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Porn Boosts L.A.'s Economy

Porn Boosts L.A.'s Economy

October 21, 2005
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" There's a lot of crossover, especially with people behind the scenes "

Turner Jumonville has worked as director of photography on feature films, TV shows, commercials and music videos. But when he arrived in Hollywood in the mid-1990s, his first work was in the adult film industry.

"I was a kid, straight out of college, trying to be a cameraman's assistant," Jumonville recalled. "I needed work, and [it] was a great opportunity for me."

Jumonville has returned to the adult industry on occasion throughout his career whenever he needed fast cash or was inspired by a particular project. Along the way, he said, he has built valuable professional relationships. The director of photography on that first adult project, a softcore skin flick, now produces Cinemax's "HotelErotica." Jumonville is director of photography on that project.

"You can't really turn these things away," he said, "because there's always an opportunity to experiment and to learn."

The tale of the adult industry's contribution to the entertainment industry often is told through the prism of the failed starlet who disappears into the Hollywood Hills. That story usually ends with the girl worn out, strung out and jobless. But the adult industry's contribution to Southern California's economy is far more substantial, economists and those in the business say.

"From what we can tell, this is an industry that's very, very profitable," Los Angeles County's Chief Economist Jack Kyser said. The industry employs 6,000 people in Los Angeles, he said. Just 1,200 of them are actors; the rest work behind the scenes and, like Jumonville, put in time on mainstream Hollywood sets, too.

"There's a lot of crossover, especially with people behind the scenes," Kyser said.

People who make the movies like to point out that Barry Sonnenfeld shot hardcore flicks before he directed the blockbusters "Men in Black" and "Get Shorty."

"Maybe it's difficult for actors to cross over. But as a cameraman, you have a skill that transcends the subject matter," Jumonville said.

Following the model of the old studio system in which talent salaries were kept low and companies remained agile enough to adapt to cutting-edge technology, the adult industry has turned itself into a pillar of stability in the volatile entertainment industry, experts say. Even The Economist has praised the adult industry's business acumen. "Unlike the regular studios... the porn business has been excellent at controlling costs," the magazine reported several years ago.

Exact figures are hard to come by — "this is an industry that likes to fly under the radar," Kyser said — but estimates have variously placed the industry's revenue in the United States at $12 billion-$15 billion and worldwide at $50 billion, more than the three major professional sports leagues and four major television networks combined.

Kyser, the chief economist for the nonprofit Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp., said the adult film and toy industries in 2004 generated at least $4 million in revenue in Los Angeles County alone. And that comes at a time when more adult business are pushing beyond their traditional milieu in the San Fernando Valley, particularly to Las Vegas and the desert region east of Los Angeles where warehouse space is cheap and plentiful.

According to the Entertainment Industry Development Corp., the quasi-private agency that issues filming permits in Los Angeles County, the adult industry logged 3,600 production hours last year, and that's just what showed up on the books.

Here's how Kyser lays out the numbers: 6,000 workers working at 200 companies releasing 400 films a year. Do the math. Bear in mind, those numbers apply only to Southern California.

In its annual white paper to the California Legislature this year, the industry's lobbying arm, the Free Speech Coalition, acknowledged exact numbers are hard to come by, but added, "What is certain is this: Adult entertainment is a significant economic engine."

The adult industry has become stable enough that, even in the traditionally conservative South, cash-strapped communities have begun to welcome, if not openly court it.

When the giant online movie provider Adult Entertainment Broadcast Network set up shop in a suburb of Charlotte, N.C., local reaction was far from furious. Community leaders praised the company's contribution to the local economy, and one of AEBN's 125 employees told the local newspaper that his job is "certainly more fun than working for a bank or an insurance firm."

New Technology
The industry also has been willing to embrace new technologies, a strategy that helps it stay enormously profitable, experts say. While Hollywood initially fought video technology and now leads the fight to stop movie swapping on the Internet, the adult industry saw opportunity. It recognized cutting-edge technologies simply as new delivery systems for its products, and set about finding ways to make them profitable. AEBN now is pioneering new technology that sends movies directly to mobile telephones.

"Pornography always has capitalized on the latest technology, probably beginning with stone tablets, advancing to the printing press, telephones, television, videos and now e-commerce and the web," said Indiana University professor Blaise Cronin, who published a study of the industry. "While these weren't designed with the porn industry in mind, technologies drew the interest of porn entrepreneurs who quickly adapted them into their business practices."

But the story isn't all rosy. Porn productions in Los Angeles County are down 17 percent this year. Kyser blames the slump on the AIDS scare that gripped the industry last year.

He believes some of the adult industry's smaller players have decided to take their business out of state and out of reach of public health officials.

"Things are a little freer in Vegas, I guess," he said.

But folks like Jumonville aren't worried. He said he'd "prefer to work on feature films where people aren't getting naked," but he'd rather work.

"I know that whatever is going on with the economy, sex sells," he said.


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