opinion

DVDs With Stamina

Ernest Greene
Our story so far: Having established that DVD sales continue to take sustained bottom-line hits from both competing media and overproduction, and that production costs combined with depressed sales will inevitably lead to the release of fewer new titles over time, we have pretty much addressed the supply side of the profitability equation.

In an earlier column, I referred to a somewhat similar set of circumstances faced by mainstream studios with the advent of television. We can benefit from their experience. Bearing in mind that TV was the Internet of its day able to deliver far greater quantities and varieties of entertainment products directly to consumers' homes at costs big film studios couldn't match — Hollywood found itself confronted with many of the same pressures now bearing down on the San Fernando Valley, accompanied by similar doom-saying from similar quarters. And yet, as it turned out, Hollywood's greatest profits lay ahead, thanks to the cleverness and adaptability of smart studios execs. What, they asked themselves, can we do that TV can't in order to get people out of their Laz-E-Boys and into the theaters?

The answer was as simple as it was scary. The feature film business could up the ante by making fewer pictures but making them bigger and better and most importantly, promoting them more aggressively as "events" rather than just disposable entertainment products. If adult DVD producers are to survive, I suggest we have to adapt in a somewhat similar manner. What I suggest here is a dramatic reallocation of resources.

By taking a page from the mainstream playbook, more traditional DVD manufacturers with higher overhead might very well be able to pull off the same trick, after learning from a few major studios' false starts (such as "Cleopatra," which nearly sent Fox to the bottom of the Nile). As "Jaws" decisively demonstrated, the secret lay in creating must-see shows by investing in fewer projects and marketing them with the ferocity of Bruce the mechanical shark. In doing this, theatrical film studios didn't hesitate to turn their nemesis — the small screen in people's living rooms — into their delivery vehicle, using TV ads and infotainment journalists to hype their blockbusters.

Clearly, this path wasn't without risk. A "Heaven's" Gate or an "Ishtar" could prove the doom of a studio regime, and too many such stinkers could and did lead to the wave of studio consolidations that characterized Hollywood in the 1980s. When you gamble big, you have to gamble smart.

However, you also can win big, and in our own industry, we've seen just how big those wins can be. In what will long be remembered as XXX video's masterstroke of counter programming, Digital Playground and Adam & Eve did just that with "Pirates," which continues to be one of the top-selling-and-renting adult videos on the market two years after its release. DP's "Island Fever" series, Evil Angel's "The Fashionistas" and its sequel, "Fashionistas Safado," Wicked's "Manhunters" and Ninn Worx's "Sacred Sin" all were solid money-makers built on the same platform – high production values supported by coordinated and sustained promotional and advertising campaigns.

Unlike the rather melancholy porn features cranked out by some old-line companies that make virtually nothing in retail and eke meager margins out of cable and foreign licensing, these heavy cruisers netted plenty of DVD bucks along with ancillary sales, with the added benefit of creating buzz for their manufacturer's future releases. If you want to see a corporate model for porn production that truly works, check out Europe-based Private, which continually produces both feature and gonzo high-production-value videos with attractive players doing gonzo-hard sex in luxurious surroundings. Private sells the videos by freight-container loads in 60 countries (hardly bothering with the U.S. company promotion). Add consistent quality, and Private is the biggest adult video company in the world.

Certainly, the quality of the products themselves accounts for much of their success, a paradigm demonstrated years ago by the scorching sales of Andrew Blake's masterful early titles such as "House of Dreams" and "Hidden Obsessions."

But what's in the box isn't the only element that makes for a runaway best-seller. Much of the credit for the hefty revenue generated must go to the investment made in marketing. This is the real secret we could stand to learn from mainstream Hollywood.

For a big release, as much money is now budgeted for publicity and advertising as for the making of the picture itself. Even a comparatively low-budget movie like "Boogie Nights" (shot at the bargain-basement cost of a mere $12 million), was launched on a promotional investment of an additional $12 million. The mind boggles at Hollywood's notions of scale, but the point should not be lost. A middling picture made by an unknown director with no big names and subject matter that was and still is considered box-office poison earned out largely on the strength of a clever and well-funded sales effort.

So what does this mean for adult DVD manufacturers? It doesn't necessarily mean spending more money than we're spending now. It means allocating that money more wisely. Not only would we benefit from making fewer pictures and making them better, we also would be wise to take more of the money saved by cutting back on the number of new releases and investing it in advertising and promoting the ones we do make. While our promotional opportunities are limited by our content (mainstream media hasn't taken advertising for adult titles since the 1970s), we can use the Internet in some of the ways the movies used TV.

We can buy banners, create promotional sites (a method pioneered very successfully by ClubJenna), throw release parties and make sure they're well attended by adult entertainment bloggers and journalists, and encourage performers to post on forum boards. Just getting noticed on Fleshbot brings you more eyeballs than all the print ads you could possibly afford to buy.

When it comes to promotional spending, consider investing in point-of-purchase displays to induce retailers to stock our physical products more prominently and, for the first time since DVDs came along, start putting some thought and some money into packaging. DVDs can be boxed much better than they usually are, and sold in sets as a way of extracting further revenues from ongoing series. A greater emphasis on DVD extras (which too often turn out to be filler that merely annoys consumers) as value-added features can give us a leg up over Internet content.

And one more thing worth considering is the revival of the porn star as an icon. For the past few years, it's been all about parading new faces and bodies through as many cheap shows as possible and then discarding them as quickly as possible. How smart has that been? Surely novelty is always an attraction, but the continuing success of anything with Jenna Jameson's name on it, including retread material and projects with which she has no direct association, is a hint that shouldn't be ignored.

In short, after years of thinking small, if physical products are to endure in the adult marketplace, they're going to have to learn how to think big, and soon.

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