The star system was the practice of selecting promising young actors and actresses, signing them to exclusive contracts and creating as much media hype around them as possible.
Studio executives recognized the power of big-name stars to bring moviegoers into theaters, and they saw the value of keeping certain stars securely in-house and off-limits to competitors. If you were an Errol Flynn fan, for example, you had only one option — buy a ticket to the latest Warner Brothers film.
For nearly four decades, contract players were the cornerstone of most studios' business plans, but the star system fizzled out by the late 1950s and disappeared forever from mainstream Hollywood after Wagner's contract expired.
But the concept was reborn in Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley in the 1980s, thanks to the foresight of Vivid Entertainment co-founders Steve Hirsch and David James, who saw the potential for adult entertainment's own version of the star system.
"When David and I started Vivid back in December of 1984, the idea was to find the best-looking girls in adult, put them under exclusive contract, produce really good movies and package it all with artwork and photography not seen before in adult," Hirsch told XBiz. "We knew that if we could bring all three of those elements together — the girls, the movies and the photography — it would separate us from everyone else and help us stand out."
Thus, the Vivid Girl was born. And the strategy, it appears, was a success. According to a 2005 article in Forbes magazine, roughly one-third of all titles found in U.S. adult DVD stores are Vivid productions, and the studio generates an estimated $100 million a year in revenue selling to retail stores, hotel chains and cable companies as well as on the Internet.
A large part of that success can be traced to the promotional power of the Vivid Girls, who regularly appear on the "The Howard Stern Show" and other radio programs and frequently host specials for the E! channel, among others. Vivid Girls such as Jenna Jameson, Savanna Samson and Tera Patrick have successfully penetrated the mainstream, which makes the porn-buying public more likely to seek out their movies.
XBiz recently caught up with Vivid CEO Steve Hirsch to talk about the Vivid brand and the role Vivid Girls have played in the growth of his company.
XBIZ: Did you already have girls under contract when you made your first movie?
HIRSCH: Actually, we made a movie first — "Ginger," starring Ginger Lynn. David and I saw that movies that focused on a star were standing out and selling well, so we followed that concept for our first movie. That's why we called it "Ginger" — rather than making a big production, we decided to focus on the star. Even the box cover was different from anything that had been out there before. It was all about her and her beauty.
XBIZ: And Ginger also saw the potential of a contract situation?
HIRSCH: I think the fact that we put all of our resources into promoting her after the movie came out impressed her. We mutually decided that it was a situation that worked well for both of us, for her and the company. It made sense. We knew early on that we wanted to sign girls to exclusive contracts.
XBIZ: Did you start signing other Vivid Girls immediately after that?
HIRSCH: You have to understand, we started this company with about $20,000. It was not really well financed, so we did our first movies with Ginger as our only contract star. Then Ginger decided she wanted to retire from making movies, and everybody said, "What's Vivid going to do now?" But we were able to bring in Jamie Summers, who was unknown at the time, and built the "Brat" series around her. Later, we signed Barbara Dare, who was already a well-established star but decided she wanted to come over from another company, and a while after that, we brought in Christy Canyon, who also was a star in her own right. It didn't all happen right away.
XBIZ: So what do you look for in a potential Vivid Girl — what are the qualities that make one girl shine through?
HIRSCH: It's a very subjective thing. What it comes down to is who we believe we can best promote. It could be someone who's unknown or an existing star with huge potential that's never been realized.
XBIZ: Is there a specific selection process involved?
HIRSCH: When a girl comes in, we can tell right away if she has something special — her eyes, her smile — something that separates her from all others. That's the first step. The second step is getting her with a photographer so we can see all the different looks he can get. We have photographers take hundreds of shots, then we sit down and analyze them. We have to be sure that we can keep changing a girl's look from movie to movie so she won't get stale. The third step is doing a movie, because, in the end, she has to be special sexually. If a girl can pass all three tests, she can be a Vivid Girl.
XBIZ: Is PR savvy a factor — how well a girl handles herself in interviews, her sense of humor, that sort of thing?
HIRSCH: With our business in particular, because we are in the spotlight, it's more than just looks. They have to be able to get out there and represent the company and speak well. Also, because our movies are story- and dialogue-intensive, they have to be able to act, or at least be willing to take the time and put in the work necessary to learn.
XBIZ: What value do "name" stars bring to retailers in terms of moving DVDs or bringing customers into a store?
HIRSCH: Having contract stars in a movie sort of acts as insurance. If a retailer sees that a girl is doing extremely well and growing a big fan base, he knows that customers will be looking for her videos. It adds a layer of credibility to a movie.
XBIZ: Does it raise your production costs substantially?
HIRSCH: Definitely, yes, quite a lot. Obviously, it adds to our budget because these girls do so few movies, and in this day — when girls can make $1,500 per scene and work four days a week, if they choose to — we have to be able to offer them more money for less movies, so every movie naturally costs more.
XBIZ: What are Vivid's expectations of a contract girl in terms of movies and appearances?
HIRSCH: The average girl does between 6-8 movies a year, plus web appearances and some personal appearances. Each girl also gets her own line of Doc Johnson toys, and there is some promotion involved with that.
XBIZ: Can Vivid Girls make any money outside of their contracts?
HIRSCH: Unlike some other companies that feel they're entitled to money girls make dancing, we think our job is to market and promote our stars so that they can make the maximum money possible. They give us a certain number of movies and appearances, and the money they make from everything above and beyond that is theirs. It doesn't make any sense for us to make a few extra dollars from a girl, so we don't take any money from their dancing or websites. In fact, we give them content for their sites.
XBIZ: I've never heard of a girl wanting to break a contract with Vivid. Besides money, what intangibles do you offer girls to keep them happy?
HIRSCH: Well, we always give girls the option to choose who they want to work with. It has never made sense to me to tell a girl she has to work with someone she would rather not work with because you'll just end up with a bad scene, which will get a bad review, and a bad review hurts sales. And we've been a mandatory condom company for some time, and some girls feel more comfortable with that.
XBIZ: Do you have any male performers under contract right now?
HIRSCH: Not right now, but we have in the past, and we are always open to it.
XBIZ: What qualities would a man have to possess to be considered for a contract?
HIRSCH: He would have to be able to work hard and work a lot. There aren't many men who can do that, and there are less who can do it with condoms.