HOLLYWOOD, Calif. — On Wednesday afternoon, three star-studded panels of industry veterans weighed in on the rise of mainstream pornographic content, the shifting landscape of niche genres and long-term business strategies for performers and studios alike.
Penthouse managing director Kelly Holland facilitated "Women in Porn: Shattering the Myth," a production of Sssh.com featuring New Sensations writer and director Jackie St. James, Wicked Pictures contract star and sex educator jessica drake, as well as publicist and first plus size Penthouse model Kelly Shibari.
After playing a video clip of "It's Not Porn, It's HBO," which humorously depicts the double standard applied to sexually uncensored scenes on cable channels, Holland asked the panel whether such mainstream programming helps or harms the adult industry.
“As people watch more explicit content on television, it gives them a taste for what we’re doing," drake said. "Ironically, it’s kind of how I got my start in this business. When I came out to L.A. I was very often 'bikini girl number four,' 'naked girl on the couch,' for all kinds of series on HBO, Cinemax… which we called 'Skin-emax.'"
"I do think it helps because... that kind of content is desensitizing audiences and opening them up a little bit to be more receptive to sexual content," St. James said. "On the other hand, they have like a million dollars an episode, so of course it’s going to be beautifully shot... so they can lean on the legitimacy of it."
“The thin pink line between premium cable and us is the head of the penis penetrating the vaginal opening," Holland observed. "The sacred mother of Mary moment. When they give that up we all become high budget pornographers, low budget pornographers, or we become low budget art people and they become high budget art people, because they will never embrace the word 'porn.'"
"For some reason, love is taboo," Shibari said. "The use of sex in mainstream Hollywood is only OK if it's making fun of somebody or if something horrible is happening."
Still, Holland foresees the inevitable blurring of pornography and mainstream programming as an opportunity for the adult industry. “Mainstream may know how to choreograph a fight scene with samurai swords, but we have guys that can't keep erections and girls that forgot to douche, and you have to gracefully be able to have those conversations," she said. "So, every genre requires its own specificity, its own sets of talents.”
“I think that’s something that will hold them back, if it gets to the point where they do decide that they want to show insertion," drake said. "They’re gonna need us!”
In the panel that followed, veteran adult performer and entrepreneur Vicky Vette moderated "Porn Star 2.0: Evolution of the Adult Performer," featuring Casey Calvert, drake, Tasha Reign, Chanel Preston, Dani Daniels and Carter Cruise.
Vette asked the performers what kind of revenue streams sustained them and she received a wide variety of answers. Preston said she relies mostly on shooting, Cruise splits her time between pornography and being a DJ, Calvert earns about 40 percent from custom videos and 60 percent from traditional shooting, Reign generates money from shooting, endorsements, online stores and feature dancing, while drake is salaried with Wicked and supplements her income via feature dancing, appearances and workshops.
Daniels shied away from doing mainstream projects for her income. "I don’t like mainstream, it’s boring," she said. "I like having sex!"
Cruise turned to DJ gigs, in part, to build up her brand. "I wanted to build a brand of Carter Cruise, so whether that’s writing, music or porn, everything goes together," she said. "So, I mean people definitely know I’m in porn, it’s kind of cool… it’s helped me in some ways, it helps because I have large socials. I get booked because I’m a DJ, not because I'm a pornstar, but it does help me in some ways, because I get paid more. But it also hurts me in some ways, because people think I’m playing some prerecorded song up there. It can be tough sometimes, but I like to combat the stigma of doing porn."
For newcomers, panelists weighed the advantages and disadvantages of holding back on more hardcore acts like anal. Preston and Calvert wholeheartedly recommended diving right in.
"There’s been a lot of girls that have come in, just guns blazing, and they’ve been successful," Preston said. "You just need to set up a business model before you start, so you really have clarity of your trajectory. One other thing I ask a girl is, if she’s okay doing porn and not becoming a star… if they say yeah, they’re fine with it, then they’ll be okay."
"I came in and my second scene was anal and that’s what I wanted to do, that’s what I’m good at and I know that I’m good at anal," Calvert explained. "And I’m good at doing the rough hardcore stuff… and if I'd waited on that, I would have worked less in the beginning."
In the third panel, Exile Distribution founder Howard Levine led a discussion about porn genres and popular trends, with Jay West of Forbidden Fruit Films, parody innovator Will Ryder, director Porno Dan Leal, BDSM and fetish expert Dee Severe of Severe Sex, Adam & Eve general manager Bob Christian and Burning Angel creator Joanna Angel.
The cyclical nature of genre popularity was examined, as studios balance data-driven innovation, pure experimentation and brand consistency to attract their audiences.
"Genres… it seems they come and they go," Levine said.
Ryder, whose 2007 "Not the Bradys XXX" for Hustler Video inspired much of the parody movement, explored the impact of genres on the industry. "We decided to do it exactly like the TV show… we called the characters Marsha and Jan… and that was a big difference. I think we broke boundaries that way… but that was a long time ago.. and it went for a long time before everyone got on the bandwagon.”
West remarked that Forbidden Fruit Films also got into the fauxcest scene when it was less ubiquitous. “You have to figure out what genre is now lacking," he advised, before cautioning companies against overly zealous gear shifting. "Girlfriends Films gets a loyal following, they hold tight during shifting changes… because they don’t jump around, they keep their core audience," he said.
Severe echoed his views on brand consistency. "Whatever we do, it’ll be variations on a theme, but it’ll always be kinky… we’re keeping BDSM out of the dungeon and keeping it in more real life situations," she said. "People who watch '50 Shades' go, 'I kind of want to experiment a little bit.' This is working for us."
Christian likewise focuses Adam & Eve's content in a more established direction. "If we were to be said to have a niche, it would probably be in the high production value and the features… the couples-friendly content and some would say the softer side," he said. "Our customer base is pretty diverse, the common denominator, where we’re headed, is engaging the viewer's mind as well as the body… giving it some kind of story, however involved, whatever the cost, something that engages them. Even with fauxcest… it’s all in the setup… if you remove the first 30 seconds, the viewer just thinks it’s sex."
Angel balances experimenting with adherence to her known brand. "I’ve been trying some new things," she said. "Burning Angel is a brand that I want to keep focused on tattooed girls… but with the cam shows we’ve just been experimenting. I’ve just been trying everything."
Leal takes a strategic, data-driven approach that involves examining analytics on his own sites, as well as tracking the performance of experimental clips released in the wild on free tube sites. Those less conventional clips that do well, can then be expanded with additional resources and production efforts. In this way, he says, free content sites can be used shrewdly for beta testing.
“Number one search term for livecams is squirting," Leal said. "That is the number one search term right now. Second one we do very well with is fan interaction… that’s because you have interaction that fans can relate to. We also do very well with teen.”
Overall, he suggests looking at the business with multiple revenue streams in mind. "You can't just look at it from a traditional viewpoint… DVD sales," Leal explained. "You go to the stores, and they’re lingerie shops now, the DVD rack is getting smaller and smaller and smaller, but there’s still a lot of opportunity in that.”