Hardcore Market: Why the Adult Industry Must Make a Great Movie

I am an accidental pornographer. I studied ancient history and classics and all of my peers thought I’d be a professor or a poet. My wife is one of the most highly trained medical professionals in the country. We live in a small town in the suburbs of San Francisco. We have two kids — a boy and a girl — and they’re perfect. We have a small dog that wags his tail and never barks.

After college, when I realized that I didn’t want to be a professor and only my wife appreciated my poetry enough to publish it, I started an online development company, eLine, in 1993. Through some skill and a lot of luck, my company brought many prominent brands online and I found myself at the vanguard of ecommerce and online development.

While the industry is in deep crisis, this crisis offers us the greatest opportunity to make the long-overdue changes we need to make to grow again.

One of my early clients was GameLink.com — the first pure-play online reseller of adult products. eLine built the backend for GameLink and helped grow the company into the powerhouse that it is. Our companies soon joined forces and in 2009 we merged with Private Media Group. I became the vice president of online services and was charged with rejuvenating the brand and sales online.

In one of our weekly executive meetings, the head of content development asked me quite simply why I wasn’t able to sell more of our movies. There was a long pause. After some thought, I decided to be direct and said, “because our movies suck.”

He laughed and asked if I thought I could do better. I said I could, and a year later we released my first movie, “An Open Invitation,” which remains one of the best-selling movies of the post-tube era. I vividly recall the moment, when I was directing India Summer before a scene with Mickey Mod, where I was keenly aware that my life had led me into a most unexpected place.

But it felt right. And I was extremely passionate about what I was doing. And in making that movie, working closely with other professionals in the space, I realized that our industry is capable of making good movies — not just sex scenes, but genuinely compelling movies with hardcore sex — that could surpass anything mainstream could ever produce.

The great irony is that we have the one thing Hollywood wants but doesn’t (yet) have: sex. The ability to show hard cock, pink and penetration is the only barrier to entry we have and mainstream is ever encroaching on that space. I realized that if I could learn how to use sex the way Tarantino uses violence to engage the audience and forward the narrative, I could create a cinematic experience that is universally appealing and unique to adult.

As it stands, mainstream is exploring and exploiting the boundaries of hardcore much better than we are understanding how to use our unique asset to grow market share. The result is that adult is rapidly ceding the vast and lucrative market for erotic narrative that has been developed so effectively by HBO and others. Their content is currently more sophisticated, more erotic, and better produced on every level.

Reclaiming this market, however — a market we created in the Golden Era — is our last hope to be both highly profitable and culturally relevant. I wanted to help regain the territory that adult had lost. I wanted to help demonstrate just what the industry and the genre of adult filmmaking are capable of.

When I paused to answer that question in the executive meeting, I realized that our problem was the industry’s problem. The reasons for adult’s demise are often cited as follows: Google’s facilitation of piracy, the advent of tube sites, social media, camming and dating coalesced to crater revenues and splinter the market. Well-honed and reliable distribution channels disappeared overnight as the product morphed from DVDs into electricity.

Content was slipping through our fingers. Then, in a devastating blow, the core erotic experience that was the kernel of adult was given away for free. It was our “the king has no clothes” moment. The tubes exposed what all of us who run the major video-on-demand sites knew: the customer seeking to masturbate is satisfied in 3-5 minutes. Yep. So if that experience is now free, what are we offering our customer that compels them to buy our product?

Yet at the same time that sales of hardcore content plummeted, why was HBO able to dominate the market of erotic narrative with … simulated sex?!

The reason for adult’s dilemma is much more profound than market dynamics: we have lost the ability to tell a story, engage an audience and keep them wondering ‘what’s going to happen next? In “Anal Massacre #38” and “I Want to Fuck My Stepsister Vol. 13” the audience is not asking this question. And if the movie doesn’t accomplish this, it fails the most basic test of human storytelling: ‘is the story predicable?’ If so, most people aren’t interested. Or at least they’re not interested in paying.

Contemporary porn is explicit. The sex is explicit. The stories are explicit. The outcome is explicit. Everything about it is predictable. Ambiguity and suggestion are not part of the current porn lexicon.

We desperately need our “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” Just as this movie was the first example of using martial arts to drive a narrative tale, we need movies that use sexual arts to drive a narrative tale. We need to recognize the incredible ability we have to get under the skin of our audience, to use sex to morph the mundane into the magical.

We work in the only cinematic industry where performers will have sex before a camera for all of us to enjoy for eternity. We need to do better by those performers, we need to do better for our viewers, we need to do better to survive and grow.

So I tried. I set out to make that movie — a movie that showcases the potential of our industry. I assembled the best team I could find: a great director, an accomplished stylist, the best DP, a talented cast of actors who are also adult performers, a great editor, and some great musicians.

According to most critics and industry observers, that movie, “Marriage 2.0,” comes close. Importantly, it is also outselling everything on the platforms on which it is available. As I’ve told many, I hope “Marriage 2.0” inspires others to surpass what we accomplished with this movie.

The cultural acceptance and thirst for sex in cinema is shifting quickly. And while this presents the greatest opportunity for our industry, it also poses our greatest threat. It will happen soon: someone will make the adult movie that shocks the world and redefines the genre.

But unless we start experimenting and taking risks, that movie is going to be made by someone outside of our industry. We need to recognize that the hardcore masturbation market — the driving force behind our entire production process — is just one, and an ever-shrinking facet of the business. There is so much more out there for us — we haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of our potential.

Our entire industry depends on maintaining an exclusive hold on the ability to show hardcore sex. That is a very tenuous lifeline, and we’d be naïve to assume that this will forever be the exclusive domain of adult.

We live in a time where, all too often, we see giants fall who relied on the world never changing.

While the industry is in deep crisis, this crisis offers us the greatest opportunity to make the long-overdue changes we need to make to grow again. Because it is only in times like these that necessity overwhelms tradition and culture to create something new.

Magnus Sullivan is a native San Franciscan whose interest in the dynamics of open relationships, their challenges and their opportunities for growth, has now been the focus of two movies. Sullivan founded eLine, a technology firm, in 1993, which manages GameLink.com and various other adult brands.