No Cure for the Summer Blues

Ernest Greene
Every summer for the past 20 years I’ve been told that the predictable hot-season production slump was the worst ever seen. Come September, we were all happily back working our asses off as producers scramble to finish out their yearly title quotas.

But this time I have to admit the worriers have a point. When I started hiring for my fall shoots in July, people I usually have to dance around the calendar for available dates were looking at a lot of empty squares. I’ve seen no evidence since that the wheels have come up to their usual speed.

When even Wired gets cabbages onto the fact that all is not well in Pornoland, the situation has gotten pretty obvious. What to do in the face of it is less so. Just as the whole economy is being corrected like a naughty schoolgirl, porn is coming in for its share of whacks. We’re lucky not to get worse. As I’ve said before, what we sell is relatively inexpensive escapism, and that has done pretty well for mainstream box office as it might also do for us, once we get past the ugly part.

Unlike the other, other Hollywood, which has gotten a pretty good fix on what works and made its bets accordingly, we’ve been a bunch of profligate gamblers spreading our stakes all over the table. We’ve got the bad math of 15,000 2007 releases to overcome, and that’s going to hurt a lot of people in a lot of ways. Demand may actually be rising at this point, but it’s still outstripped by supply, and the availability of free — most of it stolen — adult content on the web is no longer a mere annoyance.

The short-term fix is to cut overhead by decreasing production, which everyone agrees should happen, must happen and is now happening. But you can’t make profits out of economies. Companies can’t just sit around not making pictures while the great bulge works its way out the back end of the python. We need to sell stuff to bring in fresh capital to make more stuff, and the only way we can do that is by, well, making at least some stuff now.

And that’s where we run into the problem that really dogs this business, worse than censorship, the web, piracy and the high cost of replication combined. We’re not nearly as hard up for cash as a lot of other industries right now. Indeed, any porn company that showed proportional quarterly losses to those flooding the boardrooms of big banks with red ink right now would simply go under. There are no federal bailout packages in this neighborhood.

But what we are hard up for is fresh ideas, and in any entertainment venture, that’s a pretty serious problem. If we’ve got to make some pictures to stay in the game, but we can’t make as many as cheaply as we used to, we have to place our wagers more thoughtfully, and I do see the more adaptable concerns coming around to that way of thinking.

Diversification is one model that seems to work for producers who can afford it and feel comfortable going into unfamiliar territory. Alt lines, ed lines and specialty lines all can be winners for companies that understand the content well enough to hire the right people to create it. Simply assigning existing personnel the task of doing stuff they don’t watch and profoundly don’t get won’t help. Recruiting new faces with functioning brains behind them is tricky, but that’s what this approach requires.

Another alternative is to bet more heavily on things that are already working. Look at every line your company makes. Keep the top two earners and put everything else on indefinite hold. Spend the freed-up capital on expanding those two lines and pushing them with every resource available. Throw parties. Run contests. Set up promotional sites. You’ve heard this from me before. But it can work. Anyone care to place a bet on how many weeks “Pirates 2” will chart? Didn’t think so.

But where does this leave those producers who still can and want to make pictures, but can’t pull off “Upload” and lack the capital depth for a bunch of risky new start-ups?

That’s where the idea part comes in. There are hints of what might work in the rise of unpredicted specialty markets that are keeping some pretty small companies very busy at a time when bigger operations are watching their margins diminish. The season of the MILF may be nearing some end-point (though I believe it will remain a bigger niche than anyone would have expected), but the boom it has enjoyed points to something.

Likewise, the return of girlgirl movies in a more “realistic” style emphasizing more sensuality and fewer megatoys, has lined some pockets over the past couple of seasons. And kink light has set up in mainstream as the old genre conventions of the no-penetration bondage vid bid a long-overdue farewell.

And who would have guessed that a sweet-spirited all-sex line like Tristan Taormino’s “Chemistry” would score so well in an arena long dominated by rougher, harsher visions?

So, let’s consider for a moment the possibility that the audience out there still wants sex vids, but not the ones we’ve been burying them under. Maybe they want neither high-school-plays-with-a-few- irrelevant-sex-scenes features nor baseball-bat-up-the-ass gonzo like they once did.

Maybe what they want is a little respect for their own growing sexual sophistication. All the while we’ve been struggling to make the old paradigms work, a new one has been emerging in the audience, which is neither as young nor as unsophisticated as it once was. The very demographic we need — youngish folks with some disposable cash and a yen for a bit of sexual adventure — has been pursuing that yen in the real world, and in its virtual counterpart on the web, for some time now. Try checking out a few of the more sexually daring social hook-up sites and listen in on the conversation. More and more of that conversation involves women and couples as well as single men. And the range of topics is a lot broader than it once was.

From this understanding,a new kind of product that will sustain its value as that demographic evolves, might arise. Over in Europe, Private, the world’s largest adult video company, doing business in 60 countries and claiming a square block in the middle of Barcelona for its HQ, does quite well indeed by making high-production-value all-sex programs in which the players are attractive, the settings and costumes are luxurious and the action is consistently harder than what we would consider feature content here. In their few, big scripted releases, they build the story around the sex rather than the other way around.

This, I suspect, is what a market no longer looking for either fluff or shock wants to see. It wants sophisticated sexual entertainment for sophisticated sexual appetites. The company that does not condescend to either the audience or the material may yet emerge from this summer of our discontent with a bit of optimism for the coming year.

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