opinion

Porn Valley's Star Factor

Ernest Greene
Of all the dumb ideas to emerge from the depths of Porn Valley, few could compete with the notion floated over the past few years, that the X-rated entertainment business, unlike all other forms of commercial entertainment throughout recorded history, really isn't personality driven. As long as the bases are covered and the players reasonably attractive and competent, the bottom line wouldn't be much affected by the fame, or lack thereof, of the performers themselves.

You would think that producers sitting in their booths at every event open to the public would notice the lines of shell-shocked fans eagerly waiting half an hour for a quick cell-phone shot with their favorite performers and do the math. Instead, the "conventional wisdom" (an oxymoron if there ever was one) has become that porn "stars" are basically expendable, if they could even be said to exist in a market saturated by a never-ending flood of fresh talent and new content.

Fresh is certainly good and there's always been something of a premium on it in porn, but familiar has a drawing power of its own, and it continues to demonstrate that draw where the plastic meets the scanner, particularly in large-scale feature productions where the investment of company resources in building names has paid off again and again. We may not have Jenna Jameson anymore, and we may never see her like again, but we do have Jesse Jane and Tera Patrick and Stormy Daniels and Belladonna. Put their names and likenesses on a box and what's inside will get a predictable bump. This is what's called bankability and it's not to be underestimated.

While attempts to manufacture porn stars have not always succeeded, and the mishandling of contract performers by companies unprepared or unwilling to invest in promoting them effectively has often prevented that success, the typically extreme oscillation to the view that only variety sells doesn't account for the lines of fans, and the lines of buyers, name-brand talent attracts.

I suspect that part of the popularity of MILF titles arises out of the opportunities they provide to acquaint new viewers directly with iconic names from their nostalgic early experiences with porn. Audiences now in their 30s and 40s get to see the women they were hot for at 18 come back with updated hairdos, stronger sex-action chops and younger playmates with whom this porn-savvy demographic can identify.

And then there are the fans that never left. There's this one guy who's been writing to me on and off for about 15 years arguing, persuading, demanding and pleading that I use certain particularly well-known classic players in every show I shoot. He and millions like him must be in porno heaven at the re-emergence of many beloved lust objects from years past. This is all the more likely because, freed from the necessity of carrying vehicle roles in big features, veterans returning in non-star-billed sex-only parts can really show the power of experience in giving younger babes lessons on how to turn up the heat in a scene.

And unlike in mainstream, the economics of buying a production a little trademarked insurance isn't prohibitive. Talent rates are essentially the same, with a few notable exceptions, across the visibility spectrum, as payment is determined more by the act than by who's doing it.

Ideally, mixing well-known and well-loved stars with those on the rise shows both groups off to advantage. These days, newcomers to the talent pool often arrived having studied the moves of their most successful predecessors and give all they've got when working with long-time idols.

And speaking as a director, I can extol the many virtues of hiring professionals when it comes to getting professional results. Having survived the excesses of their youths, and often ruefully eager to put the reputations brought on by those excesses behind them, I find that name-brand talent tends to show up on time and ready to work, go about the job with patience and determination in the face of all the usual interruptions and annoyances, and keep their dramatics to the area in front of the camera line.

Which is not to say that we aren't still creating our classes of difficult divas. These days, as the buying public expands to include more women and couples, I'm finding the casting of male performers more critical to the success of my projects, and that the performers in question have become increasingly aware of this fact. Long overdue a rate bump, I don't begrudge the stronger male players the hefty rise in prices they've come to command in the past few years. But I don't care for their grandstanding and fits of temper anymore than I did for those of their female predecessors back in the day. At least the girls sold boxes, even in their most difficult periods, and the guys are still, pardon the expression, spear-carriers in the opera.

Perhaps most interestingly, we've seen an expansion of the definition of porn stardom to included directors. This has never been and by and large still isn't an auteur's medium. Most porn directors toil away in sweaty obscurity, cranking out the producers' formula goods as anonymous foremen on the assembly line.

But those who have broken away with styles of their own that appeal to reliable groups of consumers command much the same admiration and respect once limited to on-camera personalities. There are now consumers who buy every new title from favorite directors the way they once would of every new title featuring a certain performer. In some instances, it could even be said that a company logo has star power. If the company turns out a consistent type of product that a certain audience knows will have the things in it they want, they'll pick it up without even looking to see who's in it.

But what still makes the wheel go around is personality. That is the nature of commercial entertainment, whether film, TV, music, professional sports or porn. The chance to spend some time with someone the viewer finds exciting is the thing for which an increasingly illusive dollar can still be had. It doesn't hurt, especially right now, if the personality is a bit larger and/or more extreme and/or exotic than life. One advantage video has enjoyed over the Internet, as film over television, is that its very artifice is bigger, as opposed to smaller, than life. If part of the early appeal of Web porn was its voyeuristic anonymity, part of what's hurting it now is its lack of glamour.

For ours is a glamour business, even now. That's why it attracts new participants and new enthusiasts. The glam level never rises to the level of mainstream entertainment, nor does anyone with a head for numbers aspire to compete at that altitude. But the glamour here is vested in the names and if we lose sight of that fact, we run the risk of giving up our most valuable asset.

While most performing careers in adult are still likely to remain short, those that prove durable do so for a reason. The performers who have them know how to do what we need done to keep the audiences coming back. I'd like to hope our vision has cleared on that point by now.

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