The Magic Formula

Ernest Greene
The best piece of advice I ever got in the video business came, not surprisingly, from legendary director Bruce Seven. "I don't care what anybody says," he said in his characteristic rasp, "behind every successful video, there's one guy's hard-on."

This was particularly apropos of the highly personal, subjective-camera style, all-sex shows he and John Stagliano pioneered, but in a broader sense, it applies to virtually every moneymaking approach to adult video making in the marketplace today.

Not every profitable approach may dangle from the turgid member of an individual director, but all have one thing in common: a consistent vision a potential buyer can readily identify, backed by a producer's conception of what he or she would snag off the rack of the local video store.

While times have been tough for many companies, a surprising number of others have prospered. And while they may have little audience overlap, they've all got "that vision thing" going on. It behooves anyone who wants to show a profit on the bottom line to examine these success stories and look for the elements they share.

Successful production companies can be big or small, narrowly niche-market based or pitched to a wide and diverse audience, but if we look closely, we'll see some characteristics that cut across genre conventions.

If I had to pick the single, best-managed company in the industry (and it wouldn't be easy), I would probably go with Europe's Private Media Group, even though it reported a first-quarter loss of about 100,000 euros, which isn't nearly as bad as it sounds in the context of 5.5 million euros in sales for the same period.

While not much of a presence in the U.S., Private is the biggest adult video product supplier in some 60 other countries and pretty much owns the European market with a diverse mix of everything from big features to magazines to video-on-demand to online gaming to wireless phone content (a revenue stream that doesn't even exist in the U.S. yet).

What is the thread that knits all these varied enterprises into a seamless envelope for collecting big revenue? First and foremost, that thread is brand identity. Private founder Berth Milton understood from the beginning that the Private logo should only be attached to quality merchandise and good retail value.

While by no means does all of Private's merchandise live up to that standard, the consumer has a pretty good chance of knowing what's in the box before putting down those euros. Whether on DVD, a printed page, a cable net or a cellphone, there is an instantly recognizable Private "look" consisting of attractive performers, slick production values and the kind of hardcore we associate with the gonzo side over here, only done big and fancy. Count on lots of multiples, plenty of anal in all its variations, a high kink factor and reliably first-rate technical quality. Cheap, shoddy, haphazard goods don't make it out the door. Smoking sex and castles in Spain equal solid sales and that formula does not vary.

Closer to home and built on very different content, Digital Playground has grown from a specialized interactive DVD manufacturer to a major money-making machine in just a few years by adapting a similar approach to delivering a much softer product. DP's titles can be counted upon for many of the same qualities consumers expect from Private.

DP makes the necessary investment in the best-looking players available, top-notch technology, luxurious locations and aggressive, intensive marketing campaigns.

Having found a comfy spot between Playboy's video-aquarium-with-tits vacuities and other big feature companies' half-baked attempts at story-driven "movies," DP gives the viewer flash, glam, hot bodies, exotic locations and a predictably scenic if not always exciting ride. It's date porn at its finest.

Adam & Eve builds brand loyalty even with more uneven fare by making a direct connection with its red-state couples base through intensive direct marketing via regular catalog mailings and an internal approval system utilizing a therapist review board to vet every DVD title for standards and practices keyed to the comfort level of that base. They know just whom they're selling to and just how far that audience is prepared to go in any one direction.

Of course, these are great big companies with huge resources to invest in production and marketing. What about the vast majority of manufacturers who have to get the job done with less? There again, identifying a specific demographic and catering by instinct to that demographic's tastes works equally well on a smaller scale.

The rocketing rise of Jules Jordan Video since its rather recent inception provides a terrific example of the kind of market focus implied in Bruce Seven's observation. The budgets are modest. The production values are basic. The approach to the material is simple and straightforward. But the sex is always high-energy, hot and nasty without being ugly or mean-spirited and cast with great care. Jordan makes himself available to his viewers, clearly heeds their input and delivers on the promise of maximum strokability in every title. Again, it's consistency that brings back the buyers over and over.

Another relative newcomer with a totally different profile but a similar understanding of market dynamics is Naughty America. If a porn company could rightly be termed wholesome, NA would be the one. You won't see anything shocking or disturbing in any of their releases, but you will see a kind of "Desperate Housewives Do Dallas" style throughout their entire line. They know what mildly adventurous married suburbanites want to see, and that's what they give them. Not surprising that NA was early on the MILF craze. Their boomer audience grew up on "The Graduate" and was ripe for the idea of the hot mom next door.

Another upstart company that's truly vision-driven is Girlfriend's Films, which has all but single-handedly revived a kind of classic girl-girl picture largely abandoned by feature companies concerned about the cable programmer's anti-G/G prejudice and turned inside out by the how-big-a-toy-can-these-girls-get-up-their-butts approach of gonzo gang.

GF products eschew toys, play to audience fantasies about what girls who like girls really do in private and riffs off classic soap-opera plot lines, often carried through multiple releases. Though their players don't look like stereotypical dykes, neither are they 20-something pornettes pretending to truly desire other women when they aren't yet old enough to know what they desire.

To sum up, what is the magic formula that plays such an important part in all these disparate success stories? It is consistency of vision. Inside every consumer's head there is an ideal of what is erotic. All those consumers are different, but they do fall into broad categories. Chances are, the producers themselves fall into one or the other of those broad categories. By making pictures that appeal to a particular sensibility, particularly if the producer shares it, a like-minded audience sharing it is virtually assured.