Money in the Middle

Ernest Greene
Looking down on the Las Vegas Strip from my suite at The Venetian back in January, a lyric from a half-forgotten Leonard Cohen song played through my head: "The place is dead as heaven on a Saturday night."

It was, in fact, Saturday night around midnight. On every previous visit, starting when I was a kid and Vegas was a one-street town, that one street would have been a river of head- and taillights at such a moment. Instead, I saw only the lonely beacons of cruising cabs, with hardly a civilian vehicle among them.

Much has already been said about the subdued atmosphere at this year's AEE — about the reduced number of exhibitors, the smaller booths, the shorter autograph lines, the light floor traffic — but with our industry's narcissistic self-absorption, we may have failed to notice the bigger picture of which our discontent was a part.

Las Vegas is as much a symbol of the entertainment industry's economic might as Hollywood, or for that matter, Porn Valley. The "conventional wisdom" (regular readers know that phrase only appears in this column bracketed by irony-quotes) has been that the entertainment business is recession-proof and not subject to the usual cycles in which other endeavors rise and fall. In good times, people want entertainment. In bad times, they need it.

This has always been something of a myth, born during the Depression when, yes, people did crave the distraction that cinematic spectacle provided. But back in the era of the great movie palaces, flickers were also a terrific bargain. For a nickel, you got a cartoon, a newsreel or other short subject plus a full-length feature. Nowadays, a mainstream feature can run you 11 bucks a ticket at a suburban multiplex with no amenities. Add in the cost of gas to get there, parking, any form of refreshment and you've got yourself a pretty expensive night on the town.

So what has this got to do with porn? More than many of us think. We've become part of the macro-economy, with all the good and bad things that entails. If Big Hollywood is no longer immune to the shifting economic tides, the Other Hollywood can't expect to be, either. Things are tough all over, and that impacts us directly now that we're a big market — we're no longer dependent on a small, obsessive audience to support what has become a vast complex of interrelated enterprises.

Consider just one aspect of the situation in Vegas.

When room occupancy is down all over the city, fewer weary, bleary tourists will be stumbling up to their rooms in the middle of the night and jerking themselves to sleep with some pay-per-view porn on the in-room TV. That means less revenue for the hotels and thus fewer buys for what we sell. When the hospitality industry hurts, so do we.

Like theatrical films, home video is no longer such a great bargain. While shrewd online shoppers or bargain-barrel divers may score their share of cheap porn, the typical retail price for a new X-rated release hovers around $20, a not-insubstantial sum for a guy who is upside down on a jumbo mortgage.

Adult cable is another expendable luxury. It costs more per month than HBO, and a lot of consumers are already cutting back to basic cable in an increasingly desperate attempt to stave off foreclosure notices.

What we've seen in this country for nearly two decades isn't just the rise and implosion of a tech bubble or a housing bubble, it's the rise and fall of bubble economics. And porn has experienced one of the biggest bubbles of all.

During the tremendous boom era of the '90s, the advent of the adult Internet and the dramatic decline in the cost of video technology suddenly made it possible for virtually anyone to get in this business and start selling content right away, whether via the web, on disk, through satellite or cable outlets or by some combination of delivery mechanisms.

And the campaign conducted by some of the larger adult production companies to burnish porn's image as a part of mainstream media culture certainly contributed to this dynamic. It's not exactly a coincidence that HBO and Showtime began adding fluff-and-puff porn reality programming to their regular late-night schedules. The media conglomerates that own these channels also have a piece of the upper-bandwidth where adult video's harder products are sold.

For nearly a decade, hardly a week went by without the opening of a new revenue stream that fed into the coffers of adult video producers. That kind of growth is no more sustainable in entertainment than it is in housing. That we flooded our own market with low-end, low-quality products while still extracting premium prices from consumers' wallets certainly didn't help stave off the inevitable "correction" we're now undergoing.

Nor did we do ourselves any favors by allowing ourselves to become hostage to a particularly noisy but not necessarily vast audience segment that demanded harder and harder products. In catering to the crowd that posts on adult chat boards, endlessly crying out for evermore double-anals and cumfarts, we may have shorted a much larger and generally more affluent market that is better able to sustain their appetite for XXX material through the larger economy's rough patches.

How much appetite remains for "Choke and Puke 54" and all its clones at this point is hard to assess, but it's noteworthy that some of the biggest moneymakers over the past few years have been big features, such as "Pirates" and "The Fashionistas," which are the type declared extinct during the era when gonzo ruled the Earth.

Interestingly, Hollywood, having seen disappointing returns on some of its high-ticket popcorn movies, has recently discovered the kind of story- and character-driven pictures that were hot during the big recession of the '70s. You know something's up on that side of the fence when the Cohen brothers win the Oscar for Best Picture.

What we're learning, yet again, is that in a tighter market, buyers seek value. That may come in a big, glossy package like "Island Fever," or in a smaller, smarter package like the retro-feeling products from Naughty America. But what these things have in common is that they neither bore nor offend the largest possible audience.

In hard times, when it comes to politics or entertainment, the money is in the middle. Go there and you'll ride out the storm. Cling to the edge and you just might slip right off into oblivion. Cheap alone is not the answer. Expensive alone is not the answer. Bang for the buck is.


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