Happy Days for Gays?
“Retailers have stated that they are being far more cautious when placing their orders,” says Christopher Thais, president and CEO of JRL Communications Group Corporation, which runs online publication JRLChartsOnline. “The prices for gay adult films are still double the cost of heterosexual films, and they are constantly battling with their distributors to get a better price…right now everyone is hurting in retail numbers, from distributors to online providers. This recession is hurting everyone, especially the consumer.”
For a long time, studios dealt with an established mail order exclusivity policy followed by distribution through one outlet, and stores were able to buy in huge quantities because they didn’t have any other outlet to compete with. “Over the past six years, the gay adult film industry has gone through a serious transition…with Internet content expanding at an alarming rate, the thought of getting instant revenue as opposed to waiting 30, 60 and 90 days for royalty payments from their distributors was a dream come true…everyone wanted to get on the bandwagon,” says Thais, citing online companies and pay per view as competition. “Now in the 21st century, it’s a whole new ball game.”
While the country is still wary of an economic crisis, the nation has started to pick itself up. And in the gay adult space, players both big and small have had a time to reflect on the dizzying events of the last two years as they aim to restore balance in the universe, one boner at a time.
“The past year has been a triple whammy on the adult industry,” Titan Media Vice President Keith Webb says. “Recession, dwindling DVD sales and piracy…it’s been a tough road, but we’ve been able to push forward and market our way through it all.”
Webb notes that DVDs are still selling — but at a much lower price point and in dwindling numbers. Titan has helped bridge the gap through the sale of its Blu-ray offerings — and was the only gay studio that never stopped offering the format since it began its commitment to high definition. “True HD online content is still three-plus years off, and people want content for their 60-inch 1080i HDTVs. Blu-ray will continue to pick up some, but not all, of the decline in DVD sales.”
Raging Stallion recently re-entered the Blu market, a move it hopes will enhance its commitment to making big-budget, storydriven pieces — something many other studios have shied away from. “Big budget movies are not as common,” Raging Stallion President Chris Ward says. “We are one of the only companies still willing to spend upwards of six figures on a single feature film. Our big budget productions have wonall the major awards shows for several years now and these movies are also our top money makers. I think other studios have made a mistake in not continuing to make major films.”
Webb notes that the big studio presence is more vital than ever, offering content that Web-based companies can’t compete with. “We will continue to make high end ‘fantasy’ based content, we will not succumb to the online ‘reality’ based porn genre,” he says. “If you want reality, go to Xtube; we are not going to try and compete against people that will give it away for free. What we do best is high-end fantasy porn with the hottest guys in the world, shot in the highest quality available in the industry. There will always be a customer base willing to pay for this genre of content.”
Many of the smaller online studios know they aren’t competing with those offerings, and it hasn’t hurt them. “I didn’t notice any downturn at all the last couple years,” says Bryan Ockert, founder of ChaosMen.com. “I am not really a bigger studio, but a lot of members and fans think that I am. I am still pretty much a one-man show. It’s pretty much me doing most everything, with a little bit of help here and there. Perhaps it’s the volume of videos I put out.”
Ockert helped widen his reach by releasing DVDs of his web-based content (with added exclusive scenes), resulting in awards for both the site and his popular Edge series (also going strong are his Shear Chaos and Serviced lines). “I kind of feel like the DVDs act as an advertisement for the site … they may entice people to join the site to see the vast amount of content that is more readily available. I created them mostly in response to requests from members who wanted a higher quality version of their favorite videos or couldn’t be bothered with the issues of streaming/downloading videos. For me, the DVD sales are a small supplement to my overall earnings, and since I started out as a web-only content provider, I think it has been a great experience.”
It’s a trend that studios of all sizes have capitalized on. In addition to ChaosMen, popular sites like Randy Blue have brought site content to DVD. Meanwhile, after creating successful online properties to offer exclusive content, big studios like Hot House have also found success releasing it on DVD — its “Backroom” line is at Volume 19 and counting.
“The quality of DVDs is still vastly superior to online delivery, especially Blu-ray. It will be some time before that quality can be delivered over the Internet,” says Ockert. “So for the time being, there will always likely be customers who are not computer savvy or prefer the quality of the DVD experience. Customers are demanding higher quality TVs and movie definition, but at the same time are more than happy with lower-quality versions online or on their portable media devices.”
Michael Lucas, CEO of Lucas Entertainment, says that technology trends will affect the industry incrementally. He notes that gay customers have become very comfortable watching porn on their computer, providing a key area for opportunity.
“Beyond that, I don’t see one ‘big’ thing but a lot of small things that we will have to manage carefully,” he says. “Mobile, for example, was touted as the next big frontier but — in gay at least — it hasn’t been such a big deal yet. But obviously we need to keep engaged with the technology … 3D is interesting, but somehow I don’t think all porn will suddenly turn three-dimensional. Cable, for gay porn at least, has been a long slug; there is some broadening of shelf space and it’s nice incremental business, but it too won’t revolutionize the industry. Neither, so far, has ‘download to own.’”
But that hasn’t stopped studios from taking the next steps in the technology charge. In addition to recently launching its brand new in-house VOD website and system, Titan plans to roll out a mobile version of the site to capitalize on the portable craze with devices like the iPhone and iPad. “The desire for adult entertainment is not going to go away,” says Webb. “It’s our job to figure out the next generation of technology and how users what to consume our products. It’s an age-old scenario … adapt or die.”
The studio will be offering HTML5-based content that is compatible with Apple mobile devices, something Titan’s target demographic is heavily invested in. “The idea is to offer content that allows the user to ‘place shift’ and watch the content on whatever device they want. The concept of ‘time shifting’ ushered in the VCR revolution; the concept of ‘place shifting’ will be the next revolution in entertainment. We have to get our content onto every single device the consumer wants to use, while making it easy and affordable.”
Thais points out that — for the most part — the gay side doesn’t enjoy the exposure its straight counterpart does through hotel pay per view, on cable channels or through its own exclusive channels. “Once we penetrate that marketplace, gay studios with screenplay gay adult films will have an outlet for serious revenue. We are not out of the woods yet ... we really won’t see a positive turn until the fall season kicks into full swing.”
Pritam Sinha, CEO of Pacific Sun Entertainment, says that broadcast TV shouldn’t be overlooked: “Most people still watch mainstream videos on TV; with more and more cultures becoming more and more liberal, it is just a matter of time when a vast amount of porn — and more specifically gay porn — will be consumed by broadcast TV.”
He adds that the distributor giant plans to enter the live-chat market, launch a slew of membership sites and to enter the lucrative and booming sex toy area — another niche that has weathered the storm.
Desiree Duffie, director of marketing and public relations for Topco Sales, says the company focused on the future during the recent tough times. “We became even more innovative and creative in terms of our product offerings. You’ll see this especially is true in some of our new gay lines. With an emphasis on lifestyle branding, the new lines and products available from Topco Sales certainly don’t look like they were made during a recession.”
She even notes that some straight male consumers have gravitated to products traditionally thought of as “gay,” experimenting with prostrate toys and entering the world of anal play. Duffie notes that realistic materials like CyberSkin and Sensafirm do very well. Silicone is also popular, especially for strap-ons and harnesses. The company has excelled with its Rascal Toy line, a partnership with Chi Chi LaRue’s top-quality Channel One video company.
“The gay market is comprised of several different categories with a variety of individual demographics. Rather than make Rascal Toys into a broad gay line with ‘a little bit of something for everyone,’ we deliberately decided to target true fans of the Rascal Video DVDs,” Duffie says. “The initial Rascal Toys release with its oversized products stunned many people. It seemed risky to develop so much into a line that primarily targeted size queens, but we went for it and it paid off.”
Customers are suckers for dildos of popular stars: Coming up is the addition of former reality TV star Stephen Daigle’s molded penis, with packaging complimenting the cover of his video “Seven Daigle XXXposed” — a highly publicized release sure to boost sales on both ends. Outside of the Rascal line, Topco will unveil Michael Lucas After Hours (featuring molded pieces of Lucas and his top performers) and Hardware, a line of toys crafted from actual tools for people with garage sex fantasies — proof that the fetish flurry is alive and well.
If last year is any indication, consumers are becoming harder to shock — but eager to accept the challenge. The rise in popularity of fetish and “extreme” content is expected to continue as one of the industry’s fastest-growing segments. In addition to the usual offerings from the main studios — including regular fisting, heavy ass play and fetish titles from Raging Stallion, Hot House and Titan — studios have launched new successful lines, like the latter’s Rough label.
“Fetish is still just a niche, I don’t think it’s really ‘mainstream,’” says Titan’s Webb. “What’s changed is that we have been able to find more fetish consumers because of the Internet. We have also figured out that the fetish customer is usually a slightly older consumer willing to pay for the kind of content they want. Fetish content is also less costly to produce, so the ROI can be lower and we can still make money. Fetish is an add-on to the revenue stream, not a replacement for mainstream content.”
Lucas’s popular Raunch line has focused on fetishes like watersports, farts, armpits and feet. “Watersports is the ‘it’ thing today. I think this is because we have so many vanilla movies that people are getting bored with that. Sucking, eating ass and penetration does not satisfy people any longer. It doesn’t mean that one would like to participate in those activities himself, but he might enjoy watching it.”
Ward notes that such content has always been a money maker, but realizing profits in fetish genres is difficult. “These films are more difficult to make,” he says. “Extreme content is also harder to sell in the mainstream marketplace. We normally can only distribute about one-half the number of fetish units as we do on a mainstream release. This means that we have to be very careful in keeping production costs under control. We also are very fortunate to have several major fetish membership sites, which pump up profits.”
Next Stop: Mainstream?
In addition to widening the fetish landscape, Lucas has also been instrumental in expanding gay porn’s reach across the world by filming in Israel and other countries — and bringing a new pool of talent to the fans. Meanwhile, his outspoken nature has brought added visibility to gay porn and causes he champions; He’s spoken at Oxford University, became a columnist for The Advocate, is writing an autobiography and working on a documentary.
“I’m very much enjoying the change of not writing about sex, but writing and speaking about politics,” he says. “I’m very blunt and have strong opinions. And yes of course, porn is much more accepted today than ever, as it’s been around for a long enough time for people to get used to it. The Internet helps tremendously … but I don’t think it will ever become really mainstreamed as it is too hardcore, although some individuals in porn will be more mainstream.”
Sinha says the gay side is still fighting a social stigma — but one that’s fading: “Only a small fraction of porn stores have a substantial gay section. Only a small fraction of porn TV channels carry substantial gay programs. These are becoming less and less of a problem as gay becomes more mainstream and people are less ignorant about gay-related issues.”