Studio Executives Find Ways to Weather Storm of Free Porn
LOS ANGELES — The mainstream porn industry in the summer of 2014 could take its motto from Charles Dickens: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” The current state of porn, as X-Play co-owner Will Ryder opines more succinctly, is “great and horrible, all at the same time.”
Free porn continues to erode DVD sales, but new lines and innovative concepts take up some of the slack. Different distribution opportunities arrive through the Internet. It’s a moment of change but also opportunity.
XBIZ’ informal survey of studio heads and company owners shows a remarkable unanimity, and overall it’s one of guarded optimism. Their views are encapsulated in this statement from Vivid Entertainment’s Steven Hirsch, one of the architects of the porn marketing paradigm.
“The adult industry is increasingly challenging. We all know this and there are fewer movies being shot. Traditional adult producers need to carve out their own niches of unique content to be competitive today. Because the marketplace is crowded and we are constantly fighting free porn, diversification to sell content across multiple venues is also essential. As in any super competitive industry, the smarter and stronger companies will survive.”
New delivery systems, diversified content, unique niches: all significant elements in today’s porn perspective.
First the downside, according to X-Play’s Ryder.
“The current state of the business of porn production is the worst it has ever been. Movie and scene shoots are way down and there are a lot of underemployed crew members and girls looking for other jobs to supplement their income because of free porn.”
Now the upside.
“Movies are still selling albeit at a fraction of past numbers. The fact that many companies have gone out of business or are just repackaging tired comps bodes decently well for companies like mine that still create new content. We are not making anywhere near the amount of new movies we once did and we have to be very careful to select ideas that will appeal to the widest audience, but we are still producing.”
Third World Media’s Steve Scott is even blunter. “Nothing’s selling easily. You gotta fight for sales this summer. It’s hard to compete with free.”
His strategy: “We keep trying to bring unique product out and develop a fan following of people who wait for our new releases. We have started doing some online exclusives prior to releasing on DVD. We want to get the footage out as much and as regularly as possible.”
For veteran studio owner Scott Taylor (New Sensations, Digital Sin), what sells is “genre-specific products. And, as always, quality.”
The trends for his labels, he says, are “for now, ‘step’ based products. Very ‘fetishy’ products. We will also be exploring other themes soon. It seems that selling a fantasy is where we find success. Just finding the right fantasy and doing it justice.”
He throws in some common sense caveats: “Do not compete in a flooded market. Make products that vary from others. The same ol’ same ol’ won’t work nearly as well as a new fresh idea. If you are not flush with great new ideas, be the best at someone else’s idea.”
And he adds, “I have been surprised by our success in VoD. There is a substantial online audience that has become very important to our overall success."
Adam Hasner, vice president of Pure Play Media and head of several studios including Airerose and DreamZone Entertainment, asserts: “From what we see, fresh new faces and specialty content remain the retailers’ go-to options. Themed releases are winners with most of our retailers. Specialty titles are definitely our focus.
“Airerose, our new studio, is creating high-end gonzo titles that are all themed to appeal to different audiences. ‘Big Ass Crush,’ ‘Wet Panties,’ ‘Young Sex Freaks,’ ‘Raw Talent’ — all focus on specific niches, which we’re also promoting on airerose.com.
“We are very excited about our new airerose.com site, which features content, some of which will be exclusive to the web. We are also setting up content on our affiliate program, buttbucks.com.”
Adam & Eve, with perhaps the most eclectic of content portfolios, has had success with high-end parodies (including two from Will Ryder), swinging (the “Wife Swap” line), educationals (Tristan Taormino and the Kama Sutra guides) and the occasional novelty like the showcase for Duke University porn star Belle Knox, their current bestseller.
According to General Manager Bob Christian: “We continue to enjoy a leveling in DVD sales, from the sharper declines of the past years. But the decline is still there. Adam & Eve has continued to produce about the same number of new movies as we have each year recently, because we believe content will always be an important part of people’s erotic mentality.
“But we have been putting more attention on digital delivery, shifting somewhat from our usual DVD focus. Our product website integrates with Adam & Eve’s VoD site, so customers can more easily choose how they wish to receive and view content.”
There has been some general interest in episodic porn — HBO-style mini-series that premiere online, then go to DVD — largely because of the perceived success of John Stagliano’s “Voracious.” But in fact, the Evil Angel owner told XBIZ that his episodic feature was “not a financial success.”
“I am not encouraged to do another feature or mini-series like ‘Voracious.’ While it is very creatively satisfying and my web people think it probably helps our brand at evilangel.com, I have to disagree. … In fact… putting the episodes on the Internet first has not produced much money. The DVDs (there are going to be four total for this second season) do not sell as well as the average Evil Angel title, a bit below average.”
“Considering all the extra work I needed to do in editing this movie I have to look at it as more of an exercise in learning how to be a better filmmaker — which it fact this has been. So in that respect I think it has been worth it.
“But if I want to be a financially successful pornographer I need to try some other feature idea, or most probably go back to my gonzo movies. Of note is that I shot the sex so hard that both the first season and this season may not generate any broadcast (cable) money.”
For Evil Angel, he says, the profits continue to lie in its bread & butter gonzo lines. “Jay Sin, Mike Adriano, Joey Silvera and Rocco Siffredi are my bestsellers. Joey has a better handle on it all. Transsexual stuff has held up the best on DVD sales, but that could be because Joey and Jay Sin are so incredibly good at shooting TS stuff. Joey shoots strap-on also. We sell TS and strap-on for a higher price and still sell more pieces.”
But other companies seem willing to give the episodic experiment a try. Says Christian, “We are very optimistic about episodic features. Adam & Eve has entered into an alliance with Gamelink and a new production company, LionReach, to develop a really new, contemporary and mainstream-looking subscription site, which will feature original episodic programs.
“We are trying to reinvent the look of adult websites to be very attractive, very appealing, very friendly to all tastes, and compelling to return to. Like our Adam & Eve stores, the site will be a comfortable, cheerful, clean, light and bright place to shop for content.”
Pure Play has also checked out the episodic concept. “This is something we are considering for the content we present on airerose.com,” says Hasner. “We most definitely want to convert our online audience to DVD buyers — and vice-versa — using our own content.”
At Smash Pictures it’s the niche that rules. VP Stuart Wall says, “We all know, felt and see the decline of DVD due to all the tube sites out there. To stay strong for our studio we’ve tackled other avenues to generate money. Shooting both hard and soft has always helped us in the broadcast and lodging market. Our niches are what keep us alive, shooting mainly taboo themes as well as Romance to appeal to the female fans and couples.”
For Exile Distribution’s Howard Levine, it’s all about “creating a niche that sells well,” in his case the Forbidden Fruit or taboo niche.
“The taboo genre has exploded since they came to the market,” Levine says. “Like the parodies, when something sells, you get a bunch of imitators who try to duplicate a winning formula. Another big seller for us is AMKingdom, who produces various niches — their hairy line and teen line is like no other.”
He insists that “the state of the DVD market is still strong with the right product.”
Jay West, who with wife Jodi owns Forbidden Fruit Films, has his own take on what sells. “Everything can be the Next Hottest Thing if done right. It might not sell as much as it used to, and there might be much more supply than there used to be, but everything has a market. We just have to figure out the demand, if we can film that genre to the fans’ satisfaction, and how to make it profitable.”
“Most people know that our company foundation ‘pseudo-taboo’ line does very well. It's garnered so much attention that other companies much larger than ours are concentrating a major amount of their production to it. But in our observation, that section of the market has not gotten any larger and the other niches haven't gotten any smaller. You will not convert someone who prefers gonzo interracial to a taboo line. They still buy what they like.”
Like Hollywood studios that face similar distribution dilemmas, porn manufacturers are looking to new technologies such as 4K video and IPTV-style delivery systems.
According to Adam & Eve’s Christian, “4K is something we have not yet embraced, thinking that it just may not be necessary to go that way at this time. We have some directors who are shooting in 4K, but we are not editing in 4K. 3D isn’t happening as predicted, but I am anxiously awaiting progress from the holographic imaging and displays I read about and see on YouTube. It’s not right around the corner, but it is out there.”
Smash is also looking at new technology. Wall says, “We’re still very strong with our VoD streaming in HD… The demand for HD is out there. On top of this working with our partners worldwide IPTV has turned into the future of porn, being able to stream adult content via your home TV in HD.
“In talking to various systems around the world, the direction porn is going is all home-based via your television. Using meta tags it will be all about searching for your favorite porn star or theme. Typing in that star’s name to either interact with them live or have the option in seeing the various adult movies they appear in, broken down to hairy, big boob, teen, Latina, etc.”
And what about features, once upon a time the industry’s lifeblood?
Says Stagliano, “The consumer seems to want gonzo, fetish, shorter form niche stuff. The feature, like I like to do, is a dying art form. If I were you I would see how Wicked is doing with features.”
Cut to Wicked Pictures contract director Brad Armstrong, who sees feature production and online content as interdependent.
“With the new mantra of ‘Content is King’ comes a new and difficult set of challenges for the feature director. He/she is faced with an almost impossible balancing act, trying to maintain the quality and integrity of the script and movie while trying to keep the guys in the Internet department happy.
“All they know is they want girls that generate hits, views and ‘joins,’ while all the director needs is a girl who fits the character, will show up on time, and can spit out a few lines, while sounding genuine doing it. They are rarely the same girl.
“For better or worse, the Internet is a necessary ally. For without Internet income, there would be no money to pay for features.”
West, whose Forbidden Fruits is nothing if not uniquely slanted, adds, “We like doing storyline vignettes and feature movies, so we do them. The people who prefer those movies have found them, and continue to buy them from us. It's when companies try to do something not in their wheelhouse, something they are just doing because it’s ‘hot’ now that they get in trouble. The fans can tell.”
To end this survey on a positive note let’s turn to one of the scrappier small-company owners, Porno Dan of Pure Play-distributed Immoral Productions.
“The first six months of 2014 were our best six months to date. Our live shows continue to do very well. In addition, we are always looking for new delivery mechanisms for our recorded content and recently signed a partnership that engages, and is very interactive, for end users.”
For some folks the porn industry is purring along on its charted course and doing just fine.
This feature originally appeared on page 50 of the August issue of XBIZ Premiere.