End of the porn golden age

When I entered the industry, we were staying in French chateaus. Now, companies are struggling to stay alive

Topics: Salon -- After Dark, Editor's Picks,

End of the porn golden age (Credit: Adam Fraise via Shutterstock)

My journey into porn began 10 years ago, on my way to a screenwriting career. It was a great time to get into the industry.

I stumbled into it because my would-be writing partner was working at a mainstream media company that padded its bottom line with sales of hardcore DVDs. By 2002, even in the midst of a recession, that padding was getting pretty thick. The studios noticed the sales that the Internet generated. They needed someone who could string together a press release, or a script, or a marketing campaign that would work in this new world. It was good money, and plenty of porn. For two gay guys – hell, for two any guys – the next five years were a string of Christmas mornings.

And not just for lucky idiots like us. Everyone was making money. Internet startups had started to figure out streaming video, and you could still sell DVDs all day long. Hundreds of new companies sprouted, like mushrooms after a rainstorm. We were lucky enough to be there for the harvest. We didn’t realize it then, but it was the beginning of porn’s golden age – and it wasn’t going to last.

It was an incredibly creative time for the industry. For all the boondoggles – a gay porn site curated by Jenna Jameson that never quite took off, a porn version of “The Color Purple” that was shelved – it was an exciting place to be. Studios invested in high-quality cameras, shot on location in Greece and Hawaii and Paris. There were massive webmaster parties in Berlin. Chartered yachts off the coast of Mexico. For two weeks one summer, my writing partner, Jack, and I got paid to live at a bathhouse while we worked on a gay porn soap opera. TMZ showed up at awards ceremonies. Even when it wasn’t glamorous, it was exciting.

Somewhere in 2006, we began to run out of licks. Only a year after Digital Playground produced “Pirates,” a porn movie with a $1 million budget, online video began attracting actual pirates, and they didn’t wear custom-made bras or sell for $69.95. Suddenly, those stacks of DVDs consumers had been collecting began to look like the recycling bin after a drinking binge. The party was ending. And then the economy tanked.

In 2008, when Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy and the Dow plunged like a unbuckled belt, I was in a 14th century château outside of Bordeaux, the guest of a studio head with a fondness for firm tannins. The château had been built in a construction boom during the Hundred Years’ War. The family that owned it had long since lost their empire. We were about to lose ours.

Compared to 2004, today’s porn “lifestyle” is more like a basket of yellow lollipops, an industry dominated by low-cost sites like MILFs Like It Big, parody titles like “Beverly Hillbillies XXX” and debates over regulation that threaten to move the industry into empty strip malls in dry gulch towns outside the Los Angeles County limits. But when Jenna Jameson turned “How to Make Love Like a Porn Star,” into a bestseller, the dream was still incredibly sweet.

There’s a false truism that porn is recession-proof. It’s one you used to hear a lot in the industry, mostly from people who hadn’t been in the business long enough to see an actual recession. But for the industry to survive in a down market, it has had to reinvent itself – even if it means surrendering some of its legendary flair.  Porn’s new power players are less likely the charismatic studio heads, but the heads of large corporate conglomerates.

“In many ways it had to happen,” a former magazine publisher told me at the recent Xbiz Awards in LA. “Between you and me, there were a lot of idiots in this business. It had to shake out. The cream rises.”

While individual studios still remain, many have partnered with much larger, sometimes dubious partners to help weather the storm. In 2007, Penthouse acquired Adult Friend Finder, a massive dating site, for $500 million. Last October, Playboy ceded its online operations to Manwin, a massive conglomerate that runs free tube sites many blame for hobbling the industry.

“Companies who have consolidated have a definite advantage,” says Raging Stallion founder Chris Ward, the studio head who, a year after our trip to the French countryside, merged his company with Charlotte-based VOD giant AEBN. Now president of both Raging Stallion and the venerable Falcon Studios, he heads the largest production company in the gay porn industry. AEBN in turn owns NakedSword, which distributes movies from Raging Stallion and Falcon online.  “There are efficiencies in scale that smaller companies can’t match.”

Indeed. Rather than paying out profits to a distributor, consolidated companies use it to make more movies, for which they have a guaranteed outlet. Conglomerates have ballast to weather difficult times, and when other companies go out of business, they pick up their market share. And a company with multiple studios and diverse product lines is in a better position to make lucrative hotel and foreign television deals.

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The same is true for webcams — one of the few thriving parts of an industry. As with studios, the webcam industry is a kingdom ruled by a few castles. The largest, Adult Webmaster Empire, lives up to its name, boasting over 900,000 models in countries from India and Colombia to Russia and Hungary.

Unlike traditional porn, live webcam shows haven’t been hurt by piracy. The live shows’ appeal rests as much on interaction between the performer and the audience as it does the video feed.  A pirated live show is as exciting as a pinned butterfly. It happens, just not often.

Webcams in the U.S. alone are a $2 billion a year enterprise, according to a source at a competing conglomerate. But the upfront costs of breaking into the market and massive outlays in equipment locks newcomers out. It’s a bit like the oil industry; even if you discover a rich vein on your property – in this case a star – you have to turn to the big boys to mine it properly.

But the small-time producer, a ubiquitous part of the industry during its boom years, is almost extinct. When I worked in the industry, stars of a certain caliber routinely left studio contracts to launch their own film lines. If each wasn’t as successful as Jameson’s Club Jenna, at least they made enough to survive.

With the loss of the independent producer went some of the fun. The porn industry during the boom years was an ever-changing collection of eccentrics, an endless family reunion with a little too much whiskey. When the industry receded, it became more like a probate hearing, with tipsy relatives bitterly divvying up a shrinking estate. Stars that used to make $1,500 a scene are now making half that. Producers who could shoot two movies a month now need to make six. Online scenes sell for a fraction of what a DVD sale once brought.

But some producers see the economic firestorm as a way to clear the deadwood from a industry gone soft on innovation. Pink Visual, a production company often cited as one of porn’s bright spots, reversed declines in 2009 thanks to a large investment in mobile, which is more difficult to pirate. It now accounts for 60 percent the company’s revenue.

I caught up with President Allison Vivas after a conference on the future of the industry.  To survive in the long-term, Vivas says, companies have to challenge the old revenue model. So she’s not ruling anything out, even the prospect of giving away its movies for free, then selling advertising like television.

“A lot of mainstream companies won’t advertise on an adult site, even if it’s their perfect demographic,” Vivas says. She mentions razors, body sprays, condoms, and liquor.  But just because they haven’t doesn’t mean they won’t. And Vivas, who has also experimented with new technologies like 3-D and augmented reality, intends to be there.

Last week, I stopped by the offices of Falcon Studios, a company formed in 1971, in the early years of porn’s first golden age. I left three years ago to produce a documentary on the birth of the industry, and I was back to dig through their archives to see what I could find. Yellowed bankers boxes guarded 16mm film canisters scribbled with names of long-defunct companies, Brentwood and Nova and Tel-Star. Stacks of magazines from the late ’70s with ads for photosets and 8mm home projectors.

What none of the magazines bothered to mention was that even back then, the industry was facing a monumental crisis. Unscrupulous theater owners were making illegal dupes of 16mm reels, rendering high-end production like “Behind the Green Door” and “Deep Throat” unprofitable. Stagflation had rendered the consumer limp. Local vice squads and FBI sting operations were driving small-time producers out of business. Some of porn’s most storied players, including the Mitchell Brothers, were abandoning film in favor of live shows. What we remember as halcyon days and “Boogie Nights” was, for many, a nightmare.

And the magazines bear no mention of the technology that would reinvent the industry, the VCR. Few saw it coming, but it minted a thousand new millionaires overnight. So I’m keeping an eye on my old friends. They may not know it, but the next golden age could be right around the corner.

Michael Stabile is a writer and filmmaker based in Los Angeles. He is currently in production on a documentary about pornographer Chuck Holmes and his relationship with the gay rights movement. You can follow him at twitter.com/mikestabile.

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