Howard Levine: Adult’s Real Son of Anarchy
There are only a handful of people in adult that everyone knows by their first name — sort of the T&A equivalent of Arnold [Schwarzenegger] or Kanye [West]. It could be because it’s such a small and incestuous industry, but it’s more likely that when someone has a question about adult products — from sales to production — everyone knows who’s being asked when the name is simply… Howard.
A major player for more than three decades, Howard Levine has made his mark thanks to a combination of smarts, wit and an outgoing and often boisterous personality that has been his trademark persona giving him credence not only in adult but as a stand-up comedian and mainstream actor.
But what’s most notable about Levine’s success is that although his scope of knowledge exceeds most in the business, he’s only really worked for a handful of adult companies — albeit giants like Vivid Entertainment, General Video of America (GVA) and Pulse Distribution. What really makes his career stand out is that he helped vault them to the top of their games. Now, as co-founder and president of his own Exile Distribution, Levine is setting his sights on a more difficult challenge — introducing and nurturing fledgling production companies in what’s undeniably the most difficult time for adult in years.
And Levine knows first-hand what it takes to get a start in adult. Although he didn’t consider the industry his life’s calling, his career path was never what one would call traditional.
“I was working at Vidal Sassoon Salon in San Francisco in the early 1980’s and at night I was doing stand-up comedy. My friend Harlan Shapers just moved to town with a guy I kind of knew from Cleveland. His name was, and still is, David Sturman. He just opened a mail-order company and needed some people to help with a project he was doing,” Levine recalls.
Falling in with Sturman, a legendary pioneer in the industry, just happened to be fate. And always seeking an opportunity, Levine and his wife didn’t balk at the prospect of selling a unique product that required the application of “Hot Pulsating Pussy Scent” to white cotton panties. Levine says the essence came in a white bottle and smelled exactly like “some stank pussy.”
Whether it was the intoxicating odor or the thrill of sales, Levine was hooked on things adult and began hawking used porn star panties. And the appeal of selling porn stars’ goodies to consumers apparently sparked another idea a couple of months later that led Sturman to open the West Coast branch of General Video. Levine says, “I begged him for a job selling VHS tapes. He finally said OK. He had a boiler room with six people in it calling every video store on the West Coast. They did about $65,000 a month combined. In my first month I sold $60,000 on my own. I became the sales manager and worked there for four years. It was there that I met everyone.”
Levine wasn’t paid very much “but the spiffs [bonuses] were wonderful.” In 1989, he and his wife were expecting their first child so he asked for a raise that never came. But once again timing appeared to be on Levine’s side. He says he started to hear rumblings about a new company called “Vivid” and he was intrigued with the brand as well as one of the studio’s executives, Steven Hirsch, with whom he quickly became friends.
“He [Hirsch] told me if I ever quit GVA, he had a job for me. I went for it. Steven treated my family and myself very well, and I ended up staying there, as national sales manager until 2011.”
His long and successful stint at Vivid gave Levine the opportunity to sell some of porn’s landmark titles including the Pam Anderson sex tape (that virtually launched the celebrity sex tape genre), Kim Kardashian, and the blockbuster “The New Devil in Miss Jones” with Jenna Jameson that he says sold an unprecedented 65,000 units out of the door.
When Vivid moved its distribution to Hustler, Levine followed. The studio then made another move, this time to Pulse Distribution with Levine in tow, but this marriage wasn’t as happy, forcing Levine to leave. “I left Pulse because it was time for me to go.”
Like many industry veterans, the combination of years of experience, contacts and the entrepreneurial itch to strike out on his own called to Levine in 2011 when he announced the formation of his new distribution company, Exile Distribution, along with Jerry E. from Exquisite whom he describes as a younger guy that he learns from every day. “Jerry does what he says, and is one of the only guys who isn’t full of crap. He tells you straight up, no bullshit. He treats his customers like royalty. He is a great guy.”
There are actually a number of stand-up mentors Levine credits for his success. He says he always looked up to Rueben Sturman — “He was such a great guy — very intelligent and knew how to work a deal. I was privileged to get to know him well. There will never be another like him, ever.”
Other coaches and friends include Marty Turkel and the late Ed Kail, whom Levine calls “true salesmen.” He also lists Joel Kaminsky, a true gentleman, and Michael Warner, whom he says is one of the best people he ever met in his life. “I loved those guys.”
Levine also “learned a lot” from contemporary veteran, Evil Angel general manger Christian Mann, who says he’s known the “old boy” for close to 30 years — dating back to his time as the sales guy at GVA West and Mann’s tenure at Catalina Video. “The business was so full of optimism then. We were leading the ‘high life’ (and I mean that in more ways than one.) I still remember the time we were all at a CES show, pre-AEE, and Howard was stationed at the GVA booth when some camera crew from a TV station came by looking for interviews. Outgoing Howard was so happy to oblige, seemingly unaware of his boss’s rabid hatred of the media and the wrath that would follow. What can I say? We were young, a bit dumb, and we thought we were stars.”
Mann also recalls Levine’s stint at Vivid when he would push out not thousands, but tens of thousands of new releases. “Back then, Howard didn’t look like a Jewish biker with attitude, he looked like a new wave geek with over-sized glasses. Youth and immaturity ruled the day. Fun times that will never be recaptured,” Mann remembers.
It’s that kind of pedigree and passion that sparked Levine’s confidence to create Exile. He was confident he could make the company work with the goal to take on studios with great content that lacked distribution. Levine recalls, “We started out with Penthouse. The market was sagging so it was very important to find just the right studios. I am happy to report after some hits and some misses we have landed with some of the best studios in the business today.”
If there’s a holy grail in adult sales it’s contacts. And one was particularly fortuitous in Levine’s career. He says that a year before he left Pulse, he met with Jay and Jodi West in the company’s parking lot that led to an hour-long conversation about starting up a studio known as Forbidden Fruits Films.
Levine took the time to give some free advice, and told them to call when they had enough content to start a DVD line. Three-and-a-half years later they called Pulse looking for Levine but were told they didn’t know where he had gone. But as luck would have it, the couple saw an XBIZ article the very same week announcing the formation of Exile and immediately called. Levine says he always liked the pair because “because they were so upfront and not full of shit.” “So they sent me their first DVD and I thought, ‘oh no, this will never sell because of the box.’ It was not so great. I sold it by telling everyone the truth, the content is killer, and the box is the worst I’ve ever seen in my life. I sold 400 units out the door, which was not so good.”
But as Levine hoped, the content worked.
A week later, IVD called and reordered more than their initial order. And the orders kept on coming for the next three weeks. Levine ultimately sold more than 2,000 units in about a month, which he says was an unheard of amount considering today’s dwindling market.
The company then jumped on its breakout success, realizing they had a hit, teaming up with box artist Scott Lau who created a whole new look for Forbidden Fruits. In its first year, the studio released about 25 titles and as Levine says, the titles “sold like crazy.”
The success put Exile on the map. Today the company also distributes other strong-selling studios including AMKingdom that caters to the hairy and other niche titles; Pornstar Empire, that Levine describes as “the studio of the stars,” a new entrée’, Hot Mess, that has introduced “killer product” “12 Inches A Slave” and “Miss Tranny Canada,” “Nice Tits, Great Cock,” and “Suicide Dolls.” Levine says Hot Mess has some of the best packaging and marketing he’s seen.
And Levine’s magic touch continues. Recently, Forbidden Fruits announced a deal with director Harry Sparks, noted for his films “Revenge of the Petites” and “Vampire Mistress” to produce his next movie that Levine describes as “quiet genius.” The addition added more ammo to Levine’s distro company.
The sales pro makes it clear that Exile also has its own production company, Exile Productions, that he humbly says has “great content, great boxes.” The studio also introduced Levine as a producer/director last year in the title “My Mom is a Whore” from his Howielou Productions imprint.
Although he’s a sales pro at heart, Levine says he loves his new craft and will continue to direct. In natural sales-pitch mode, Levine reveals that he’s working on a “very big movie.” “I love being creative. It’s just fun.”
His creativity was also evident in his acting career that landed him a role on the FX cable channel show “Sons of Anarchy.” Levine began as an extra and then moved up to core background for the first four seasons. Like most in adult, it’s hard to shake a porn past, but in this instance it worked to Levine’s advantage. He says when the show’s producers discovered his porn connection, he was tapped to supply girls for the episodes. He also became the de facto porn consultant, when the fictional motorcycle club got into that business. Levine still works with the show supplying locations and girls and he’s become friends with the cast and crew who he calls “super people.”
And Levine’s acting bug is still alive. He’s been a SAG [Screen Actors Guild] member since 1985 and says he does have some irons in the fire right now with a couple of other shows. “I would love to pursue that full time in the future.”
That’s providing he can clear his full professional plate. Besides his acting, Levine got clean and sober more than eight years ago and has been into recovery ever since. He has been a member of “The Messengers of Recovery” since 1995, as a way to be of service to other addicts that he says is a huge part of his life. The group has five chapters and a solid membership that does benefits for sober living homes and offers help where needed. “It keeps me clean and sober. My life is better than it ever was. Reality is awesome,” Levine admits.
But his avocations don’t cut into Levine’s bread and butter. He says that 2014 so far has been a great year and he’s happy with his stable of studios, noting that he’d rather have five strong production companies than 20 “OK lines.” He adds that his company’s success will likely grow, despite the continuous talk about a depressed market because DVD sales are still strong with good product. “I think we have many years left. Is it what it was? No. But I am doing well with the studios I represent,” he says.
Levine advises would-be producers to keep trying, noting that there’s always room for new studios that produce good content and promote their product. “Think outside of the industry. Content always changes, what’s hot today is not tomorrow, you have to diversify. If you do a good job and are attentive to what the customers want, you will make money and be just fine,” he believes.
And unlike a number of his contemporaries, Levine doesn’t think streaming and VOD will ultimately replace DVDs. He believes consumers are “tactile buyers” who still love to shop. In 10 years that might all change, Levine says, but by then he’ll be 69 years old and in typical Levine fashion says he “won’t give a shit.”