With the X-rated industry in a financial death spiral, porn’s future may be in custom-made, social content. And that may be better for everyone.

 

My first writing assignment was on the set of a porn movie in Chatsworth, California. I was 24 years old, and I was scared. Partly because my editor had spoken with Vivid Video’s PR people about me having a cameo in Hard Evidence 2, and the idea seemed to be getting some traction, but mostly because a week before, planes had been flown into the World Trade Center. I’d been riding the A train to work downtown when I was evacuated at the Columbus Circle stop. The acrid air that circulated the city in the days afterward was still in my nostrils as I sat, white-knuckled, on an empty 737.

During a lunch of blackened catfish, the cast and crew asked me a few questions about the mood in New York in the days after the attacks. They soon began sharing the ways in which they were preparing for a more dangerous future. They spoke of amassing guns, grenades, hazmat suits, dried food and bottled water and building bombproof panic rooms to house it all. Half of them professed to have many of these items in their possession already.

They were probably right to think that the produce of their industry was at odds with the ideology of Al-Qaeda. It was possible to understand their fear that unfortified studios offered terrorists a soft and symbolic target. What I couldn’t reconcile was how they saw hardware, technology and a siege mentality as the only way to deal with an existential-yet-multifaceted threat.

The 13 years after my pitch-perfect cameo as “prison inmate’s bitch” have seen the profound decline of an industry that once generated more than $13 billion in annual revenue.

In September 2001, San Fernando Valley pornographers feared for their lives. In 2014, they fear for their imperiled livelihoods. But based on what was discussed at the XBiz 360 conference in January, their prepper mentality in the face of serious trouble remains unchanged.

Held at W Hotel in Hollywood, the sober and sobering three-day summit held saw porn producers, directors and stars chewing over ways to circumvent the threat of piracy, the Los Angeles Country law mandating the use of condoms on set, and the related spate of performers testing positive for HIV, which brought the ailing industry to a grinding halt on three separate occasions in 2013.

It was proposed that performers undergo HIV testing every two weeks instead of monthly. As for the problem of Measure B (the name given to on-set condom legislation), two solutions came to the fore: Either join the exodus of studios rolling out of Los Angeles County, or emulate Falcon Studios’ more innovative, if time-consuming, tactic of digitally removing condoms from movies in post-production. (Consumers, say many porn industry honchos, generally don’t want prophylactics in their smut, so leaving them in isn’t given serious consideration.) A  “big idea” for saving the industry from online piracy was called 4K: Shooting movies at a resolution approximately four times greater than 1080p. It looks great, apparently. I couldn’t tell you—neither I, nor anyone I know, owns the hardware required to experience it.

“The industry’s reaction to 4K has been, ‘meh’,” says Lux Alptraum, owner and editor of porn-culture blog Fleshbot. “Sure, it looks sharper, but I just don’t think it’s something that people are crying out for.”

We can forgive the industry from thinking that a new format could precipitate a change in fortune. After all, the move from shooting porn on celluloid to video proved to be a masterstroke. In that instance, the way content looked actually got worse. But the shift to video enabled lower production costs and an easier entrée into consumers’ homes. What sex on video lost in aesthetic merit, it more than recouped in ease of enjoyment.

Anyone who thinks that 4K is the answer might want to remind themselves of the anticipated renaissance of 3D porn in 2009. Expensive to make and seemingly unable to inspire, it went nowhere. What draws porn producers to these faddy formats is the belief that these new formats are practically impossible to pirate, copy and distribute. Never mind that if there were a demand for 4K or 3D, online pirates would surely find a way. But from what I can gather, that point is moot. Once again, the siege mentality doesn’t seem to pass muster.

The 13 years after my brief, clothed and pitch-perfect cameo as “prison inmate’s bitch” have seen the profound decline of an industry that once generated more than $13 billion in annual revenue. In 2001, porn pirates were like fleas on a dog, an annoyance that the industry could easily bear. In late 2003, the same editor who had instigated my ignominious porn debut told me about websites where you could stream thousands of curated and categorized porn clips for free. I’d bought my first computer that very same week and happily wanked away the next decade on someone else’s dime.

“If Mind Geek went under in a year or two, it could take most of the porn industry with it. At least, porn as we know it.”

Years passed, and free porn gained unprecedented penetration via an array of aggregating “tube sites”. At the time, I imagined that enough people were still buying DVDs and subscribing to paysites to keep the industry pumping out cheaply produced content. But I was wrong.

“In 2005, the porn industry went off a cliff,” says Susannah Breslin, a freelance writer who has chronicled the adult-entertainment industry for 15 years. Unlike the sudden existential threat presented on September 11th, the dangers of piracy appeared gradually over several years, until the industry’s loyal customers were outnumbered by rapacious shoplifters. Petty porn thieves like me—and probably you too.

Manwin, an IT firm specializing in highly trafficked adult websites, capitalized on Porn Valley’s stupefaction in the face of change. The Luxembourg-based outfit bought enough free, pay and webcam sites to gain a near-monopoly on Internet porn. In October 2013, Manwin changed its name to Mind Geek and now has 73 popular sites under its umbrella. But the firm’s aggressive acquisition strategy may not save it from the tectonic changes taking place. “It appears that Mind Geek is slashing production budgets across all the sites it now owns,” says Alptraum, who attended the recent Adult Entertainment Expo. “They have just about everything right now: Brazzers, Reality Kings, Digital Playground, most of the tube sites. If Mind Geek went under in a year or two, I think that there’s a chance that it could take most of the porn industry with it. At least, porn as we know it.”

But SkweezeMe.com isn’t ready to see the industry die without giving pilferers a chance to pay. The site, which launched just weeks ago, is positioning itself at the Netflix of porn and offers consumers 24 hours of access to a treasure trove of porn titles or just 99 cents. “We’re the guinea pig—we’re taking the risk,” company president James Kirby told the Huffington Post. “If we can’t convince people to pay a dollar for content, then we won’t be in business very long. But we’re banking on the hope that we can.”

AEE was the other porn conference that took place in January 2014. While across the Southern California desert the folks at Xbiz wrung their hands, plotted, triangulated and hoped for some technological breakthrough, cash-strapped industry folks at AEE partied hard in the face of oblivion and doled out awards in an exhaustively long list of categories. Longtime attendees noted the emptiness of the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino while stars smiled for pictures with fans and tried not to let on that only a handful of them now make a decent living from shooting porn alone.

Not only does Stokley’s big idea nimbly sidestep the problem of piracy, it also caters to what porn consumers are increasingly demanding: intimacy.

But as grim as things seemed at the Hard Rock, it was there that signs of porn’s reformation and rebirth could be found. One of the event’s primary sponsors was Customs4U.com, which serves up custom-made porn clips. A viewer chooses the star, situation, desired duration and several other variables from dropdown tabs, then adds a description of how he wants a scene to play out (possibly with the performer calling out his name). Within 14 days—or 7, if expedited—you can log on to pick up your tailor-made porn experience.

CEO Tim Stokely developed the idea after seeing how many special requests came to the traditional porn site he was working for. “Because it was all being brokered through social media, it wasn’t very secure for the customer,” says Stokely, a Brit and AEE virgin. “We felt like if we could develop an automatic, one-house solution, that could be exciting.” Customs4U started in the UK with 20 models performing niche fetish scenes and has had quickly grown; today, models from all over the globe accommodate a broader range of requests.

Creating custom videos makes financial sense for porn stars who are feeling the pinch. One of agent Mark Speigler’s in-demand porn performers might earn $1,000 for a full day of shooting a male-female scene (minus the agent’s 15% cut). The same performer could net a similar amount by creating two bespoke clips in less than an hour, on her schedule and from the comfort of her own home. Stokely’s model-empowering, model-disrupting start-up doesn’t even take a piece of the performers’ published rate, but instead adds a 35% markup.

Not only does Stokley’s big idea nimbly sidestep the problem of piracy, it also caters to what porn consumers are increasingly demanding: intimacy. It was intimacy that consumers got when VHS enabled them to bring porn into private homes. It’s a desire to have some sort of interaction with a porn star that provokes porn fans from all over the US and around the world to fly to Las Vegas. My own favorite porn clips are bookended by candid behind-the-scenes chat, a glimpse of the performer being “real”. There are myriad reasons why I like Asa Akira, but I’ve found that learning more about her background and her raison d’etre via her podcast, DVDASA, increases the pleasure I derive from watching her have sex with a cohort of well-endowed gentlemen. I want my adult entertainment served up with a sufficient amount of heart and soul, and I’m getting the sense that I’m not alone.

Jenna Jameson has that sense, too. Since leaving the industry in 2007, Jameson, one of the highest-grossing performers in the history of adult entertainment, has been bedeviled by some truly awful business decisions. With her Hollywood Hills home in foreclosure, the 39-year-old mother of two has decided to resume performing to generate a sustainable income. Instead of making movies, however, she’ll be “camming” with fans. If she can marry her gold-plated legacy to a more personalized delivery method, Jameson may well recover a one-woman empire that generated tens of millions of dollars annually less than a decade ago.

“People are figuring out that the future of adult entertainment is all about reducing the distance between the performer and the consumer.”

But you don’t need to be an Oprah interviewee or New York Times-bestselling author like Jameson to make exponentially higher salaries than today’s porn stars. “You can definitely make a lot of money doing this,” says Mia Mei, a 26-year-old New Yorker who became a cam girl last year. Mei started stripping about the same time as she began camming but gave up the former after seeing the disparity in her earnings. “I discovered I could make around $30K per month from camming. Dancing just didn’t compare,” she says. “I pay no house fee, work as much or as little as I want and don’t even have to leave my apartment.”

Mei was also at the AEE this year, staying with several other webcam performers in MyFreeCams.com’s cam house, a short drive from the Strip. When not tending to customers, Mei and her colleagues took turns manning the Myfreecams exhibition booth. “At AEE, I definitely sensed that one-to-one camming is a far more lucrative proposition than making movies, but I don’t think I’ll be able to carry on making this sort of money forever,” says Mei, employing a level of forethought that’s been lacking in the industry. She supposes that the market will be saturated with camgirls within a few short years and has decided to make hay while the sun shines.

“People are figuring out that the future of adult entertainment is all about reducing the distance between the performer and the consumer,” says Breslin. Another woman who’s turning the porn biz on its ear by making sexual content more authentic, social and intimate is Cindy Gallop, an accomplished 54-year-old advertising consultant. She has a plummy British accent, a bright gold bob cut and a penchant for taking young men back to her iconic black apartment (formerly the locker room and showers of the New York City YMCA that inspired the Village People anthem) for sex.

“It isn’t that I do not like men cumming on my face,” she says disarmingly before handing me a cup of coffee. “Rather it depends on who is doing the cumming.” Through direct experience, Gallop started to notice that a generation of young men were getting their sexual education from porn. “That’s how all this came about,” she says. “It was entirely an accident. I saw a problem, I took action.” That action was hastily putting up a website called makelovenotporn.com, a bid to raise awareness that porn had hijacked the way people have sex. She launched the site at the 2009 TEDTalk conference; her four-minute lecture became one of the event’s most talked-about.

A clinical psychologist predicts a future in which your oral skills could garner a flood of likes, shares and comments from friends and colleagues. “Society is on the cusp of a sea change,” he says.

“The response from around the world was fan-fucking-tastic,” says Gallop. The reaction led to her creation of makelovenotporn.tv, a website where everyday folks—whom Gallop calls “makelovenotpornstars,”—can upload sex videos they’ve created themselves. Visitors looking for a more authentic depiction of sex can then rent the content for a three-week period at the price of $5 per clip. Gallop splits this revenue with the performer 50-50.

Gallop envisions a future in which people share self-produced sexual content via social media. “We post pictures of literally everything else,” she says. “Sex is this defining thing that we all do, but it’s somehow sacrosanct. That’s part of the reason there’s so much misinformation surrounding it.”

Clinical psychologist David Ley, Ph.D., also predicts a future in which your oral skills could garner a flood of likes, tags, shares and comments from friends, family and colleagues. “Today, society is on the cusp of a sea change, where sexuality will be viewed as simply one behavior among many,” says the author of The Myth of Sex Addiction. “Judgments about sexuality will be viewed as discriminatory and biased. ‘Judge not, lest ye be judged,’ will be the rule of the day, as more people acknowledge that their own sexual secrets are no different than those of others. “

If custom videos, user-generated content, webcamming and porn “going social” is going to fill the intimacy niche that porn hasn’t been able to, the future of erotic content will look very different indeed. Our current image of a porn star will become an anachronism, and the decentralization of porn from its San Fernando Valley HQ will empower other regions to forgo Southern California tropes and rediscover their own “national porn identities,” and Cindy Gallop can once again have sex with a 21-year-old without wondering if his sex patter was lifted verbatim from Asian Party Sluts 3. In short, the porn industry’s seemingly imminent collapse may be what it’ll have to take for the porn consumer to get what he or she craves and maybe even pay for it.