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SOMA

Jason Soloman
California's San Fernando Valley is home to so many adult production companies that it is known as Porn Valley. But 400 miles north sits another district jam-packed with adult businesses. The area of San Francisco that lies south of Market Street, dubbed SOMA by the locals, is populated by a sizable percentage of the major players in the gay adult film industry.

In many ways, it makes sense that the gay adult industry revolves around San Francisco.

"San Francisco is the epicenter of the gay universe," Titan Media Vice President Keith Webb says. "We [adult companies] all know each other, we all work together and we all share resources. It makes working here very easy. Where else in the world does your local city supervisor swing by the set to say hello and check out the action? It's a queer- and porn-friendly town."

He isn't kidding. Porn heavyweights such as Falcon Studios, COLT, Treasure Island Media, Titan Media, Hot House and Raging Stallion are all based within a few short blocks of each other. They share neighborhood space with Internet giant NakedSword, the top U.S. gay VOD site with a library of more than 3,500 titles.

Many studio executives echoed Webb's sentiment about SOMA's prominence in the gay adult world, citing a sense of community as being a major draw, an attribute that is only eclipsed by the area's talent. The San Francisco studios have a large pool of willing models to draw from, and the studios often have no problems sharing models with each other.

"We get flooded with models who want to be in our films," Treasure Island Media's Saul Austin says.

Founded in 1998 by Paul Morris, Treasure Island has gained notoriety for its wall-to-wall condom-less or "bareback" content. Despite the controversial nature of the company's films — bareback content being the subject of one of the most heated debates in the gay community — Treasure Island's films maintain a healthy spot on top 10 rental lists. These films with an underground feel are heavily sought after by retailers and distributors worldwide, thanks in part to the performers the company attracts.

"San Francisco is full of hyper-sexual men who want to be in porn just for the thrill of it. A lot of them specifically moved here because they wanted to see how far they could take the concept of sexual freedom," Austin says. "Exhibition is a natural extension of that. We don't have 'actors' in our movies — our models aren't in it to be stars. They are participants in what is essentially a documentary. I think San Francisco fosters that kind of energy."

All About Location
The welcoming and scenic area around San Francisco affords studios interesting and cost-efficient backdrops for their films. And the city proper lends itself to all kinds of shoots. Fairs on well-worn streets like Folsom and Harrison are full of roaming studios. Crews often film the action as people have public sex, then pass out model release forms and collect IDs. Films being shot on SOMA rooftops are common, as are camera crews leaving hotels with sweaty, exhausted talent in tow.

"We have endless possibilities here as far as filming locations go," Falcon's Troy Prickett says. Falcon Studios, which was started as a mail-order service more than 30 years ago by Chuck Holmes during the "Golden Era" of gay San Francisco, has grown to become the leading producer of gay adult films. "We can be deep in the redwoods just an hour north of here, be in the snow a couple hours to the East and be on a beach in no time at all."

San Francisco also can "play" other cities thanks to its diverse districts that resemble places such as New York City. The similarity is so uncanny that even mainstream studios recognize it. For example, "Rent" was shot in SOMA — and the only thing filmmakers felt was necessary to make the illusion perfect was to scatter garbage everywhere.

Adult studios find the resemblance especially handy since porn companies in New York are finding themselves vilified by the local government.

Spinal Cord Of Porn
With the growing recognition of the gay marketplace and the profits to be reaped from it, SOMA studios are doing quite well for themselves. Despite the ongoing drama with 2257 regulations, 2005 was a good year for gay porn.

Take COLT, for example. John Rutherford, former president of Falcon, bought COLT Studio with his partner, Tom Settle, in June 2003. Since then, the company has skyrocketed into a full-fledged lifestyle brand, with COLT Gear, COLT Mobile, COLT Leather, COLT Publishing, COLT Clothing and an affiliate program, COLT Cash, pushing the brand-recognition barrier to Disneyesque proportions among the gay community.

Others in the industry are seeing similar growth.

Titan, for example, recently moved into a new, 15,000-square foot office and studio complex South of Market. "Having our own studio and soundstage in-house has been a tremendous asset," Webb says. "This gives us a huge advantage in terms of production time and the ability to produce content. This past year we were able to increase our film releases to 18 titles, up more than 40 percent from the previous year."

According to JRL, a website that tracks Internet-based sales and rentals of gay DVDs, the last quarter of 2005 saw a "huge increase in sales [of gay adult DVDs]." Gay adult DVDs tend to be more expensive than straight porn, ranging from $39 to $79 for a full-length DVD, which further illustrates the untapped disposable income of the gay market.

And the trickle-down theory of economics is alive and well in the gay adult industry. Falcon Studios, for example, donates all post-expense profits to the Charles M. Holmes Foundation, which distributes funds to charitable organizations, including HIV/AIDS outreach programs.

Plans For The Future
The growth of the gay SOMA studios in the past year shows no real signs of slowing down. All the studios XBiz spoke with have big plans for 2006.

COLT, which already has household-name status in some spheres, is looking to do the same for it Buckshot offshoot. "We are in the final stages of releasing our new novelty line under the Buckshot brand name, Buckshot Toys," Rutherford says.

Falcon is launching a new line of films under the Mustang brand, which Prickett says will be targeted at the high-end gay DVD market. "The look of the models participating in those films and the production values of those films will evolve over the next few releases starting with 'Trapped,'" he says.

Treasure Island is poised for a full-frontal assault on the market with a huge outpouring of content. "Our directors in New York and Brazil have films ready to roll out, and our San Francisco office has so much footage that our only problem is picking out the best of the best," Austin says. "We'll be ramping up our streaming video site – TreasureIslandVideo.com and the corresponding affiliate program."

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