Future plans for the company include more pay-per-view events, an expansion of their clothing line, a mainstream movie, "Girls Gone Wild" restaurants and bars and hundreds of "Girls Gone Wild" DVD releases, of course.
XBiz caught up with Joe Francis, the founder of Mantra Entertainment, at his Santa Monica offices and got the skinny on how a 32-year-old hipster turned shaky footage of exhibitionists into an empire.
XBIZ: How did you get your start?
JOE FRANCIS: I started doing a video series called "Banned From Television." That was my first series. And "Girls Gone Wild" was a derivative of that. It came out as a segment and evolved into what it is now. When I started in 1997, it was just me in an office about a quarter the size of this room. I was employee number one.
XBIZ: How many employees do you have now?
JF: We have more than 300 employees.
XBIZ: Other adult producers were releasing similar product back then, but yours broke through in a way nothing else was able to. What did you do differently?
JF: There was definitely a hardcore product out there in the marketplace. There were a number of companies doing hardcore reality porn, and I bought some of those libraries and cut out all the hardcore stuff. I thought there'd be a much broader market just showing breasts or just showing nudity. Since then, we've gone a little farther and gotten into girl/girl, masturbation and other things; but in the first few years, that's all it was, basically breasts and tidbits of nudity. That seems like the opposite strategy of a lot of adult companies who seem to believe that the "harder" the content is, the more it will sell. Going that route allowed "Girls Gone Wild" to move into more of a mainstream audience. It became socially acceptable almost instantly because the perception was — and still is, really — that "Girls Gone Wild" is just breasts, just naked girls. So there's not this hardcore, hard adult image for "Girls Gone Wild" that a lot of the other adult companies carry.
XBIZ: Isn't that walking a fine line?
JF: It's a definite gray area, and we walk it. But it seems like once you go over to full sex, you're playing in a different game. If the content was harder, there's no way we'd be able to advertise how we do now. Then you're selling full porn on television. I think we're the first brand to ever advertise on television with nudity.
XBIZ: How did you get the idea for advertising "Girls Gone Wild" through infomercials?
JF: I was in that business already, doing other videos, so it was a natural progression business-wise to put it in the same system of distribution we were using. That's one of the reasons it's so successful as a brand name, as a product — or at least that's one of several reasons. There really was never anything like it in the mass market before. You didn't ever get to choose real girls. The closest you'd get was a Hustler magazine where you could look in the back and people would send pictures of their wives and girlfriends. A lot of people liked to look at that, but they weren't particularly attractive and there wasn't a lot of it. "Girls Gone Wild" broke new ground. It came out and gave people this actual alternative, and it was the first of its kind to be marketed on television. What "Girls Gone Wild" doesn't have in sexual desire, it makes up for in its voyeuristic realism. One can compensate for the other without seeing full male female penetration sex. It's so compelling; it doesn't have to be harder. I think what a lot of adult companies do is they just keep getting harder and harder and harder and dirtier and dirtier and dirtier, that's how they feel it needs to go. But you can be more compelling without having to do peeing or those different fetish things. What makes it compelling is it's real. Those are real girls doing these things.
XBIZ: Do you think you've succeeded in making "Girls Gone Wild" socially acceptable?
JF: When you have Brad Pitt wearing a "Girls Gone Wild" hat and you have Justin Timberlake wearing the clothing, it's pretty mainstream. I always wanted it to be a mainstream, socially acceptable product. I don't think that nudity in general is socially acceptable right now in this politically conservative, religious environment. But it's all cyclical and it's going to come back. I think this is a real downtime for America. We've really gone back to the Puritan Separatist values this country was founded on.
XBIZ: Has the recent conservative crackdown hurt your bottom line?
JF: You know what, it has. I'll tell you why, because we've lost a number of accounts. We were always able to get mainstream video accounts. A hardcore product or an adult company couldn't get into Best Buy, but we could, and to be in that mainstream world is a huge piece of business. But we've lost a significant number of retail accounts. We've made up for it in other areas, but it hurts everybody.
XBIZ: How have you made up for it?
JF: By expanding our pay-per-view market.
XBIZ: What do the girls who appear in the videos get out of it... other than free beads?
JF: We don't give out beads! They get T-shirts, they get hats, and they get notoriety. They're not doing it for those things, though. If they'll do it for beads, they'll do it for free. They're doing it to be famous. It's their 15 minutes of fame.
XBIZ: Do you hire ringers?
JF: No. We never use ringers. We'll sometimes hire people, or pay some of the girls some money. We pay for hosting, too, and sometimes there's travel involved, but they're all real girls. One of the things about this company that is so important is the integrity of the brand.
XBIZ: You seem to have your finger on the pulse of what younger people want, and that's a market that a lot of people in adult don't seem to get. What do you do to keep up with what younger people are into?
JF: Hang around with younger people. I'm 32 now, so I'm no longer the young person I was when I started the company. I knew the market then because I was that market. Now I'm close to that market but still older. All of it is just staying on top of what's fresh, what's new and what's hip.
XBIZ: What advice would you give to would-be entrepreneurs?
JF: Whatever you're doing, stay true to your brand. If you're doing a really hardcore product, do the best hardcore product. One of the people I admire most in the industry is Steve Hirsch. He sets out to make a specific type of movie. He wants to make quality movies, and he does it. And that's why I think Vivid is a premium brand in that space. So he's someone I would look up to and follow what he's done in the marketplace.
XBIZ: What do you have coming up?
JF: We have more than 30 titles ready to come out between now and the end of the year. They're in different areas in home video, pay-per-view, retail and the "Guys Gone Wild" brand. We're about to launch three more "Guys Gone Wild" videos in September.
XBIZ: What ideas do you have that are still in the works?
JF: I'm very interested in opening restaurants and bars. It's been a slow start because people think we're opening strip clubs, but we're not. We've had a lot of problems with local people, but "Girls Gone Wild" is going to be like a Hooters, but better, cooler and hipper.
XBIZ: How about the "Girls Gone Wild" movie I've been hearing about?
JF: The movie is going to happen. We have a deal, but movies are a long time coming, and I haven't seen anything I've been happy with yet. I really have to be in love with the script before the movie gets made, even if I'm not paying for it.
XBIZ: What do you do to keep "Girls Gone Wild" interesting after all this time?
JF: I change my focus. There are so many different parts of the business. So, if I want to focus on pay per view for a while, or if I want to focus on marketing for a while, or if I want to focus on media for a while, I focus on different things in the company and that keeps it interesting. "Girls Gone Wild" is still an entertainment franchising, an entertainment brand, where you have to keep it fresh, keep it moving forward and keep creating new things.