greedy amateurs onto the streets, pen in hand. “It was a bad thing for the business,” Medlin says. “This isn't easy money. This is a dangerous occupation.”

These guys swim in the same murky waters as the paparazzi and the video terrorists, like celebrity plankton feeding in the ecological niche of Hollywood nightlife. Block a paparazzo's $2,000 shot and they'll get kicked to the curb. The pen is not mightier than the sword, or TMZ, or a celebrity entourage. Just ask Medlin: After his alleged assault by Kid Rock outside the Roosevelt Hotel in 2006, he and two others filed a $15 million lawsuit, but it was settled for $35,000. Medlin says he still can't walk properly.

In the light rain, Medlin and a small murder of collectors are waiting for lighter-footed celebrities: Derek Hough and the stars of Dancing With the Stars. Even less likely to cause trouble will be actress Cloris Leachman, celebrating her 84th birthday tonight at STK restaurant on La Cienega. There, collectors will be swarming for “vintage Hollywood” signatures. Here in the deserted mall are full-time collectors Gil, a dead ringer for Al Pacino, and Brent, a heavy-set Ohio native who works in a team with his sister (they declined to give their full names).

Gil has been in the autograph game for 17 years and drives a dusty Yukon packed from floor to ceiling with 100,000 celebrity photographs — like a primitive IMDb on wheels. Plastic boxes spill out an inventory of Hollywood in A-Z, with scruffy labels like “DiCaprio.” Shout a name, no matter how obscure, and Gil can pull a “Leven” (an 11-by-14-inch color photo) in seconds. But unlike most autograph hounds who amass impressive personal collections, Gil sells every celebrity scrawl he can get his hands on.

Another collector; Credit: Jeff Maysh/Coleman-Rayner

Another collector; Credit: Jeff Maysh/Coleman-Rayner

“The only thing he collects are paychecks,” jokes Brent. “And photos of Jennifer Love Hewitt.”

“She's my favorite celebrity,” Gil admits.

“So Jennifer tells him he looks good one night, and so he starts working out!” Brent chuckles, as the rain falls heavier.

“She's a charming lady, she always signs,” Gil smiles. “Not like Cameron Diaz. Ask any collector.”

The gang is happily running down a list of worst signers (“Tobey Maguire, Edward Norton, Britney….”) when a celebrity suddenly emerges from the bar. The guys rifle urgently through their alphabetized folders for “Jenkins, Katherine” — the Welsh mezzo-soprano turned reality TV darling. Lids pop off Sharpie pens. You can smell the blue Sanford ink. It's business time.

“One each please,” says Jenkins, as she bathes in the electric glow of the TMZ searchlights. Our men move in, glossy pictures in hand. But they soon push their luck, producing more and more color photographs until she insists, “No more, now.” Brent has sneaked down the line, twice. “But I'm that fat guy's twin,” he protests, scoring a giggle from Jenkins and one final signature. Another 40 bucks — and every dollar counts.

“The economy is bad right now,” explains Brent, who's been working in L.A. five years. “It doesn't just affect property, it affects autographs. Customers are struggling. In a recession you cut out the unnecessary… and food, electricity and rent are all essential. Autographs are the first thing people stop buying.”

But these nocturnal creatures say they can't ever go back to office jobs. “I wake up every day at 5 p.m.!” boasts Gil. This week they've been rising especially early (2 p.m.) to stalk Gil's doppelganger, Al Pacino, on set. “He doesn't live here all the time, so his autograph is valuable,” Gil explains. “Al signed 20 autographs, but there were 20 of us. … I'll get $150 for mine — if I'm lucky. I mean, he's got a very sloppy autograph.”

The collectors agree the ultimate autograph of the moment is Paul McCartney. “It's an instant $1,000,” says Gil, his darting eyes suddenly alive with excitement. It's creepy to think about, but when the Beatle dies, they say, the prices could skyrocket: The last autograph signed by John Lennon was sold in 2003 at auction for $525,000. Kid Rock's autograph is a bargain in comparison — you get change from $20.

But no one has got rich tonight. “I got two Maria Menounos and a Katherine Jenkins,” sighs Gil, despondently, while Medlin limps home with half a dozen Derek Hough signatures. His eBay account, “affordable autographs” (run by his mom in Arizona) the previous week sold just 12 signed photographs, totaling $235 — hardly the rumored six-figure salary. “I don't know how some people make rent,” Gil says.

Autograph hunters at work; Credit: Jeff Maysh /Coleman-Rayner

Autograph hunters at work; Credit: Jeff Maysh /Coleman-Rayner

To make the real money, an autograph hunter has to get the big names. A Russell Crowe signed Gladiator photograph sells for $85 online. Christian Bale as Batman? $150. Sean Connery's signature on a James Bond photo will sell for $400 plus postage. And it's no coincidence these three actors are reluctant signers. After all, why should they sign to make the autograph collectors rich?

Meanwhile, the industry continues to be rocked by its awful reputation: Online videos show collectors hurling themselves in front of Kim Cattrall's car. Another video follows former British model Keeley Hazell being aggressively pursued down Hollywood Blvd. Like Audrina Patridge, Hazell won't sign nude pictures of herself — but refusing to take no for an answer, the pack surround her Mini Cooper before angrily hurling their unsigned photos at her. Petite Hazell drives away, absolutely terrified. “In America, we sign autographs,” she is warned.

Yet America's obsession with memorabilia continues to deteriorate, as people find their favorite stars increasingly more accessible via the Internet. While you can't frame it or pass it down to the kids, many would prefer a personal Tweet from their idol than a signature. In 2010, at a rally in Seattle for Sen. Patty Murray, President Barack Obama signed his first digital autograph, using his presidential finger on the iPad screen of fan Sylvester Cann. A true sign of the times.

One collector's file folders of photos; Credit: Jeff Maysh/Coleman-Rayner

One collector's file folders of photos; Credit: Jeff Maysh/Coleman-Rayner

Yet the old-school Sharpie soldiers are out in force at the May 7 premiere of Dark Shadows, as the entire autograph-collecting community lines the streets, trying to lure Tim Burton over, with the desperation of a call to a lost pet. It's hot in the crowd.

“There's no substitute for a glossy movie poster signed by the entire cast in silver pen,” says Ray, a substitute teacher and passionate collector who is shrieking at Michelle Pfeiffer to complete his Dark Shadows poster. The pack passes it down the line to make sure it gets signed. They'll split the cash later.

While Medlin is a lone wolf, the rest of the autograph pack often works together like this. “We're all friends,” Brent says of Gil and the gang.

“We're out every day together,” Gil agrees. “We're like three amigos, and we look out for each other.”

The finished articles that leave the premiere after the celebrities have departed are enviable: Fully signed Dark Shadows posters, which will be expensively framed and set behind museum-grade glass, worth perhaps $1,000 each.

Among the more genial collectors, there is a certain appeal to their hours, their camaraderie and their philosophy about their trade: “Paparazzi photographs are printed in magazines, then thrown away the next day,” says one seasoned collector, clutching a signed Johnny Depp figurine. “What we do is treasured forever.”

Follow Jeff Maysh on Twitter at @JeffMaysh. For more arts news follow us at @LAWeeklyArts and like us on Facebook.

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