Gonzo: Taking A Toll

It's been over a decade since gonzo-style content has been tearing up the industry, the Internet and rented houses in Chatsworth — not to mention the mostly anonymous performers who star in these movies.

It's a complicated issue involving economics, the accelerating advance of technology, sociological factors and a new generation (or two) of porn producers, performers and consumers. But far from being just another scandalous subject for academics to ponder and moralists to decry, the rise of gonzo represents a sea of change in the adult industry.

As usual with sea changes, it's the general population that gets walloped most severely, not the captains of industry or the social elites. So the flood of gonzo, however it's dressed up, is having its greatest impact on the talent, notwithstanding the effect it has on any number of earnings reports.

The desire for instant gratification, which seems particularly to characterize the generations named after the last letters of the alphabet, is much easier to satisfy these days. No more skulking around the wrong part of town to buy a video, much less waiting for the mail carrier to bring a plain brown envelope with an 8mm film. Today, a $75 used PC and a $12.95-a-month DSL connection sucks the universe of sex with its constellations of willing nymphs right into the consumer's home.

But there are big changes at the other end of the pipeline, too, on the production side. "These days," said veteran director and producer Michael Stefano, "anyone with $2,800 can buy a camera and shoot porn. It's just everywhere, all the time, and I blame it to a big extent on the Internet and all the new technology. Plus there are just so many girls to shoot. There's never a lack of them, and it's just really cheap to put something out now."

Regardless of the distribution methods — DVD, video-on-demand, paysites, cable and hotel deals, etc. — corporate porn producers are competing with a veritable ocean of free material. "You have these college girls and these good-looking college guys," veteran performer and website operator Nicole Sheridan said, "and they think it'd be kind of nasty and cool to make a porn video in the dorm or wherever, and they put it on the net for free. Obviously, a lot of people are going to think, 'Why should I drop $30 on a feature with only a handful of sex scenes?' when they can get nonstop sex for nothing."

Economists call it a glut. And despite the fact that he is writing about the oversupply of doctoral candidates in universities, free-market economist Gary North clearly explains how gluts are created in a January 2006 article entitled "The Ph.D. Glut Revisited":

"Why does a glut exist? Because of an error [in] forecasting. Suppliers believed that there would be buyers at a specific price [but] there were an insufficient number of buyers at that expected price."

Then why does a glut persist? One answer: ignorance on the part of suppliers. But why should this ignorance persist? Why don't suppliers get the picture?

Experienced sellers do get the picture. The problem is a continuing supply of new sellers who are unfamiliar with the market and ignorant of the past supply-demand conditions. Or, as has been said so often, there's a sucker born every minute. There is no evidence that P. T. Barnum ever said this, but it is nonetheless true.

Blame for the economic upheaval in the adult industry, and the current plunge in DVD sales and concomitant net-centric retrenchment of the industry, reaches into the boardrooms of the porn kings as well as the dorm rooms of the college kids. But the biggest culprits may be the coattail-riding "Johnny cum lately" firms trying to cash in without paying their dues and learning the ropes, succeeding primarily at saturating the market.

In addition to their own missteps, though, producers also have been battling the rising cost of gonzo talent. Performers raised their asking prices because shooting gonzo is more difficult, demanding and dangerous. But it's very clear that the current situation can't go on forever — with overall revenues falling, there's not a whole lot of places left to cut costs. With DVD sales lowering and the distribution side of the business crossing the digital divide without a good map, the formerly simple economic model of porn production has grown increasingly complicated.

"The pie is the same size as it always was," Stefano said, "but the slices are getting smaller. Actually we're all fighting for crumbs now. I remember a couple years ago, it was all about doubles — DPs, two-on-one, all that — and everybody was shooting a ton of material and had a shit-load in the can. Now there's less money going into the shoots, and everyone has used up all that saved material too."

Still, gonzo is where the work is right now. "I think if girls truly want to make the most money then gonzo is the place to be," famously hardworking performer-director Mark Wood said. "And that's because of the sheer amount of shooting out there now."

Sheridan concurs. "The companies definitely see where the money is and they think, 'Why bother doing all these acting scenes when the customers just want the sex?' And the girls feel they have to work every day, or five or six days a week, to make the money."

It makes perfect sense that they would, too: It doesn't take an economist to figure out that the times are a-changing' (again) in the adult film industry, so performers want to get what they can get while the gettin' is good.

Socrates said, "The unexamined life is not worth living." It is important for people to consider, carefully and soberly, what they are doing, what the possible ramifications of their choices will be, how they are treating others and how they are treating themselves.

Adult film star Taryn Thomas knows the value of such self-examination. "I'm just returning from a hiatus. I had some things to think about — health issues, personal situations. I really had to think about it, to decide if porn was what I wanted to do with my life. I decided it is, so I'm back, and happy to be back."

But Thomas is quick to add that she is returning with a different attitude, and a commitment to working smarter, not just harder. "I love doing gonzo, but there are some things I just won't do — demeaning things, mean-spirited things, unhealthy things. But there are girls coming into the business left and right who haven't watched gonzo or seen what that first step in the career is probably going to be. And that's why there is such a big turnover. The misconception — you know, that they're going to star in 'Pirates' or a Michael Ninn feature right away — really does lead to a lot of girls leaving pretty fast."

When one considers some of the horror stories about girls who've allowed themselves to be chewed up and spit out by mercenary producers, perhaps some of those "girls leaving pretty fast" are the fortunate ones. On the other hand, determination and a level head go a long way toward preventing the occasional unhappy ending and the rare (but always sensationalized) tragedies, like porn star suicides and overdose deaths.

"I know the business and I am in it for the long haul," Thomas said. "Eventually I want to direct, sure, but I know that's a matter of toughing it out, learning every step of the way, working hard and being serious about it. That old saying is true, that only the strong survive — and there's no place that's more true than porn."

James Avalon, one of the adult industry's acknowledged visionaries, has pretty much seen and done it all. He respects performers who respect themselves, and who approach their careers with Socratic self-examination and commonsense planning.

"Doing the same thing over and over burns anyone out, in any type of endeavor," he said. "Not to mention the health factor [in gonzo]. Girls like Sunny Lane — who plan out when they do hardcore, when they dance, when they go on tour and when they have rest and recovery days — have a better head about their careers and what they're doing."

"I think I was lucky," Sheridan said. "I got in the business when features were still king and for me doing the occasional gonzo scene was a different, cool thing where I'd go in for a few hours, just have sex and everything would turn out great. But it's a lifestyle for some of these younger gonzo performers, and they're sort of making movies of what they would be doing anyway." Sheridan clearly doesn't expect gonzo to move the industry forward artistically.

For his part, the famously candid Avalon knows what will. "What we need, and I'm seeing it now," he says, "is more fan-based driving of the industry, more looking toward where we're going, not where we've been, and honestly looking at the possibilities of erotic art and entertainment."

Avalon knows that consumers ultimately respond to quality products, and that a key insight of modern sales and marketing is the need to educate buyers as to what constitutes quality. "That's why I applaud developments such as XFANZ rather than the same old market-based publications whose meat-and-potatoes ad base is dwindling as fast as the food supply at the end of the dinosaur era. When the fans stop buying shit, the companies will stop churning it out."

Mark Wood's instincts agree with Avalon's analysis. "In the end, the market provides the justification for what gets produced. If it makes sense financially, they're going to keep doing it until the wheels fall off — although it looks like that time is getting closer and closer."