It was gay porn heaven for those in attendance, a gathering of some of the most popular and recognized names in the business: Lukas Ridgeston, Josh Elliot, Johan Paulik, Kris Evans ... the list goes on. They met in Prague for a celebration last September — when Bel Ami celebrated its 20th anniversary and soon unveiled the biggest and most expensive condom free orgy scene ever produced in the history of gay porn. Also there was the man himself: George Duroy, his name a nod to the central figure in the 1885 Guy de Maupassant novel that inspired the studio’s moniker.
It’s almost impossible to exaggerate the impact that Bel Ami has had on the industry — from the start, it was a fan and critic favorite marked by top-quality production, undeniably charismatic models and a unique, playful tone that seemed to celebrate men and sex in a way that had never been done before. The brand is now a behemoth — its reach across the globe is staggering, and it’s safe to say that no studio has had the same worldwide brand recognition and success over such an extended period.
It’s funny — I never wanted a big company. In fact, I never wanted any company at all! All I wanted to do was shoot with models that I liked and make films that I’d want to buy myself.
As the studio enters its 21st year, Duroy took time out of his very busy schedule for some rare and candid reflections.
XBIZ: Tell me about the start of Bel Ami?
DUROY: The creation of Bel Ami — in terms of the motivations that underpin it and the timing — is more ambiguous than appears at first blush. I’ve learned to say that Bel Ami took some kind of amorphous form between 1990 and 1995. I did my first photo shoot in 1990, which was then released under the name Bel Ami in 1991. With the launch of Freshmen magazine in 1992, my career took off as well; during their first two years, I had 18 covers and I even started to learn a little about photography. In 1993, I filmed my first two porn films for Falcon — ”Sauna Paradiso” went on to win me my first “Porn Oscar,” which is what we used to call the GAYVN Awards. This all led to my first Bel Ami film — “Tender Strangers” — which in the first month of mail order sales made enough to pay off all of my UCLA Film School debt. Having reconciled myself with the fact that I was not destined to become a famous Hollywood producer, I finally established a small media business in 1994 and trademarked “Bel Ami” in 1995.
XBIZ: What about the current landscape of the company?
DUROY: “Landscape” is a suitable descriptor. To start, it’s important to clarify that Bel Ami isn’t a company but a trademark. I don’t own any company, I own only trademarks and copyrights. I have a certain vision, know-how, patience and personality traits that have allowed me to corral together a rather motley — but very talented group of directors, editors, techies, graphic designers, models, scouts, etc. There are a number of smaller companies that collaborate to form what people call “Bel Ami.” Altogether, about a hundred people, half of which are models on exclusive contracts.
Operations are eclectic — three production teams (in Budapest, Bratislava and Prague) work closely with associates in Cape Town, Los Angeles and Austin, via Berlin, Madrid, London and wherever else they need to.
We currently have two main websites (BelAmiOnline and Kinky Angels) and three DVD production lines (Bel Ami, Kinky Angels and Lukas Ridgeston). In total, we produce about 700 pieces of content annually, which includes roughly 250 to 300 sex scenes and 20 DVD releases.
To make this possible, we can muster up to seven teams available to shoot. We have over 60 Bel Ami models at our disposal at any given time, and whose ranks are occasionally reinforced by models from other studios. Half of our productions are shot on locations worldwide and the other half in one of our four studio spaces. At the moment, we are in the middle a 10-week production in South Africa, with a budget of $1.5 million. As I’m running through these numbers with you, I’m realizing that we might be slightly bloated.
XBIZ: What do you see as the key milestones, turning points and accomplishments?
DUROY: It’s funny — I never wanted a big company. In fact, I never wanted any company at all! All I wanted to do was shoot with models that I liked and make films that I’d want to buy myself. I managed to keep the company small for many years, producing and releasing an average of three to four films a year and taking the winters off to recuperate. These films sold a substantial number of copies — for example, more than 100 thousand copies of “Lukas’ Stories.”
Turning points? Well, the first one was mostly likely the 1997 release of “An American in Prague.” I had definitively decided that I would stay in porn for the long haul and that I’d purposefully start growing the business. Another pivotal moment was in 2005, when the release of “Lukas in Love” marked the pinnacle of our DVD sales. The collector’s edition alone brought in over $1 million during the first three months.
2008-09 was another important period of change. 2008 was the most miserable year of my career, and definitely the lowest point for Bel Ami. I was faced with the decision as to whether I would sell the company or transform it into a fit-for-purpose platform that could weather the age of the Internet. I have to admit that I couldn’t stand the Internet and it wasn’t until November 2008 that I even had a computer at home.
Then the moment of truth came and I realized that I had a choice: either I go bankrupt or (as Dr. Strangelove might say) I learn to love the Internet. In all its multiplicities and the excruciating workload that comes with it. This also meant that I would become a manager and producer, rather than a photographer and director. Naturally, this involved a concerted campaign against my congenital laziness. To my amazement, we somehow succeeded and I even managed to pretend to be industrious.
XBIZ: What about the birth and growth of BelAmiOnline?
DUROY: BelAmiOnline emerged in 1999. I realized early on that the Internet was not a fad, unlike many other studios at the time. I had the foresight to import a talented young American and task him with building a more robust BelAmiOnline in 2004. The result was satisfying, but I underestimated how fast the Internet would develop and didn’t pay almost any attention to our Internet operations.
As a result I let slip a major portion of the market to newcomers (as they were at the time) like Sean Cody, Randy Blue and Corbin Fisher.
Underestimating newcomers does not pay off. In the end, it was these gentlemen that inspired me to perform better and turn my attention toward the Internet. Initially, I wanted to meet them personally so that I could better understand the source of their magic ... to my great relief, Corbin contacted me on his own and took the time to come to Prague. Our contact was cordial and in the end we agreed to a co-production, which brought a lot of exposure for both of us.
Since then we have tripled the number of our online customers, so I believe that the gap has been closed by now. I can say with some level of accuracy that our online numbers are comparable by now. We still have though relatively healthy DVD sales (I use the word “relatively” in context of the current state of the market). Because I’m pig-headed and a hoarder, I’m continually shooting reserves, should the apocalypse arrive. Just imagine — Armageddon is nigh and George is sitting on 600 unreleased scenes.
XBIZ: What have been the key industry changes over the years that have forced you to adapt?
DUROY: This industry is like a cockroach — it possesses a remarkably resilient disposition and knack for survival. Ostensibly because it used to be the domain of mavericks and still possesses the allure of forbidden fruit. I developed my resilience and adaptability thanks to my emigration and the fact that I never got anything for free.
Besides the Internet — which, with its start, struck the death knell for good taste and ushered in an era of rampant piracy — the biggest change in the industry over the years has been the loss of small independent studios and talented people. The industry was to a certain extent the last bastion of truly independent filmmaking. Not anymore. Filmmaking has turned primarily into shitmaking. It’s a pity, but I believe it’s a temporary situation. There must be some budding Cadinots out there, somewhere.
XBIZ: Address some of the big changes you made, and why — like when you introduced more cum play, large orgies, condom-free sex, etc.?
DUROY: All the changes I’ve made were long overdue. Had distributors not blocked me, I would have made most of them much earlier. Filming without condoms, for instance, was taboo. Both Paladin and Bruno Gmunder made it clear that they wouldn’t carry condom-free product. I deferred to them and my complacency let the likes of Homoactive tear into the business with the finesse of a Mongolian horde.
In the end, it wasn’t me but other Prague studios that flooded the market with even cheaper bareback material, in the process reigning Homoactive in. Their great legacy is lasting damage to the reputation of European porn. Working in Prague during that period became intolerable and I moved our operations to Bratislava and Budapest.
XBIZ: Talk about the barebacking — in the industry as a whole, and with Bel Ami.
DUROY: I detest the term “barebacking” and I don’t use it on my website. It implies something cheap and nasty. Therefore I opted to use the phrase “condom free.” I’m a little like the American government, which prefers “enhanced interrogation techniques” to good old fashioned “torture.” The bareback question became part of every interview and I wonder why it should still be an issue.
At some point, it became a question of commercial survival for many companies. Now it’s a fait accompli and there’s no turning back.