Making Quality Softcore Viable

Ernest Greene
Fuck softcore! How many times have I heard that exclamation from X-rated video performers, videographers and still photographers? How many times have I shouted it from behind the monitor myself? I’ve long ago lost count.

Having to shoot soft versions of hardcore performances is a drag on the show.

It’s a drag for the players, who have to twist themselves into even more unnatural positions than those required for explicit shots and then hold them for an additional eternity while the softcore requirements are met.

It’s a drag on the crew, which has to reverse field and figure out ways of lighting and shooting to obscure what they have just had to light and shoot to reveal.

And it’s a drag on the end-users because it saps the energy out of sex scenes and inspires that by-the-numbers ennui that comes through to them as loss of heat.

It’s even a drag on the producers. By attempting to shoot two or three versions of the same material that are essentially incompatible, they have to absorb additional costs in postproduction and create products that are less viable in one market in order to make them viable in another.

The largest adult-cable buyer of hardcore video cut soft generally pays three-fifths of the producer’s production budget for licensing rights. In return for that three-fifths, the producer has to conform to a fifty-two-page manual of cable company standards and practices so narrowly specific as to eliminate much of the content that would make the triple-X version of the same title competitive in the home video market. The producer must somehow recover the remaining twothirds of the budget along with whatever profit margin can be wrung out of the product by other means.

At a time when producers are struggling to keep the lights on, making that math work out is extremely difficult. Big names, big promotion and big production values surely help, but those things no longer guarantee an advantage against increasingly sophisticated all-sex titles from manufacturers who have abandoned soft-core completely and offer pictures to home viewers that are feature quality with much harder sexual content. Even large web-only producers have begun to upscale the look of their wares, having discovered that things like lighting, make-up, costume and locations really do make a difference for the Internet consumer as well as the DVD buyer.

Big companies can spin off smaller shops specializing in slightly harder material made at a lower cost. The inherent drawback to doing this is the multiplication of costs that accompanies the establishment of separate lines to compete in an unfamiliar and already overcrowded selling environment against established and experienced outfits already entrenched with that demographic.

So if we’re going to look at substantial expense and considerable risk, why not try the radical approach of playing to one’s own strengths and one’s competitors’ weaknesses instead of the other way around? Why not at least consider junking hardcore and building a new market for quality softcore completely separated from whatever explicit products a different division of the same company might create?

Sound like a crazy idea? In Europe, it’s made mighty fortunes, and has worked rather well over here from time to time. With no need to shoot explicit footage, many opportunities present themselves that might otherwise lie beyond the wall that separates XXX from mainstream.

There are plenty of attractive performers in mainstream who are willing to do some nudity, but not actual sex, and can even act a bit. There are locations that a hardcore shoot couldn’t get near, but would eagerly welcome a sexy softcore show. There are more experienced crews happy to pick up a bit of extra work on softcore productions while on hiatus from episodic TV series. There are post-production operations that won’t touch XXX, but eagerly will rent their most advanced gear and lend their best cutters to anything that qualifies as semi-respectable. Fresh out of film school directors looking for first productions will work their heads off on something they can actually show to studios as parts of demo reels at some later date.

And then there are the sales opportunities that just don’t exist for soft cuts of hard shows. Late-night programming on big cable nets like Showtime and Cinemax can and will pay a good deal more for quality erotic entertainment that doesn’t look like porn than adult-cable nets will for shows that look like porn but aren’t. They’ll buy whole series of half-hour and one-hour programs that aren’t locked into five-sex-scene-58-minute formats. Shorter running times make even limited budgets go a lot further.

And for those producers with the resources and the nerve, there is even the prospect of a limited theatrical run with an R-rated cut, or a direct-to-video release with an NC-17 that puts it on the new releases rack of major video outlets instead of in the back rooms of mom-and-pop shops.

But succeeding at making quality softcore viable requires a real commitment of company resources, and even the complex and often dicey process of assembling investment money from outside sources.

The elements needed to make a “real” movie are not cheap, and the downside risk of taking a hit on softcore production that fails is frightening to contemplate. This is uncharted territory for porn companies that can end up no better off than John Travolta did in “Get Shorty” or for that matter, the way Sony came out after buying MGM. It’s definitely not a strategy for the faint of heart or thin of wallet.

But before dismissing the idea out of hand as purely preposterous, let’s consider some of the success stories it has written, here and abroad. The “Emmanuelle” series, which began in 1969, is still generating new sequels after 37 installments, not to mention the ongoing drag from all its earlier incarnations. Prolific softcore impresario Zalman King’s “Red Shoe Diaries” ran for six seasons on Showtime and still plays constantly in syndication throughout the world. “Young Lady Chatterley” and even “Story of O” have been successful soft cable franchises.

Even legendary XXX pioneer Radley Metzger admits that he was able to retire not on the proceeds from his hard shows for which he’s best known in our industry, but rather from the softer material that continued to pay residuals from releases dating back to 1967. Nothing shot hard and cut for soft has legs like that. We’re talking some real money here, the kind that goes on and on rather than disappearing after three or four cable plays.

And right now, that’s exactly what this industry needs — a fresh revenue stream. If some of our richest veins are finally playing out, there is still plenty of gold to dig if we’re willing to prospect in fresh terrain.

And as someone who has no ambition to shoot softcore himself and would be thrilled never to have to stop a hot sex scene in its tracks to pick up a FIP, I could afford to say “Fuck Softcore!” on some of my own shoots without feeling guilty, knowing that my employers will be making big bucks in the softcore-only market using personnel who are glad to help them do it.


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