By Matthew Garrahan
Published: October 4 2008 03:00 | Last updated: October 4 2008 03:00
On a damp Friday morning in downtown Los Angeles I find myself standing in a chilly, rather shabby warehouse watching a group of bearded, tattooed technicians haul cameras and lighting equipment up a flight of stairs. Feeling sheepish that I am standing idle while they huff and puff, I offer to lend a hand and am soon enlisted fetching plastic bags full of cables from a Jeep parked outside.
To get up the stairs with my bags, I have to walk past several other camera crews getting ready to film. One group is here to shoot an episode of Top Chef, the culinary reality show presented by Padma Lakshmi (better known in Britain as Salman Rushdie's ex), another crew is from the E! entertainment channel, here to film an episode of Chelsea Lately, a late-night comedy chat show. The people I am here to meet occupy a more notorious corner of the media industry. They are among the thousands of pornographic actors and film-makers living and working in the Los Angeles area: the sex professionals who turn private passions into everyday paid employment.
Today, Monique Alexander, one of the biggest names in porn, is starring in Teach Me, a Vivid Entertainment production directed by Paul Thomas - the industry's answer to Martin Scorsese. It is in many ways a typical adult feature. It has a small cast, a low budget, no real script and contains sex scenes that could be found in any number of similar releases.
Alexander is petite, pretty and blonde. Shortly after arriving on set she is engrossed in conversation with an assistant who is applying heavy black eyeliner. A few yards away stands her male co-star, a Canadian with a dyed-blond mohican stripe and a deep tan, who goes by the stage name of Voodoo. Voodoo says he often films four or five sex scenes a week but varies his routine by working at weekends as a sky-diving instructor. He is married to another porn performer. When I ask whether having frequent sexual encounters with other people has affected their marriage, he laughs dismissively. "I go home each day and we have more sex," he says. "We can't get enough of it."
Today, Alexander is playing a school teacher - albeit one providing tuition in a black negligee - who seduces Voodoo and then his girlfriend. Although there is no script, Thomas, a rangy man with a greying goatee, has cooked up a complicated story-within-a-story plot that he patiently explains to the performers. Alexander, under contract to Vivid to make eight films a year, listens intently. "It's like I'm in a pink sparkle bubble at Vivid. It's always the same people on set," she says. "It's like a big family." She grew up in Sacramento and initially worked as a receptionist but got into porn after being spotted at a club.
While the set is being prepared for filming, the two-man camera crew loiters. To kill time, Shylar Cobi, the production manager, is practising his putting, knocking a golf ball across the floor, while technicians tape up the windows to ensure no natural light spoils the shot. Then the set falls silent and the action begins. The two thickset, bearded cameramen silently shift their position around the two stars as Alexander performs oral sex on Voodoo. Out of shot, Thomas takes a seat at a desk several feet away, puts on his glasses and opens a copy of the Los Angeles Times, only occasionally looking up to see what is happening in front of him. A stagehand standing next to me watches the action intently for a few minutes and then, as quietly as he can, opens a bag of Doritos and begins to eat.
Suddenly, there is a commotion: the paper covering one of the skylights has fallen off the ceiling. The performers break and the stagehand who was eating Doritos is dispatched upstairs to fix the problem. The shoot delayed, a naked Alexander walks off to the bathroom, her black stilettos clicking across the floor, while Voodoo stays behind. In porn, as in most lines of business, time is money and he must remain in character so that filming can quickly resume once the set is fixed. Feeling decidedly uncomfortable, I consider making a run for it. Nobody else on the set bats an eyelid.
It's amateur hour in the porn world. Although the professionals in California's San Fernando Valley, the industry's unofficial capital, are still turning out around a thousand new DVDs every month, their ability to turn a profit from them is under serious pressure. Margins are falling across an industry devastated by the advent of a new generation of free porn sites that carry home movies uploaded by thousands of keen amateurs - the would-be porn stars who live in the suburbs and stick with their day jobs. To make matters worse, films shot by the amateur porn stars take their place on these sites alongside numerous clips pirated from professionally produced DVDs. The websites - YouPorn, RedTube and PornoTube are among the biggest - look similar to YouTube and attract large audiences. But their popularity has come at a cost and sales of DVDs, the porn industry's most important revenue stream, are plummeting: two years ago DVDs accounted for about 80 per cent of Vivid's revenues; this year they will represent less than 30 per cent. The situation is so dire that Larry Flynt, one of the porn industry's elder statesmen, predicted this year that 50 per cent of all producers would be out of business within 12 months.
Steven Hirsch, chief executive of Vivid Entertainment, intends to be among the 50 per cent who stay in business. He knows he is facing a fight, though. Unlike most porn producers, Vivid has its headquarters on the outskirts of Hollywood rather than in the San Fernando Valley, a reflection of Hirsch's desire to make Vivid an adult brand with mainstream appeal.
Vivid is privately owned and does not disclose earnings although recent reports have suggested it could be generating as much as $100m a year in revenues. Sales are fuelled by a relentless pipeline of adult movies: Vivid has released more than 700 films since the 1980s when it first capitalised on the explosion of home video before moving on to DVD.
Hirsch doesn't quite fit the porn industry mould, as described by the late David Foster Wallace in his 1998 essay "Big Red Son". Wallace said the cliches that pervade the industry tend to be true: a typical producer "really is the ugly little man with a bad toupee and a pinkie ring". Hirsch isn't ugly and doesn't have a toupee or a pinkie ring, but he does have extremely white teeth and a deep tan. He is in his mid-40s, articulate - he recently spoke about the adult industry at Yale - and is married with children.
Shimmering white floor-to-ceiling drapes cover every windowless wall of the lobby; inside his office several flat-screen TVs are positioned opposite his desk. He jokes that he needs so many because he has such a short attention span, but his mood darkens when we discuss the free websites. Much of the content on them is illegally lifted from films made by companies such as Vivid, he says, or they are home movies. Either way, the damage is all too obvious. Even though the clips on these free sites tend only to last two or three minutes, they have still managed to wreak havoc, he says. "They are enough to stop many people from going to other sites where they have to pay for content. Unlike Hollywood movies, there are people who only need to see a few minutes of adult material, and they are satisfied."
At the end of last year Vivid became the first porn company to launch legal action against one of the free operators. Its suit against AEBN, owner of PornoTube, one of the larger free sites, has echoes of the legal dispute between Viacom and YouTube. Viacom, one of the world's biggest media companies and owner of businesses ranging from MTV to Paramount, launched a $1bn copyright infringement lawsuit against YouTube last year after its content appeared on the video site without Viacom's consent. Vivid has taken the same route against AEBN. Its suit claims breach of copyright and it is seeking $150,000 for each infringing clip - the maximum allowed under US copyright law - as well as legal costs and a permanent injunction to stop AEBN reproducing any more of Vivid's content. (AEBN did not respond to requests for comment.)
"We have been a leader in the industry for years so we decided we had to make a stand," Hirsch says firmly, cars from the nearby Hollywood freeway humming in the background. It will be difficult to stop all the free sites from publishing his content, he admits, but he says he is determined to try. "A lot of these companies are hiding out in different parts of the world and if we can't find them we can't sue them. But we are slowly going through them all... we are going to go after these guys."
Stopping the free operators is only part of the problem, though. Free porn is so pervasive that persuading consumers to start paying for porn again - either online or through buying DVDs - is not going to be easy. At June's Erotica convention, one of the adult industry's biggest trade shows, thousands of porn fans packed the Los Angeles Convention Center, a cavernous space that normally hosts events such as the Foodservice & Hospitality Expo or the LA Auto Show.
The fans at Erotica were hoping for a glimpse of porn's best-known stars. Performers such as Tera Patrick, Stormy Daniels and Randy Spears were all in attendance, attracting long lines of adoring fans in search of signed pictures or - even better - a chance to pose for a picture with their idol. The large numbers of wide-eyed aficionados - typically male and under 30 - jostling for mementos did not immediately suggest an industry in peril, yet a cursory wander around the hall quickly revealed the impact that free online porn was having. Two or three years ago a new, professionally made DVD would have cost $20 or more but at the Erotica show most retailers had piles of unsold DVDs at knock-down prices. One stall was offering three for $5.
I met Andrew Webb, a stocky young man from Los Angeles, browsing the exhibition stalls. He said that although he used to buy porn DVDs he had stopped several years previously. "It's all about convenience," he said, walking past a bank of TV screens showing the same scene from a hardcore film. "With the free sites I don't have to buy DVDs." Alex Menasche, also in his 20s, had come to the show with a group of friends from the San Fernando Valley. He told me that he hadn't bought a porn DVD or paid for porn online "for ages", before rattling off a list of free internet sites that he used. "I'd never pay for porn," he said. "I don't have to because it's all free."
In spite of its troubles, porn is big business. How big, though, is a matter for debate. To get an overview of the industry I drove into the San Fernando Valley to see Paul Fishbein, founder of Adult Video News, the largest porn trade magazine, and organiser of the AVN trade and awards show. Fishbein is based in Chatsworth, a San Fernando Valley town with a heavy concentration of porn production houses and distribution companies, and has tracked the industry for many years. He used to compile a regular analysis of its size and value but stopped because calculating an accurate number became too difficult, given the industry's sprawling scale and fragmentation. The most recent estimate put the global revenues of the porn business at about $12bn, of which about $4.5bn relates to DVD rentals and sales, although some in the industry dispute these figures. Most US porn is still produced in the San Fernando Valley, with the industry employing an estimated 6,000 people in and around Los Angeles, according to the LA County Economic Development Corporation. That's more people than work in software development in LA County.
I am greeted by Fishbein's assistant - who also happens to be his mother-in-law - and ushered into his office. There are framed pictures of his family on one shelf behind his desk while on another is a large collection of ceramic frogs. Fishbein says the industry is in the worst shape he has seen for 25 years - and the free sites are largely to blame. They are "wrong on so many levels", he says. "There's no age verification to get into this stuff so kids can watch it. A savvy net surfer can get a lot of free adult content without having to pay for it. Look..." He turns to the computer behind him and after a couple of clicks of the mouse has found a free site offering explicit material. "It's bad for business and it's bad for kids."
With demand falling, producers are reacting by making more films, spending less on each one and selling them for knockdown prices. "It's great for consumers," says Fishbein. "It's never been better because if you want to buy and own DVDs, prices are low and there's so much choice. There are 150 websites for every niche and thousands of titles." Porn, he adds, is easily accessible on cable, in hotels, on DVD and on the internet. "But there's too much product... There are a thousand new titles released a month on average, compared with probably 250 [mainstream] DVDs. Margins are falling because people are selling fewer titles." The industry, he says, has become a victim of technological change. Technology used to power the industry, he goes on; now it is eating it alive.
This is the great irony of the predicament that the porn industry finds itself in. In the past, pornographers were pioneers who paved the way for the mass adoption of new technologies. Their willingness to embrace the fledgling VHS video format in the early 1980s proved to a sceptical Hollywood that there was a market for a nascent home entertainment format. It was a similar story with DVD: porn led the way and Hollywood followed. And again with the internet: porn producers figured out how to make money from their online operations long before more mainstream entertainment companies got in on the act.
But the internet is a great leveller and porn now finds itself in a similar situation to the music and newspaper industries, which are both struggling to adapt to the online world. The profusion of free content online has shaken established business models in those industries and relentlessly eroded their profitability. Where the music industry used to make the bulk of its money from selling albums on CD, music fans now buy only the individual tracks that they want. Or often they download them free from an illegal file-sharing site. As in music, so in porn - why buy a whole movie if all you want is a clip?
What to do? At Vivid, Hirsch is working on new ways to make money, and holds firm in his belief that consumers will be willing to pay for high-quality professionally produced pornography. Vivid, he argues, is fortunate in that it is one of the best-known brands so consumers still tend to seek out its products. The company has been keen to diversify so that it does not rely solely on DVD sales, and has invested in its internet and pay-TV business. Although DVD sales have slumped, the decline has been offset by growth in other areas, such as video-on-demand over cable TV or the internet.
Hirsch is also doing all he can to bring the Vivid brand to a broader audience. Plus, it has a roster of popular stars, such as Tera Patrick and Brianna Banks, whom it has signed under exclusive contracts. "We need to continue to showcase our brand, whether it's on a billboard in Times Square or licensing deals that we do for clothes," says Hirsch. "When it comes to adult [entertainment] there are very few brands that people know. That really helps us as we move into the future."
At Digital Playground, a rival producer, a similar strategy is being deployed. The company recently had its biggest hit when Pirates (apparently inspired by Walt Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean series) became the porn equivalent of a box-office smash. "It won more awards than any other movie... and is the biggest-selling adult DVD of all time," says Ali Joone, the company's founder. A toned-down version was released for sale in retailers such as Blockbuster and Borders, which helped boost sales to more than 800,000 units. Like Vivid, Digital Playground is preparing to sue the operators of the free porn sites and is putting together a lawsuit aimed at thwarting the most persistent offenders.
Joone says porn can survive, provided it follows the example of Hollywood in the 1950s. "Before TV, if you wanted to watch a movie you had to go to a theatre," he explains. "Suddenly TV comes along and it's free. The studios thought this meant the end of the movie business so they had to change their product and increase their marketing to make themselves more compelling. I see the same thing happening in adult entertainment, although in our case the TV is the internet." He believes porn has itself to blame for its current woes. "For years the industry has created very mediocre product and it has sold well because the consumer had no choice - it was all that was available. Now, the consumer has a choice and can get the mediocre content for free or for a very low price. We have to give consumers something they are willing to pay for."
After years of teaching Hollywood about technology, porn could learn a little about fighting piracy from the studios that form the backbone of the entertainment industry. They have teams in Washington and around the world lobbying for tougher laws to stop intellectual property theft and prosecute the pirates. Clearly, the porn industry is much smaller and lacks the resources to mount a similar fight. It also suffers because piracy has hit its biggest revenue stream and it is casting around for other sources of income to fall back on. "Hollywood studios can still release their movies in theatres and they have more money to fight piracy, so they're in better shape," says Fishbein. But the advent of home video saw porn cinemas disappear. "With adult entertainment, there's too much content and a different distribution system."
Back on the set of Vivid's Teach Me, it is apparent that the proliferation of free websites is affecting every aspect of the porn industry. James DiGiorgio, one of the two cameramen shooting today's film, says that the abundance of explicit material on the internet and the growth of home-made films mean there is less work around for camera operators. Bearded and wearing a cap, a black T-shirt and long shorts, he looks like he should be hauling sound gear for a heavy metal band, and when we meet he regales me with tales of his time in England in the late 1960s, when he chased girls and saw rock bands such as The Who.
DiGiorgio, who made corporate videos for an aerospace company before joining the adult industry 15 years ago, is proud of his technical expertise. But he looks around him with growing disquiet: the steady erosion of the porn producers' profitability has contributed to falling technical standards. He points across the room to the camera crew from the E! channel, who are now setting up a few metres from the Vivid porn set, where they are about to interview Monique Alexander, the star of today's film. The E! channel crew is filming with expensive Sony Betacams, the same equipment used by most TV production teams and, as it happens, by DiGiorgio on the Vivid shoot. But this is kit for professionals. "Most of the guys in porn [today] couldn't walk over there to the E! crew and pick up a Betacam," says DiGiorgio sadly. "Things have really changed."
He has worked with Paul Thomas many times before, and both men have been around long enough to remember the good times. For Thomas, that means the 1970s, when he left his career as a mainstream stage actor - he was in the first Broadway production of Jesus Christ Superstar - and moved into porn, following a chance meeting with a pair of producers. "My family were disappointed I didn't stay a mainstream actor," he says. "But I had consistency. Working, money, a strong consistent job that you love can do positive things to your life."
After a few years as a performer he moved into directing, where he became one of porn's most sought-after talents, winning several gongs at the AVN Awards gala, the porn version of the Oscars. "When I was a performer some of the productions were big features with seven- to 10-day shoots," he recalls. "Now, there are far fewer features... There are going to be fewer opportunities to do the kind of movies I do."
Thomas says that he tries not to fret about too much about the future of porn. "I'm not that worried because I've salted my shekels away and I can retire if I want." But he knows that the industry that has been a big part of his life is facing an uncertain and worrying future. "This is a product that is easy to produce but its success used to depend on someone being able to distribute it well. Now distribution systems are on the internet, everything has changed.
"When I entered the business I could do all I wanted to do," Thomas says glumly. "I would never enter the business now."
Matthew Garrahan is the FT's Los Angeles correspondent.
"I'm A Normal Person..."
But for a chance meeting in a Sacramento nightclub, Monique Alexander (above) would never have become a porn star. As it is, she was spotted dancing seven years ago and has since become one of the industry's biggest names.
We are sitting in a side room before today's shoot begins, Alexander telling me the story of her start while a make-up artist dabs away at her face. She was working as a receptionist when she was spotted. "Porn wasn't anything I ever thought about. But I had a car payment to make and couldn't afford it at $8 an hour."
There was no turning back after taking the plunge: films can exist in perpetuity on the internet. "This is something that you have to live with for the rest of your life," says Alexander.
I ask about her family. Were they concerned? "I told my mom after a couple of months," she says. "No parent wants their child to do porn. But I'm a big girl and I'm an adult. She never tried to talk me out of it, not once."
Porn careers tend to be short, but can also be relatively lucrative. Steven Hirsch, Vivid's chief executive, says top stars can earn anything from $150,000 to $500,000 a year. Enterprising performers, such as Jenna Jameson, have been able to earn more by producing and controlling their own movies.
Alexander says porn has treated her well. She supplements her pay from Vivid with personal appearances at strip clubs, where she can earn "very good money", boosting her earnings by thousands of dollars. After finishing today's movie, she was due to travel to Hawaii to do six shows.
She has also become a vocal supporter of porn and recently took part in a Yale debate on the industry, which was moderated by journalist Martin Bashir and filmed for ABC's Nightline programme. Alexander appeared in the pro-porn camp alongside Ron Jeremy, perhaps the industry's most famous performer. "My argument was: I'm a normal person, it's not demeaning," says Alexander. The work is, she says, "empowering".
Like all performers, she faces competition from a new generation of potential stars. Paul Fishbein, founder of Adult Video News, says more female performers are entering the industry than ever before. "When I started working in this business 25 years ago, it was all hush-hush," he says. "It's now a career choice... There are all these 18-year-old girls wanting to get into porn."
Alexander agrees. "Everyone wants to do [porn] now," she says. "But people should realise that it has consequences. You have to be up for the challenge."
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2008