Nothing in the adult business symbolizes success like the contract star. For a production company, it's the opportunity to have stars they can call their own, representing the business on-and off-screen. For a starlet, it's a chance to perform less (but still on a steady income), gain use of an established marketing machine and the opportunity to explore other talents in an environment less chaotic than the freelance market.
Of course, things don't always work out that easily. These are relationships — there are egos, expectations and a lot of money at stake. Much can go wrong. But the right deal can be a ticket to the next level for both the performer and the production company.
Just as the VCR transformed the way adult films were distributed and viewed, the contract star has changed the way adult performers and production companies are marketed. It wasn't a new idea, only a new application of old Hollywood's studio system, which signed stars — as well as directors and other personnel — to lengthy contracts to assure their exclusivity. Vivid Video co-founder Steven Hirsch introduced a similar system to the adult business in the mid-1980s, a marketing move that was instrumental in Vivid becoming the most celebrated production company in the adult industry.
Even before the term "Vivid Girl" was introduced, Hirsch had begun doing business in a revolutionary new way. From the company's first title in 1984 — "Ginger," starring Ginger Lynn — production was different. Hirsch focused on the video's box art, which were, at the time, typically cluttered with action shots.
Ginger broke the mold by featuring Lynn alone and wearing a bikini, a cover that now symbolizes the birth of the contract star.
"Ginger" was an enormous success. Vivid put Lynn on a retainer and released several other titles in the "Ginger Lynn" series. Lynn was the breakout star — earning a six-figure salary — in a breakout industry and Vivid was on its way to becoming the industry's leader.
Ask a performer why she wants a contract and she will likely offer a number reasons: money, status, workload, career longevity, and marketing are popular responses. Those with experience in the dance circuit know that a contract will earn them plenty of money on the road.
For short-term work, being a contract performer can be less lucrative than working freelance. While no one interviewed was willing to go on record with exact numbers, $100,000 annually was agreeably tossed around as a contract performer's average salary. If a freelance performer does 100 scenes at $1,000 each, however, he or she immediately makes $100,000, and there are many performers who work more frequently and make more money per scene. Of course, that can be a tough pace to maintain.
"You're always guaranteed," Digital Playground contract performer Jesse Jane said. "You know what you're getting all year round, you know who you're working with, and you know you're taken care of. That takes a lot of work out of it."
Jane was signed to a contract without having ever worked as a freelance performer.
"I'd never even stripped or posed in a magazine," Jane said. "They took a risk. They'd never even seen me naked when I signed my contract."
Jane was the "blank canvas" that Digital Playground owner Joone said he loves.
"We try to get them as soon as possible so we can at least minimize the exposure," Joone said. "If she hasn't been out there with her other image, I can create the image and there's never a conflict of having her appear somewhere else differently."
Signing previously untested talent brings a greater risk/reward factor: The performer is unproven in an unusually hard business, but if successful, the production company has all his or her material exclusively.
"We are still the only company with footage of Alisha Klass in movies because after she was done with us, she retired," Adam Glasser, aka Seymore Butts, said. "That's the whole idea behind paying them the extra money, so you have the exclusivity."
Wicked Girl Stormy Daniels also knew early on that she wanted to work in features, and a contract was the best way to go about that. She subsequently discovered that working under contract also allowed her to experiment in other aspects of the business — the award-winning performer has been recognized for her acting, directing and screenplays. Despite being new to the industry when she signed in 2002, she was unwilling to negotiate certain things: She wouldn't sign over her name, share website revenue, ask permission to go on dance bookings and she wasn't going to be pressured into anything.
"A lot of it, I just went on instinct," Daniels said. "I went into some meetings and they told me everything I wanted to hear, but something just wasn't right. I held out and held out for Wicked, and I was in my car driving to another company to sign when I got the call from [Wicked owner] Steve [Orenstein]. I made a U-turn and I never showed up at the other meeting."
Would Vivid be Vivid without the Vivid Girls? Would Wicked Pictures be where it is today without the Wicked Girls? One thing is for sure: Without them, these companies would have been short an enormously powerful marketing tool.
Wicked Pictures founder Steve Orenstein said that selling Wicked products in the beginning was difficult because the sales pitch sounded like, well, a sales pitch.
"Then we thought maybe if we had this girl and told them she was the best thing ever," Orenstein said, "maybe they'd listen to that. It sounds a little less self-serving."
The first Wicked Girl, Chasey Lain, soon followed. Next was Jenna Jameson, who was with the company for five years.
"There are two things that represent our company: our name and our girls," Orenstein said. "And obviously, our movies. But when you're out there, what can you see wherever you are? Our name and our girls."
Vivid CEO Steven Hirsch also said that promotion is a major issue when considering a new contract star.
"With our business in particular, because we are in the spotlight, it's more than just looks," Hirsch said. "[The girls] have to be able to get out there and represent the company and speak well."
While a company could save thousands of dollars hiring girls by the scene, it wouldn't be able to nurture a business relationship in the same way or have the company exclusivity or marketing opportunities.
"You have to pay the girls extra money because you're asking them to turn down work," Glasser said. "The whole point is to build that person up to the best of your company's ability, to make them as big a star as possible, and for you to be the only company that has the ability to offer that person's work to the public."
It is not an investment with a payoff that can easily be measured, nor is it a system with immediate returns.
"It's a big risk on our end, but the rewards are equally great," Joone said. "You don't measure [the success] the first year. The first year you plant the seed, the second year you start seeing it a little bit, by the third year we start seeing a lot more. When we sign girls, it's a longer commitment."
Last year, Club Jenna President Jay Grdina did find a way of measuring the company's performers' comparative popularity: "Jenna's Provocateur" was marketed with six different covers, one for each girl, along with behind-the-scenes footage and extras specific to those girls. Grdina said the sales of each were carefully tracked, though not shared with the performers.
"It was really insightful and kind of opposite of what I thought," Grdina said. "It was probably one of the best marketing things I did all year."
Other companies, such as Shane's World, Hustler and JM Productions have used the system to varying degrees of success. Sex-Z Pictures made a splash in January when it announced a search for "the next great superstar" by offering a five-year contract worth $1 million.
"These days it seems like every company has contract girls," Orenstein said, "but I think there are a lot of companies doing it just because they think they should be doing it at this point. I don't know if they reap the proper benefit from it."
Performers and companies come and go, and occasionally the relationship simply doesn't work as planned. Tera Patrick and Digital Playground had a particularly nasty and public split when Patrick left the company. Jill Kelly Productions' stars were simply left behind when the company fell apart in 2005. Gina Lynn's career virtually came to a standstill after she signed with an unprepared company.
"It's really actually worked for me," Joone said of the DP/Tera breakup. "The girls that are with me appreciate what they have because they see somebody who was on top of the world and should have gone higher, and she's not."
No less public was the disintegration of Jill Kelly Productions, which saw Jill Kelly resign from her own company. Stunned contract stars, such as Jenna Haze, Tyra Banxxx and Nikki Benz, gradually left what remained of the company.
"It was really good at the beginning, and then some bad choices were made in the company and things just kind of fell apart," said Haze, who was with the company for three years. "But I had a great time with Jill. The first year and a half was great; she took care of us."
Performers, whose window of opportunity to work is comparable to that of a professional athlete's, run the risk of putting their careers in the hands of companies that don't know how to market them. After Gina Lynn spent three years under contract with Pleasure Productions, she appeared in the hugely successful titles "Gina Lynn's Dark Side" and "Virtual Blackjack With Gina Lynn." Then she signed a contract with Club DVD and seemed to drop off the radar completely — appearing in only three titles in more than two years.
'Everyone was great; They paid me really good, but they weren't putting anything out," Lynn said soon after. "I was bored. That was for two and a half years, doing nothing. I went with them instead of taking another contract offer."
Mary Carey, who became one of the adult industry's most familiar names thanks to the marketing prowess of Kick Ass Pictures owner Mark Kulkis, who engineered her candidacy in California's recall election in 2003. After three years with Kick Ass, she left and signed a contract with Legend Video, which threw her name into the ring for the 2006 gubernatorial election. She dropped out of the race in October and left Legend two months later, only to sign a nonexclusive agreement with K-Beech soon after.
"Legend didn't really do too much for me. They just gave me my box covers," Carey said. "At Kick Ass, Mark set things up; I knocked them down. I wouldn't be where I am today without him."
When a contract between a performer and a production company is successful, both parties win. The performer becomes a bigger star with more money and earning power than before. The production company gains the marketing power and market share that it might not have had without that star.
"The push from the company and the exposure, those things open doors for the girls in the beginning," Orenstein said. "Down the road, if you get girls who are extremely motivated and doing a lot of work on their own outside, then you reap the back-end benefits of what they're doing."
Jessica Drake says she has been so happy with her Wicked experience, she'll never shoot a movie for another company again.
"Every single thing that has been important to me, they've done it," she said.