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Producers Facing a Stark Choice

Producers Facing a Stark Choice

June 16, 2009
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" In a saturated market consisting of increasingly selective consumers, generic, lowest-common-denominator products cannot compete. "

Never let it be said that times are so tough nobody can figure out a way to make them tougher. There is a long tradition of mismanagement in porn that, while sustainable when product demand was high and the bar to profitability fairly low, becomes one of the industry’s greatest liabilities during hard times like the present. In all fairness, the same could be said of the automobile industry, which has also tended to reward loyalty over ability, but is this a flattering comparison?

While I can’t picture anyone coming down from the highest circles of government to fire some of the less able captains of our business any more than I can picture taxpayer bailouts rushing in to save it (Larry Flynt’s puckish suggestion notwithstanding), we are seeing some lessons in how not to handle a crisis situation that would certainly warrant such treatment if anyone in the outside world cared enough.

The lack of institutional memory that particularly besets a market with a notoriously transient management class is working against our recovery right now just as damagingly as those pesky pirates freebooting on the Internet. In fact, our inability to act in common against those pirates is perhaps the single most disturbing example of our inability to learn from either our own mistakes or those of others in similar positions. Alas, such examples abound.

While loathe to risk repeating myself on the subject of bad calls from the front office to which we seem particularly prone, I’m even more loathe to let the repetition of the errors themselves continue unnoted.

Back in the hard years before the great porn bubble at the turn of the century, cheap reigned supreme. It didn’t matter if what we made was good or bad, so long as it didn’t cost much and we made a whole lot of it. That was the era of one-day wonders and even so-called “features” shot in a single day. The reigning assumption was that an audience of indiscriminate raincoaters would buy whatever we slopped out in front of it and the secret to profitability lay in keeping the trough overflowing at the lowest possible investment cost.

This was bad logic even in a much less competitive environment, because it tended to limit the pool of potential customers to our low expectations of them. It was the increasingly angry demand for something hotter and smarter than assembly-line products we were cranking out that, in part, gave rise to the various new formats that largely crushed demand for the endless retreads of pizzaguy-over-sexed-nurses-horny-cheerleaders formulas during the past 10 years. Gonzo, amateur, specialty and highend all-sex formats not only brought new consumers up to the counter, they reclaimed large shares of a market that had all but given up on what we were making back in the Reagan years.

At one end of a newly expanded spectrum of X-rated video products there was the intimate scale and relentless sexual heat of John Stagliano’s approach, and at the other, the deluxe polish of Andrew Blake’s. And at the same time, we witnessed the emergence of new marketing platforms on the web, along with wider access to better quality video formats, all of which helped feed a surge in demand coupled with a hunger for more original and creative products. It was that very surge, which too many producers took to be a permanent situation, that helped inspire the mad cycle of overheated production we’ve seen spectacularly implode in recent years.

Even when consumers had lots of extra disposable income to spend on porn, which they certainly don’t at the moment, they were becoming more selective by degrees and less forgiving of poor technical quality, tired concepts, listless performances, low production values and faxed-in performances. Above all, they were weary of cheap and cheesy. Some wanted their porn harder and others wanted it slicker, but what nobody wanted was more of the same done with even less attention to quality. Many of the largest companies in porn shrank into nothingness by refusing to recognize changes in audience expectations while smaller, smarter operations raked in the cash when the raking was good.

Now I see a lot of the surviving manufacturers, faced with declining margins and increased competition from new media, both legitimate and illicit, repeating old patterns, committing familiar mistakes and demonstrating a striking inability to adapt to changing conditions. The results are predictable and we’re seeing them. Companies are going out of business, selling off their catalogs, “consolidating” under competitors at fire-sale prices and generally engaging in what looks like a collective suicide pact.

Once again, I’m hearing about some of the best-known imprints in adult video trying to salvage what they can of their profits by engaging in broad and ill-considered cost cutting measures that will only shrink consumer demand for their products even further. Slashing production overall was clearly a must, and that message seems to have gotten through. I doubt we’ll see twelve-thousand new X-rated titles released this year. However, squeezing down budgets and shooting schedules on remaining productions merely takes us down a road that we’ve traveled before to no desirable destination.

Cutting a day off a feature shoot may save a few thousand bucks but cost much more in lost sales when reviewers and angry customers hammer the resulting titles all over cyberspace for looking careless and enervated as a result of overworked crews and performers. Budget ceilings may contain short-term expenses, but can wreck a company’s logo appeal if the outcome is a stream of look-alike releases with B-level casts, shot-out locations and listless, low-intensity sex staged by inexperienced directors willing to work (but not very hard) for whatever the going rate.

The whole idea of shooting two titles at one time, which I’d dared to hope was dead and buried, seems to have risen from the grave like some brain-sucking zombie determined to sap whatever vitality might remain right out of the pictures we’re making and the people we hire to make them. In the long run, as I’ve said before, it’s impossible to make profits out of economies. Only new sales can generate new revenues, and new revenues are the fuel of company growth.

Producers now face a stark choice, and how fearlessly and innovatively they make it will determine their survival in the hostile climate we’re likely to face over the next few years.

Companies with substantial capital still in hand can concentrate it on making fewer pictures, making them better and selling them more aggressively with targeted marketing campaigns. Smaller companies can abandon the idea of shooting whole titles altogether and become content providers, selling the equivalent of loops through Internet portals directly to consumers or to giant megasites with ravenous appetites for content. But whichever strategy is ultimately adopted, quality will still count. In a saturated market consisting of increasingly selective consumers, generic, lowest-common-denominator products cannot compete.

Clinging to the more-cheaper-faster methodology that helped to create our current problems won’t solve them. It will simply make them worse and hasten the demise of those manufacturers who fail to understand that quality counts even more in a tight market than one in which the ratio of price to value has lost all logic. If the broader economy around us teaches a single critical lesson, that would surely be it.


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