Making Your Mark in Porn: 1
Buy a video camera, place a few ads in your local paper, and you're in business — at least according to conventional wisdom.
There's no telling how many would-be adult filmmakers have found out the hard way, after spending countless hours and investing thousands of dollars, that producing an adult film — not to mention launching an entire line for distribution — is significantly more time-intensive and expensive than the average fan would guess.
"If someone wants to get started in this business and do it right, they need to have $500,000 invested, they need to work sometimes seven days a week, and they need to go to all the parties and shows," Sabi, owner of upstart label Critical X, tells XBiz.
Critical X released its first title, "Sexology," in September. The DVD exceeded the company's projected sales goals in just four days, allowing Sabi to breathe a little easier, especially considering how much time and money he had already poured into the company and what was riding on that crucial first release.
While numbers vary considerably from company to company, most producers XBiz spoke with say a typical gonzo movie costs between $20,000 to $30,000 to produce, author and package, while feature movies average $50,000 to $75,000. Though it is more rare, some big-budget productions, most notably Digital Playground's "Pirates" and New Sensations' "Dark Angels 2: Bloodlines," are rumored to have price tags in excess of $1,000,000.
But it isn't just the cost of one film that a prospective producer has to grapple with. "You have to have four movies ready to go and be working on your fifth in order to interest distributors and show them you can turn out a consistent product," John Knowles, co-owner of NJ Films, tells XBiz.
Knowles, an industry veteran who worked with Devil's Film for 11 years before starting his own production company, has the advantage of industry contacts and insider knowledge, and yet, even for him, ramping up a production operation has been a roller coaster ride.
Choosing A Direction
The first major challenge for a startup production company — besides lining up financing — is deciding what type of movies to make.
"Unless you have a million dollars, gonzo is the only way to go, cost-wise," Knowles says. "There's so much overhead going in, and you must be able to maintain for a year or two before you start seeing any real profits. You can expect your first year to be a loss situation financially."
Knowles says producers have a better chance of succeeding if they focus on specific market segments and strive to make movies that stand out from the huge amount of porn already being produced. In the case of NJ Films, Knowles and co-owner Nelson Blanton decided on several genre-specific lines, such as "American Cocksuckers," "My POV" and interracial and all-black titles from performer/director John Dough.
"This is a cut-throat business with extremely small margins, and survival is difficult," Jeff Mullen said. "Unless you have something quite unique to offer, you will lose money eventually."
Mullen should know. In addition to producing porn, he also runs All Media Play, a company that specializes in publicity for adult companies. The experience gave him unique insight into what gets noticed in the marketplace and inspired him to create Britney Rears, perhaps the world's first "concept" porn character, complete with her own theme song, which Mullen sent to virtually every radio station in America. The effort paid off in big ways, as the song — and Rears herself — were featured frequently on the Howard Stern show.
Critical X's Sabi adds that the best any producer can hope for is to find a winning formula and turn it into an ongoing series. Critical X hit a home run with one of its earliest releases, titled "Fuckables," which featured recognizable stars in anal scenes, so it immediately went to work producing "Fuckables Too" with another group of recognizable stars in — you guessed it — anal scenes. "We're trying to make whatever is going to sell," Sabi says. "Our attitude is, once you find something people like, you stick with it."
After deciding which types of movies to make, the next step in ramping up a production company is buying equipment. This is one area where it helps to have a geek on staff, says Sabi. "I've always been a tech person. Fry's Electronics is my favorite place to shop, so I had a lot of knowledge about which cameras would deliver the quality I was looking for. I use two cameras — a Sony PD150 and a high-definition Canon XR1, which costs around $5,000. In the beginning, I rented lighting, but I eventually bought the equipment for $3,000."
Jonathan Chang, sales manager for Amorz, a new Japanese adult production company now making inroads in the U.S., estimates that the company has spent well over $10,000 on cameras alone, and an equal amount on lenses, tripods, monitors and lighting.
Many novices think they can rent cameras and lighting until they start seeing some profits, but Amorz director Taki says rental equipment is unreliable and unlikely to produce the quality a producer is looking for. "I never rent equipment to shoot my titles," he says. "I don't like using secondhand equipment. I'm producing my titles with my soul."
Also, because most distributors want to see multiple titles from a company before considering its products, renting can end up costing more in the long run than buying.
With VHS all but dead and DVD the preferred format of today's porn consumers, prospective producers also will have to invest in editing equipment. "We have three editing stations — they're Macs, which cost $20,000 each," says Sabi. "You can get editing stations cheaper than that, but now so much of the industry is shooting in high definition, and we need fast computers because the frame rates [for hi-def] are much faster. They'll crash slower computers. You can't edit hi-def with a G5; you need to invest in the newest, best equipment."
In other words, in the era of hi-def DVDs, prospective producers are looking at an investment of up to $70,000... before filming a single scene.
In part two we'll look at talent and distribution.