Coming to America

Michael Hayes
By now, you’ve probably seen Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglorious Basterds.” If you haven’t, you’ve most probably had your ear worn ragged by friends who insist that Christoph Waltz’s portrayal of S.S. Colonel Hans Landa is sure to win him an Oscar, and that you just have to see it. While Waltz is a man of uncommon talent, his success story really isn’t that unusual, and like so many things in Hollywood, there’s a clear porn analog. So who is Waltz and why should pornographers — particularly international pornographers — care about him?

A little background, if you will.

Waltz is an Austrian actor whose career as a B-level TV star was on the down slope when Tarantino cast him. He literally stole the movie, killed it at Cannes, and according to his IMDB page, he’s currently working on the big budget-budget studio picture “The Green Hornet.”

Not bad for a guy who six months ago wasn’t even that well known in Europe, let alone the U.S.

But if you think about it, Waltz’s story happens with great frequency, because in the media business — adult or mainstream — there are two undeniable truths. First, we’re always looking for something new, and we’ll search anywhere to find it. Second, you may be the biggest thing to ever hit, but unless — and until — you make it in the states, you really are a nobody. That was true for Waltz, it was true for Nicole Kidman, it was true for Russell Crowe, and it’s true for every porn star and studio on Earth.

So who is porn’s Christoph Waltz? It may just be Cruel Media’s Raul Cristian. A successful Romanian-born porn star and veteran director, Cristian tells XBIZ that you have to “make it in America” to be taken seriously in the business.

“My goal was to come to the U.S. and impress people like John Stagliano and Jules Jordan and find a way to work with them,” Cristian explains. “That’s how you really make a name for yourself.”

It worked. In 2003, Cristian moved production operations to the San Fernando Valley, and after nearly three years of distributing his Cruel Media content through Anabolic and Diabolic, Cristian hooked up with Stagliano’s Evil Angel in 2007. Several months later, Cristian inked a deal with Jules Jordan Video for a creampie line.

According to Cristian, the street credit gained from working with top-tier U.S. partners has been the shot in the arm he needed to take the Cruel Media brand to the next level.

“European porn is good, but it’s really just a niche,” Cristian explains. “If you want to grow, you need to grow out of that [niche] and work in the U.S. because the biggest and the best in porn all work in the U.S. — it’s the only place to be.”

America, Here We Come
While Cristian went to the trouble of relocating his entire production apparatus from Europe to Woodland Hills, Calif., he may be the exception to the rule. Exact figures don’t exist, but visit any adult trade show or talk to any sales executive and you’ll find that there are literally scores of foreign companies that do business with American partners in lieu of actually moving here.

One such company is Sexsense, which operates out of Switzerland, but is in the process of building a strong American presence by working with two domestic distribution partners — New Sensations and Costline Licensing.

Sexsense, which is the hardcore gonzo specialist for Playvision Media Group, inked its DVD distribution deal with New Sensations back in June. And while Playvision Managing Director Gian Carlo Scalisi tells XBIZ that Sexsense has no immediate plans to open a U.S. office, his story mirrors Cristian’s American experience.

Like Cristian, Scalisi insists that having a U.S. presence — in one form or another — is an absolute must for any porn company that wants to be taken seriously by industry professionals and consumers alike. But for both companies, making inroads into the American market wasn’t a fast process because it meant tracking down a highly reputable partner.

“We all know that in order to be successful in a foreign market you need to be able to work with the best [partners in that country] and [it] took us more than one year until we were able to close the deal with New Sensations,” Scalisi says.

Part of that time was spent simply making contact, but according to Scalisi much of the year was also dedicated to vetting potential partners, meeting the players in the American market face-to-face, and getting a sense of which companies were for real, which were to be avoided at all costs, and — most importantly — ones that would be the perfect fit for Sexsense.

“The biggest challenge [for us was] to find a U.S. company that believed in [our product] line and in us,” Scalisi recalls. “Our strategy was simple: find the best people and convince them to work with us. But [doing business] is not so simple.”

According to Scalisi, it all came down to forging a good working relationship with New Sensations. But whether you’re talking about business or personal relationships, the truth is that most partnerships are never quick and seldom easy.

When Should You Make The Move?
If it’s a forgone conclusion that you have to have a U.S. presence to be a legitimate player in adult entertainment, the decision to make the move should be a obvious one, and both Cristian and Scalisi say their only regret is not making contact with the American market sooner.

But, according to Cristian, the importance of the U.S. market varies depending on what portion of your sales comes through the web.

“By definition, if you are on the Internet, you are a global business,” Cristian explains. “So, we were doing business all over the world (and in the U.S.) when we were online. But we wanted to reach more American consumers and we wanted to have a DVD presence, and for that it was obvious that we had to be in the U.S.”

Scalisi puts it this way: “From the beginning it was clear to us that we could not be in business if we did not have a presence in the U.S. market. [The] U.S. market is still one of the biggest in the world (if not the biggest). It’s critical to think about the U.S. market early on and to be here as soon as possible, both because of the power of American consumers and because [the U.S. market] pushes new trends.”

According to Scalisi, having insights into the trends that often originate in the U.S. market is a huge advantage for any adult entertainment company operating outside the U.S. because it often allows them to move six months or more ahead of the competition.

“The U.S. has always been the most advanced part of our industry,” Scalisi says. “We believe that the U.S. market has a very big influence on the European market, so for us it’s a chance to get an early look at new trends and to take action very early.”

The American Audience
But for all the talk of trends coming out of the U.S., it’s not clear that much really changes in terms of content when foreign producers bring their product to American consumers.

“For us, I don’t think the content or the style really changed all that much,” Cristian explains. “We kept doing what we had been doing, although I think we got better at it.”

For Cristian, “getting better at it” meant overcoming some initial language hurdles (an issue he’s since addressed with a very strong command of the English language). But by and large he says Cruel continues to make rough hardcore sex scenes that appeal to audiences in the U.S. and abroad.

Scalisi reports much the same experience.

“The content itself is the same,” Scalisi says. “Sure, we get a few notes and suggestions from our distribution partner, but that’s part of what it means to have a partner. They can help you make those small adjustments that are important to a specific market. But overall, there really aren’t any big changes or adjustments.”

But one area where Scalisi has seen a change is in the marketing of Sexsense’s films. According to Scalisi, New Sensations makes entirely different box art and packaging for Sexsense DVDs sold in the U.S. market.

The Talent
There’s a popular anecdote about the famous bank robber Willie Sutton. When someone once asked Sutton why he robbed banks, he had succinct reply: that’s where the money is.

The same can be said of pornographers and the San Fernando Valley.

“All the best girls, even the foreign ones, come to shoot in the U.S.,” Cristian says. “So, if you actually shoot in America, especially in Los Angeles, your content is going to get better. It’s just that simple.”

Cristian, who previously shot a lot of content in Prague, a well-regarded location for finding adult talent, says the women in the U.S. are just better in so many ways.

“When we started shooting here, I found that the models we were using were a lot more enthusiastic and the chemistry they had was a lot better, so that just made the scenes that much hotter.”

Of course, it helped that Cristian also found a much bigger talent pool to draw from. But being able to select from a massive roster of female talent wasn’t the only nice thing about working in the U.S. for Cristian. Because while there’s no global shortage of hot women willing to have hardcore sex on camera, there is a finite amount of legitimate male talent in the world. Having quality male performers can make or break any shoot, which is why Cristian says he now prefers shooting in the Valley to any other location in the world.

“All the best guys work here,” says Christian. “That’s really important to my productions.”

The American Dream
Every immigrant comes to America with a dream. Businesses are no different. But for adult entertainment companies that have begun working in the U.S., those dreams often vary based on how long they’ve been here.

For Cristian, it’s all about building Cruel Media into an international powerhouse brand. For him, success will be achieved when Cruel literally and figuratively owns the global market for films featuring rough, hardcore sex. But as Cristian explains, as a businessman you can never be satisfied, so the immediate goal of building the Cruel brand is likely a stepping-stone to something bigger and better down the road.

For Scalisi and Sexsense the goal is more humble. Only a few months into its American experiment, Sexsense is hoping to build up its American business acumen to the point where it can hash out a long-term strategy. But for now, Scalisi says he’ll settle for the more tangible goal of getting all Sexsense titles onto ITPV, VOD and PPV platforms.

In the meantime, both companies report that 2009 has mostly been about weathering the economic storm that has already undone a number of companies. But for both Cruel Media and Sexsense, America may prove to be a very friendly port in a rough sea.

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