opinion

Hardcore Market: Fixing a Fundamentally Broken Model

Magnus Sullivan

In my last article I argued that we need to fundamentally change our content development and marketing strategies to re-establish adult as a relevant and profitable genre.

But this claim begs a simple question: Is our industry actually capable of delivering the HBO of adult?

The age of masturbation porn as a lucrative business is behind us, but the opportunity to redefine the role and scope of adult cinema in mainstream society is staring us right in the face.

Common reasons cited for the poor narrative content we produce are that the performers can’t act and that there’s not a market to support big-budget productions. These are false. Many performers can act (and many more can be directed effectively) and HBO has kindly exposed the strong demand for quality, eroticized narrative. We are lucky that HBO wanes before hard cock because they are elegantly positioned to toss our salad and eat it whenever they choose.

The truth we have to come to terms with is that we hardly try to make real movies and when we do we’re not honest about the skill, time and money required to modernize adult cinema. The good news is that I know, having produced “Marriage 2.0,” that we are capable of crafting movies that rival the best of independent film.

With proper budgets, personnel and time, there’s no reason we can’t rival Hollywood. The questions are really whether the major studios have the will and creativity to produce content that meets modern standards and whether they have the marketing savvy to reach new markets.

Until 2006, there was never any reason to develop the talent and spend the time and money required to make good movies because movies that cost nearly nothing to make were raking in 10-time returns. Distribution channels were still sufficiently controlled to ensure that movies were profitable within months of — if not before — release.

But in 2006 there was a great convergence of economic dynamics that crippled the market for pre-recorded adult content: massive intellectual property theft facilitated by Google and other search engines essentially bundled free porn with Internet connectivity; tube sites, social media, dating and camming disrupted distribution channels and splintered the market; and the shift to all-digital production and delivery facilitated a flood of content into the wires.

Most importantly, tube sites exposed what those of us who run the major video-on-demand platforms have always known: the consumer of masturbation porn is satisfied in three to five minutes. Yep. That is all it takes once the customer finds something interesting.

So if our core product — content crafted to facilitate masturbation — is now easily available for free in high quality, how do we convince people to pay for it? What is it we’re providing our customers that meets other needs in addition to this basic need? And how do we reach this market effectively now that our marketing and distribution channels are broken?

How we answer these simple questions will determine not only our future, but whether we actually have one.

The Current Response Can Be Categorized As Follows:

  • Efficiency:Make the content as cheaply as possible to milk the market that’s still paying for hardcore porn (many adult productions cost less than $20k for 2.5 hours of content);
  • Hoard traffic:Control massive swaths of adult traffic and master converting and cross-selling that traffic into pay sites;
  • Go niche:Produce content for markets historically under-represented in porn;
  • Freeload on mainstream:Make parodies of mainstream movies, basically stealing their characters, plots and titles so that there’s almost no creative energy put into making the movie and when people search for the mainstream movie they’ll find the porn version and hopefully watch it.

Although a few are successful in aggregating traffic, they represent the last great iceman in the market. While we have seen bright spots in alt porn, feminist porn, queer porn, couples porn and parodies, the numbers are still small and the overall trend in adult cinema is stark and undeniably bleak. The lack of genuine criticism of existing adult productions and truly creative experimentation with new models is alarming.

So How Do We Make Movies For And Reach Broader Markets?

  • Acquire a well-written script about a topic important to a large number of people or a community of interest (anything from Burningman to Grand Theft Auto);
  • Engage message-makers in those communities in the process of making the movie (I have even included them as part of my cast);
  • Cast performers committed to excellence who are more concerned with delivering compelling performances than protecting their adult brand (ideally, pair them with professionally trained, non-adult performers);
  • Incorporate sex into the narrative, not the converse — less is more. Watch “Marriage 2.0” for a good example of this;
  • Use a director who has a strong background in theater and non-adult film or who, like Dana Vespoli, has demonstrated excellence in attempting adult narratives;
  • Use cinematographers and sound engineers who have a demonstrated ability to shoot dramatic cinema and sex;
  • Find a phenomenal editor. Find a phenomenal editor. Find a phenomenal editor;
  • Work with a studio with vision and passion that understands the problems with our current content model, isn’t afraid to take risks and has a long-term commitment to success;
  • Build a website that is R-rated and tasteful to avoid violating mainstream advertising guidelines — this opens up a huge network of social marketing channels;
  • Spread the word. Write articles. Do screenings. And you will slowly break down the walls and stereotypes; and,
  • Repeat.

Yes, repeat. One or five great movies will not change things. We need a body of content, we need to change perceptions that have formed and been reinforced over decades.

Most adult productions are concerned with what I call “micro marketing” questions (what’s selling? big butts, interracial, parodies, etc.). This was adequate when distribution channels were controlled and masturbation content wasn’t free. Now, however, we need to be asking more fundamental marketing questions: Who will be interested in this movie? Why? How big is that market? And how do we reach them?’ If you don’t have good answers to these questions, you shouldn’t make the movie.

When you understand who will be interested and why, you now have the basis of your marketing strategy: all of the media, message-makers and organizations that are interested in this issue (fashion, finance, music, video games, comic book conventions — whatever the subject, if you address it creatively the community will talk about it).

These are the people and groups you need to spread the word through their networks. You need to engage the message makers in the process of making the movie. The greater their sense of involvement the greater their desire to spread the word. To engage them, however, your story needs to be authentic, compelling and well executed.

These message-makers are far more important than simply activating their immediate spheres of influence: they create the necessary chatter to engage other affiliated networks and raise the simple question in people’s mind: ‘what is all this talk about?’

And the question isn’t whether the movie will net $50,000 or $100,000 or $200,000, but rather whether the movie will net millions. Yes. Millions. If we can’t make movies that appeal to and are purchased by more significant markets, we will continue to be little more than a lifestyle/hobbyist business.

We need to make movies and develop distribution to markets that have high barriers to entry. As it stands, we have few capabilities unique to our industry that are not quickly learned and our cinematic experimentation with hardcore sex — our only barrier to mainstream — is limited to one small band on the spectrum of possibilities.

When France — yes, the country France — tried to dethrone Hollywood in the 1990s as the arbiter of global pop culture, it failed. That’s how high the barrier to entry is to compete with Hollywood. We must develop unique capabilities to access broader markets and create content that requires real skill to replicate. Without unique technology, honed-craft and controlled markets, our content model will continue to be threatened by amateurs with iPhones.

The audience today is accustomed to a level of visual sophistication far beyond our current offering. We need to create movies that at least approach the quality that has become commonplace today. This is not accomplished by capturing the ultimate, real orgasm or by shooting someone’s first anal.

By making movies that essentially follow the same sexual formula with different variations — movies where sex builds to inevitable orgasm and is produced with the goal of getting the viewer off — we are unwittingly fueling our own demise.

While jizz porn still has a market and meets an important need, it’s not the platform for real growth. Creating content for a large, modern audience requires an entirely new approach to incorporating sex into narratives, shooting sex, and editing sex. We need to make movies that speak a contemporary visual language and understand explicit sex as a powerful dramatic tool.

None of this matters, however, without studios that understand that sex needs to be woven into the narrative and travel its own arc in support of that narrative. These will not be movies with self-contained sex scenes to be chopped up and redistributed in derivative works.

The studio must get behind these movies and use their significant brand and media influence to stake claim to a new form of entertainment — they need to openly announce a response to mainstream’s shame-filled foray into the domain of human sexuality.

They need to get people to notice and care. Finding our way out of this dilemma will require real leadership and serious investment from the CEOs of our larger companies, as they are the only members of our community with the capital to fund quality production and innovative marketing strategies necessary to reach and satisfy the larger, more demanding market.

My first commercial foray into adult is both telling and continues to guide my work in the industry. When I turned 11 and my father asked me what I wanted for my birthday, I flippantly asked for Playboy’s 25th anniversary magazine, thinking he’d never actually buy it for me. To my surprise, a phone book of sex landed on my bed that evening. I thumbed through it for days. Every image was like a message from a distant world. I lived with the magazine for a week, hardly sleeping or eating.

Eventually word spread and the neighborhood boys started showing up at my house, asking to see “the gift.” It had power. It was like one of the obelisks in “2001: a Space Odyssey.” The boys were getting restless so I decided to craft a tunnel and paste cutout pages on the walls. I covered the entrance and exit so it was completely dark inside and then, for a fee of 25 cents each, handed them a flashlight so they could crawl through the tunnel with their torch.

We have lost not only the sense of crossing a threshold, we have lost the sense of mystery, surprise, art, beauty, adventure and meaning that sex can uniquely communicate through film. This, and not the tubes, is at the core of our struggle to remain relevant.

Until we come to terms with the depth of our content crisis, however, we will continue to focus our resources on trying to fix a fundamentally broken model. The age of masturbation porn as a lucrative business is behind us, but the opportunity to redefine the role and scope of adult cinema in mainstream society is staring us right in the face.

Magnus Sullivan is a native San Franciscan whose interest in the dynamics of open relationships, their challenges and their opportunities for growth, has now been the focus of two movies. Sullivan founded eLine, a technology firm, in 1993, which manages GameLink.com and various other adult brands.

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