Distros Not Dead!
If hot young stars and the next big movie are the heartbeat of the adult industry, then distribution is the lifeblood. The less-than-sexy aspect of actually selling products, considered by many to be no different than selling “schmattas” (Yiddish for rags) in New York’s garment district, and being able to convince wholesalers and retailers across the country that a producer’s goods were worth putting on their shelves has been what’s made every successful movie company what it is today. In fact, a number of today’s studios were born out of distribution companies that saw potential in producing their own product. They had a built-in distribution network so why not make movies?
It worked for some. And the tried-and-true methods employed by a company’s savvy salespeople made some in the porn game very wealthy.
These sales pros would get on the phone (sometimes at 5 a.m. on the West Coast in order to catch the East Coast trade), and talk up a new film like it was the most explicit, outrageous, and cuttingedge video ever to hit the streets.
The vets considered the “art of conversation” to be what made the difference between a movie that sold 5,000 and 50,000 pieces. Some would call the flush ‘70s the disco days, but in porn it was the sweet spot of the “distro days.”
But as everyone knows, the game changer was the Internet. As technology created a medium to view content, a new avenue of distribution appeared that was faster, often cheaper and allowed porn viewers a world of variety right at their fingertips.
And despite dire predictions about the death of the physical DVD, people still bought movies and that meant the distribution effort continued, and more importantly had to adapt to the rapidly changing market.
Not only has the distribution effort survived, but in many cases it’s evolved with more concentrated and consolidated companies and even a few new entries. Companies like Pure Play and Pulse Distribution have picked up new clients continuously as new smaller studios realized they needed to be on store shelves and in online stores as well as on websites.
And those sales pros whose contact books were stuffed with possible retail outlets decided to take a run at the direct sales game themselves. One case in point is Vivid and Pulse veteran Howard Levine who founded Exile Distribution last year smack in the middle of a troubled economy.
But having the balls isn’t enough. The new breed of distributor has to embrace new technology without discarding their stock in trade.
Levine says, “I use a lot of emails and Facebook, but I follow it up with a phone call.
Still the best form of communication for me is the phone. I need to be able to talk to the person. It is easy for someone to blow you off in an email. That’s not so easy when they are talking to you on the phone or in person.”
The new company owner notes that when he first began at Vivid Entertainment, the team would send out one-sheet mini posters, followed up by a call. And they faxed a lot.
Once computers hit and sales rose, Levine, then national sales manager, saw the light and began sending emails to his clients. That lasted for almost 20 years. “Yes, I’m that old,” Levine quips, but notes that today he also posts trailers of his products to YouTube and sends the links out to the buyers. “I’ll post the links on different sites that cater to our audience.”
But he hasn’t forsaken email. “I’ll send emails, probably too many, every day. I announce reviews of titles, schedules, what is coming out this week and links to trailers.
But in the end, I pick up the phone and close the deal,” he says.
Levine makes it clear that the personal touch is still integral to successful distribution and maintains that he still enjoys speaking with customers, some of whom he’s known for more than two decades.
“Calling someone on the phone and developing a relationship with them is impossible to do through email. My customers are friends of mine, not pen pals. Email is not very personal. A visit, a call, even when I’m not trying to sell something, goes a long way.
I always taught anyone who worked for me, any of my assistants, and all of my salespeople, to be respectful, treat people how you want them to treat you and you will do fine,” he notes.
And following up — a lost art — is also key. “Call them back when they call you.
A lot of the people that worked with me have gone on to great positions in the industry. I am very proud of that and them. It is a great feeling to help someone and have them come back successful and say, ‘You taught me everything I know.’ I am very grateful when that happens.”
Today, Levine even directs some of the movies he distributes and is more cognizant than ever of how new technology can help. His first title, “Superporn” takes advantage of Exile’s tech methods, but Levine points out that he’s seeing great results primarily because he’s “called everyone he knows.”
“When you genuinely appreciate the support of your distributors, they can hear it in your voice, not in an email,” he maintains.
As the exclusive distributor of some of today’s most in-demand studios, Pure Play Media says that it has no choice but to maintain constant communications with customers and consumers and that means a mix of both high and low-tech outlets to get the word out.
Between press outlets and retail customers, providing the proper information, images and promotional videos is a very demanding job, according to Pure Play’s Ritch Wilder.
Although a wholesale distributor, many consumers also look to the company as a clearinghouse for new release information. This requires the company to maintain two separate websites — a wholesale B2B site (ppmb2b.com) that allows registered customers to shop and order, and a “public” site (PurePlayMedia.com) for informational purposes.
Subscribed customers are kept in the loop with automated new release emails. “Our new release email blast is probably our biggest asset right now,” explains Wilder. “Our programming staff developed a tool that builds our weekly new release emails automatically — it’s a tremendous time saver.”
The company’s automated email blast provides subscribers box art, cast list, synopsis, UPC and the ability to click right through to their website and be able to order.
“In addition to our websites and release blasts, we are, of course, on Twitter,” continues Wilder. “This serves as a voice for the distribution business, and we have both wholesale and retail customers following us. In conjunction with our studios, our tweets and re-tweets do a good job of keeping people in the know.”
On the low-tech side, Pure Play continues print ad campaigns that include magazines, fliers, and more.
And of course, the human element — “a talented and expert sales staff” — makes sure its titles from more than 20 studios that includes top names like Private Media, Naughty America, Seymore Butts, Score and more “fly from studio to shelves.”
Another distro giant with more than 100 studios under its belt and a staff of nine sales and licensing pros, Pulse Distribution likes the traditional “brick & mortar” approach to distributing.
Although its client studios embrace social media like Facebook, Twitter, etc., executive vice president of sales Robert Plarski says Pulse likes to stick with e-mail, instant messaging and phone calls to the buyers.
“We do utilize emails and that has proven quite beneficial to create specific specials either by studio or by genre and blasting that out to 300 clients. One week they may need ‘big boob’ and another they may need an Asian mix. This enables us to stay fresh on their mind and the most current specials,” he notes.
Most of Pulse’s clients are receptive to new technology, Plarski says, but those that haven’t utilized emails and instant messaging are slowly becoming extinct. Email with box covers inserted allows the buyer to see which movies are included in the mix which allows the buyer to see the cover girl and action shots, rather than just plain text in a fax list.
Some old school methods remain, according to Plarski, like traditional promotional items including posters, etc. that are still sent directly for the big-budget features, but screeners are the norm for most films.
The use of new technology paves the way for personal contact that the executive maintains is still a very necessary component to the whole distribution game. “Nothing can take the place of the personal relationships that you build from talking to clients virtually on a weekly basis if not semi-daily. While the emails and instant messages allow us both to multi-task, it’s the bond that you form over years from over the phone and face-toface contact.”
Keeping an ear to the ground of what techsavvy wholesalers want may be important, but content is still the key, according to Plarski.
“The wholesalers really aren’t clamoring for anything too tech fancy. From time to time you may have requests for certain genres, i.e. parodies, female/couples-friendly, etc. But generally, as soon as someone has success with a certain niche, everyone hops on board.”
Plarski says that what continues to succeed is new content and new girls. Even with all of the available technology for promotion, it doesn’t matter if a movie isn’t good.
And like always, it’s the girls who drive most of the adult business.
Assence Films, OGEE Films and Monarchy Distribution’s Mike Kulich says his operations heavily use social media as one of its key avenues of marketing. He points out however, that social media hasn’t really helped grow the DVD industry. “I feel that it has in fact transitioned a majority of our customers from DVD to VOD,” Kulich sys.
“I think that this trend has become a direct result of Twitter which is a huge supporter of the adult industry. It has gotten to the point where the stars are helping promote themselves as well as the studios tweet by tweet. Look at Alexis Texas. To date she has close to 240,000 followers that stay up to date from what cereal she had for breakfast to what scene she is shooting that day. For my companies, when one of our girls tweets about a title, scene, or upcoming project, we notice a huge increase in pay-per-minute sales, VOD sales, rentals, and web traffic,” Kulich says.
As far as using tech in his distribution efforts, Kulich uses social media to basically keep the company’s press releases, news and updates centralized so customers and followers don’t need a number of different news sources and websites to find out what is going on with his companies.
Kulich notes, “We do have a number of stores and retailers around the country that are fans of our page and we plan to use that viewer base to do special promotions for the stores, i.e. display contests, fan signings, etc.”
Boulevard Distribution owner Andy Goode is another proponent in the older tried-and true methods of telephone and email campaigns to its existing customers.
He does however believe in using social media to promote a title. “It’s all about getting the brand name established. We use YouTube for trailers and Facebook helps for events and for industry contacts,” he says.
But like Plarski, Goode feels that it’s compelling content — not cutting edge technology — that ultimately sells a product.
Distributing DVDs is tough enough, but when a company takes on novelties the task become exponentially harder and the demand to adopt new technology even more critical.
GVA-TWN’s task is massive, and operations manager Scott Bowman says his company and team of six (four sales and two customer service reps) is quick to use whatever works well. The company uses monthly email blasts to focus on hot products and trends and it’s beginning to adopt the practice for instant specials and sales.
GVA is also testing the social media waters. Bowman says, “Our Adultmart stores use Twitter and Facebook to promote specials and we are reviewing to see if this is viable for GVA as well.” And their clients approve.
Bowman notes that retailers and wholesalers are willing to accept “anything that increases sales.”
“There seems to be a willingness to try different products or lines on a smaller test basis. Our customers are also enjoying web ordering and email updates for shipping status,” he says.
In response to its customer base, the company is also employing realtime updates on inventory quantities in its warehouse. Bowman maintains that the process is especially important for its web-based and drop-ship customers. “We offer available quantities on our wholesale site and the update time is currently at 15 minutes.”
But with all of the sexiness of cutting-edge technology, human reasoning remains crucial. Technology is an aid, not the driving force behind a successful distribution plan.
Bowman imparts that even mega-distributors that rely on the latest technology need to maintain personal contact as a core component of sales. He says GVA continues to send displays, posters, promotional items and product giveaways to its customers. He adds that customers also want tester items and holders so that they can “touch and feel the products.”
It all boils down to “products that sell,” Bowman stresses, and that means being hands on.
“We are reviewing products in our warehouse daily and gathering feedback from our customers as to what items move. Too many times in the past, we have seen products gather dust and celebrate birthdays in our warehouse and on our customers’ sales floor. The days of guessing whether an item or line will sell are over. This communication is vital in what GVA purchases and a guide for enhancing our relationships with our customers,” he says.
The manager is happy to have the benefits of new technology but even more pleased knowing that when GVA carries an item there is a tangible reason why. And their customers know it’s the people — not just the computers — that made the call.