Lucas Kazan: Gay Porn, Italian Style
From the beginning, Lucas Kazan has in many ways been a welcome outsider in the adult industry — an artistic genius sitting in the corner, a true romantic creating his own unique vision.
Since starting Lucas Kazan Productions in 1998, his output has unfolded slowly and with style, his emphasis on quality over quantity serving him well over the years — he has racked up a bevy of award nominations (starting with 1999’s “Hotel Italia”), numerous awards and constant critical acclaim.
It’s a career path that came naturally: In his early 20s, Kazan worked as a film critic (under his “real” name) and wrote extensively on gay porn for GLBT monthly, Babilonia. That eventually led “Vietato ai minori,” Italy’s first “scholarly” book on the history of gay porn. He eventually left his native Milan and moved to Hollywood, graduating from the American Film Institute and pursuing a career as a production manager turned independent producer.
“Movies and performance arts keep intriguing me — once a film critic, always a film critic, I suppose,” he says. “And my love affair with opera — Italian opera, in particular — is 40 years strong. Now, for an opera queen who grew up at the LaScala Opera House and ended up in L.A., it’s been somewhat difficult to adapt.”
Understanding that love and influence is crucial to appreciating the detail that has gone into Kazan’s works — his career starting after he befriended Hollywood neighbors Gino Colbert (an accomplished adult film director and performer) and Wolff (a German performer). Colbert invited Kazan to his sets, which proved influential on the young Italian: “They were fun, colorful, transgressive — so different from anything ‘mainstream,’ so foreign to my catholic upbringing.”
He quickly learned the ropes, and in late 1993 Kazan became Colbert’s production manager — nothing more than a hobby over the weekends. But it offered him a chance to work with a number of porn companies (straight, bi and gay) and learn from industry veterans — including Savannah, Jeff Stryker, Joey Stefano, producer Scott Masters, directors John Travis and Jerry Douglas.
At the same time, he kept writing for skin trades both Italian and American, including the now defunct “Manshots,” “Unzipped,” “GayItalia” and “Adam.” Then in 1997, Men of Odyssey made Kazan an offer he couldn’t refuse: helming a movie in his own country. “The end result, ‘Journey to Italy,’ was nothing short of a disaster, despite its lofty budget. But it taught me a lot … think of it as my ‘hardcore’ boot camp.”
He picked himself up and started his own company the following year, directing hit after hit. “I’ve learnt by trials and errors; we all do. We all hone our craft one shoot at a time. And colleague Kristen Bjorn was patient enough to mentor me: He helped me better my camera work, understand sexual choreography and find my own voice.”
That powerhouse friendship remains strong: “We talk often, sharing each other’s point of view on the state of the industry. But we no longer co-produce feature films; neither of us could afford them. Much like me, Kristen has entrusted his assistants with production (above all, the talented Strongboli) and has been searching for a sustainable business model. Of course, he’s Kristen Bjorn — he’s the unrivaled genius he’s always been, and is still debuting more guys (and hotter) than the rest of us.
“I’ve been lucky. I reached out to and became friends with many of the pioneers: Tom DeSimone, Scott Masters, Bill Higgins. I was mentored by the artists I looked up to the most — Kristen and BelAmi’s founder George Duroy. I worked with so many iconic stars over the years — from Joey Stefano to Ken Ryker to Lukas Ridgeston. I learned a great deal from each and all of them, and am proud to count many amongst my friends.”
A Bygone Era?
But as the industry changed, so did Kazan’s company. After celebrating his crystal anniversary this year, Kazan reflected on his journey as a filmmaker — and the trends that shaped not just his studio, but the ever-changing industry.
“Everything has changed — and more often than not for the worse. The studios that contributed to shaping this business have thrown in the towel, or have changed ownership: Catalina, Colt, Fox, All Worlds, Studio2000. Big budgets, large crews, purpose and production values … mostly gone. Auteur porn, story-driven and visually-driven porn … gone. If a webcam is all it takes, the entry threshold is lower than ever before — and that’s the good news,” he says.
But the director asks: How does one gain visibility these days unless he or she has cornered a microniche? How does one build that webcam into a profitable business and compete with the corporate giants or the larger affiliate programs?
“There’s the rub. In 1999, my ‘Hotel Italia’ had a bigger budget, won more accolades and sold more units than most of the long-established studios — Falcon included. I’m not sure what it would do today. Because back then, it was all about content and content producers — porn as an expression of one’s sexual psyche.
“Today, it’s about ‘corporate’ smut, technology, marketing, traffic. And traffic in the hands of — or paid for by — a few large properties, most straightowned. Finally, you have brand new forms of adult entertainment — with nothing to do with the pre-recorded content I first fell in love with: mobile apps, chats, live cams, dating sites, cruising sites, social networks. If I were 30, would I want to spend money and time on a porn site, or would I be cruising on Grindr? It’s a whole new game, really.”
Trend 1: The Technology Curse
When he started some 20 years ago, Kazan remembers shooting video on Betacam SP and then editing linearly at a post-production house: Betacam deck to Betacam deck.
“Let me give you ‘Journey to Italy’ as an example: We rented two Betacam SP cameras in Milan and converted the PAL originals into NTSC dubs here in Los Angeles. Imagine the dozens of bulky Betacam SP tapes and the hundreds of film rolls going through customs. Imagine the costs of renting video equipment in Milan, converting the tapes into a different system and of developing film.”
His “Journey,” however, was the first gay porn to take a shot at non-linear editing: It was cut on a gigantic Avid Media Composer — using the same post-production house and same editor (both expensive) Kazan had used for a mainstream feature a year earlier.
“Back then, computers ran on a fraction of the speed any laptop boasts today, and so footage was digitized into the media composer at a low resolution (we used ‘AVR 5’) — which made it impossible to tell an out-of-focus take from a sharp one, and challenging to color correct anything at all. Today? Anyone can shoot HD video on a $300 handy cam, import the footage — virtually uncompressed — on his or her home computer, edit and color correct with Final Cut X for less than $300 and distribute for free on his or her own Xtube channel. Hell, anyone can simply jerk off on a live chat … or on Skype!”
But Kazan notes that comes with several consequences: “On the one hand, ‘amateur’ porn has given flesh and blood to [French director/writer] Alexandre Astruc’s idea of the ‘caméra-stylo,’ wherein filmmaking — no longer hindered by traditional storytelling and by heavy equipment — becomes akin to writing. On the other hand, it also manifests all the limits and weaknesses of Astruc’s theory: poor production values, for instance, and the inevitable loss of the many crafts contributing to making porn.”
Kazan references the post-production houses and the knowledgeable editors. For “Hotel Italia” (1999), they relied on a truck loaded with equipment and on a crew of 10 skilled professionals: a director of photography, a production manager, a makeup artist, a gaffer, a best boy, a boom operator, two still photographers and two production assistants, each one bringing to the set his or her invaluable expertise. These days, he notes, a “pro” crew may be as small as a cameraman and a PA.
“No question that ‘amateur’ videos — because of their very rawness — can feel more ‘real,’ less formulaic and 10 times hotter than a ‘studio’ production,” he says. “But it’s also true that ‘amateur’ is often a convenient excuse for uninspired camera work, tiny budgets, cheap hotels and scruffy looking guys.”
Another consequence: In the ’90s, superstars like Idol and Ryker commanded model fees in the 25–50K range for a two-picture deal. Even Kazan’s own stable of stars — like heartthrob Matthias Vannelli in 2006 — would earn 3,500 Euros (over $4,500 U.S.) for a single scene in a versatile role.
“Money talks, and it did persuade plenty of beautiful men then,” he says. “Today? With the exception of BelAmi, Corbin Fisher and Sean Cody, none of us can afford those fees. Production budgets have shrunk dramatically and fewer models are being lured into the biz. It’s a matter of simple economics and one that most viewers — and many affiliates — fail to understand. True, we can get everything for free, or for a $1 trial; but without revenues — and without a healthy industry — what porn shall we be left with five to 10 years from now? Our ugly neighbor jerking off on Xtube?”
Trend 2: The Media Blitz
Kazan notes that “Journey to Italy” was distributed on VHS, back when distributors used to order — and move — thousands of units at once (so was Journey’s sequel). In 1999 with “Hotel Italia,” DVDs afforded Kazan a new, lucrative outlet. For a few lucky years, he says, DVD and VHS doubled studios’ profits, “which we were happy to invest back into ever glossier and more ambitious productions.”
Then, almost overnight, VHS tapes disappeared and DVD numbers began dwindling. “Few of us paid any attention to the internet. Sure, we began licensing content to the first VODs out there and opening up online stores for our mail order. But, with the exception of BelAmiOnline, we had little understanding of the revolution soon to happen — let alone a cohesive, long-term strategy. Not so for the dot-com companies sprouting at the time: SeanCody seized the opportunity — and cornered the ‘amateur’ market — as early as the year 2000. RandyBlue followed suit in 2002 … and the rest is history.”
Trend 3: Change Business Models … or Bust!
Instead of retrenching, building a library and cranking out videos for the booming online market, Kazan kept directing no more than two or three features a year for the “old” DVD market the way he always had: on location (expensive), with a large, capable crew (also expensive) for weeks in a row (crazy expensive).
“Consider this: In 2006, I launched my membership site. But even then — six years after SeanCody — I looked at it as nothing more than an ‘ancillary market’ and focused on my new feature instead: an ambitious, lavish adaptation of Mozart/DaPonte’s “Così fan tutte,” filmed in Southern Italy and titled “The School for Lovers.” Yes, it won me another award for Best Foreign Feature. But in the end, I would’ve been much better served by a reservoir of (cheaper) videos for LucasKazan.com.”
By 2007, Kazan notes, traditional revenues had plummeted — including DVD wholesale (domestic and foreign), broadcasting fees and licensing at large. “When ‘The Men I Wanted’ hardly broke even, I should have seen the writing on the wall. But 2008 was to be my 10th anniversary, and I wanted to celebrate with yet another big-budget feature. I got inducted into the Hall of Fame (how did that happen? How did I became a ‘veteran’?), ‘Italians and Other Strangers’ won me another trophy for Best Foreign Feature, but — you guessed it — it has never made its money back.
“I passed the directing baton to my younger collaborators, set out to produce for the internet and briefly came out of ‘retirement’ in 2010 with a medium-budget feature (“Rough/Tender”) — but only because we were offered a gorgeous location in Southern Italy (a restored 14th century ‘masseria’) and couldn’t help but to have fun with it. CurrentTV tagged along and taped a documentary, which aired the following year.”
Trend 4: Viewing Habits
Kazan adds that the dotcom companies proved no less myopic than the traditional “studios” before them. “VODs, which should have replaced a dwindling DVD market, are now competing with the free tubes — and rapidly losing that battle. Membership sites have never looked into a sustainable business model to begin with: How long can they afford to offer everything they’ve ever produced for $29.95? How much porn can they give away, chasing traffic and ever more difficult conversions?
“Online piracy and the glut of free, readily available porn have wreaked havoc on this industry in ways we have yet to fully grasp. I mean, I grew up in Italy — I know all about piracy. But back then, we all had to pay good money for a pirated tape. And that’s no small difference.”
As for the future, Kazan wishes he had a crystal ball. “Show business has always evolved rapidly and often dramatically: Movies didn’t replace the theatre, nor the radio. Think of the transition from the silent movies to the talkies. Or of the advent of television and the ripple effects they both had within the film industry — talk about adapting!” he says. “Porn is no exception. Hell, it wasn’t even legal ’till 1970. Looking back at the glorious porn features of the late ’70s to ’80s, let’s remind ourselves that they in fact developed from the earlier ‘loops’.”
Kazan again is left with many questions: Is reality porn — cookie-cutter porn — as we experience online these days somewhat similar to the old 8mm loops (poorly lit, blocked, shot and edited)? And if so, what kind of porn will rise from the ashes of these copycat properties? How will it look? What needs will it answer? Which language will it speak?
“These are the questions that keep me engaged. And I begin to find promising signs here and there. Call it ‘reality fatigue’: in straight porn, with trite ‘gonzo’ titles no longer selling and quality-driven properties like X-art.com reaping handsome rewards; in gay porn, with producers like CockyBoys, NakedSword and Lucas Entertainment all breaking the mold of wall-to-wall sex. As the ‘reality wave’ and its aesthetic indifference weaken, some of us are boldly taking risks and exploring the genre from within: form, content and business models.”
Based in Los Angeles, LucasKazan.com films mostly in Europe and the Mediterranean, occasionally in South America — which takes the auteur across the ocean several times a year. Throw in tradeshows and a few film/TV markets, Kazan is seldom in one place for more than two to three months in a row (“never long enough to get bored”).
Currently, half of Kazan’s site expands the reality format and puts it to the test with new exclusive models, web auditions and juicy travelogues. The other half caters to the studio’s traditional fanbase with photos, hardcore scenes and model interviews. Every other week, Tosi talks a newcomer (usually from the least likely places) into filming either a solo or a sex scene. Kazan notes there will be more Italian, Spanish and Brazilian newcomers, but also Turks and Moroccans. “I may have given up on the lavish productions we used to make around the world, but I haven’t given up on discovering, grooming and debuting hot new talent. After all, 80% of directing is casting, isn’t it?”
As for the director’s chair, Kazan misses it … and doesn’t. “I don’t miss the grueling, endless hours on the set. I don’t miss being at the mercy of just about everything: weather, transportation, location owners, equipment failures, ‘wood’ problems, ‘chemistry’ problems amongst the cast members. But I miss the creative process behind it: developing a project and bringing it to life. Shall we grow tired of the reality format? Shall we begin craving something more? Shall we curb piracy, restore production values and find a sustainable business model? Till then, I’m okay with my executive producer’s hat.”
And his staff has carried on the tradition, ushering Kazan’s name into a new era with the same style and class it started with.
“I often ask myself what attracted me to making porn in the first place. I think it was the opportunity to recreate a ‘Paradise Lost’ of gorgeous men and exotic locations. It was my quest for beauty and romance. While George Duroy’s inspiration is at heart ‘poetical’ (the poetry of youth) and Kristen Bjorn’s ‘architectural’, mine is oftentimes ‘pictoric’ — with all its limitations,” he says.
“None of us believes that beauty and sexual heat need be mutually exclusive. All three of us agree that porn can be sensual, erotic, visually and emotionally engaging — despite everything to the contrary on the internet. After all, the true sexual organ isn’t our dick, it’s our brain. We engage the latter to arouse the former.”