Arts: The other Tinseltown

The San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles is home to the booming US adult video industry. Sales were $4bn last year - more than half the revenue of the Hollywood studios. So will hardcore receive the mainstream recognition it craves?
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The Independent Culture
In a dingy third-floor office suite somewhere in Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley, Jim South is barely able to keep pace with his hectic life. Two brawny men sitting on his moth-eaten couch are discussing the women they "performed" with over the weekend. A young Russian woman in tight jeans and a crisp white shirt is sitting next to them nervously with a portfolio of nude polaroids on her lap.

A dozen other prospective porn "talents" have been into his office in the past half hour, leaving behind some laughably unsophisticated pictorial evidence of what they look like spread out naked against their kitchen walls - breasts flopping down and penises standing to attention like something a dirty teacher might spy through the keyhole of a school toilet cubicle.

South's accountant appears to go through his tally sheets, hastily scribbled in ballpoint pen, indicating which of his clients performed which sex acts in front of the camera for which director, and at what fee. A reporter from an incongruously proper British newspaper is trying to ask him questions. And the phone doesn't let up for a minute.

"World Modelling," South says, for the umpteenth time that day. He mumbles into the receiver for a few moments, then cups his hand over the handset and shouts out to the room: "Hey, does anybody know if Tiffany does anal?"

On the other side of the room, beneath a wall of lascivious pin-ups of all South's best clients, his assistant is talking to a young black woman who looks aghast at being here. "For a magazine spread, we're talking $2,000," the assistant explains. "For full penetration, you can get up to $5,000. Nobody's going to make you do anything you don't want to, but obviously the further you're willing to go the more work you get, and the more you get paid."

The phone rings again, and this time it is one of South's established stars calling in tears because her boyfriend, a former policeman, has just found out what she does for a living and is now threatening to kill her. South soothes and reassures her for 20 minutes, offering her a temporary place to stay if she needs it, then looks out at the seething mass of humanity arrayed before him in his office and shrugs his shoulders.

"It always gets like this. I'm sorry," he offers. For South is the leading talent agent in the porn business, and there is no surer way to gauge the frenetic commercial success of the industry than by the chaotic tide of humanity passing across his faded dirty carpet.

These are boom times. Production of dirty movies in the San Fernando Valley, home to around two-thirds of the US industry, reached an unprecedented 9,000 titles last year, triple the output of just a few years ago, and the figure is expected to cross the 10,000 barrier in 1999. That means an unbelievable amount of work for a trusted, experienced man like South, and a virtual guarantee of a paycheck for anyone willing to have sex on camera with limitless partners, and in limitlessly inventive, perverse or degrading ways.

At the turn of the millennium, porn is literally bursting out of every seam. Hardcore movies made for video distribution remain the driving force, with sales of more than $4bn last year - more than half the theatrical revenue of the big Hollywood studios and about a quarter of the total US video market. At a time when conventional film production has been fleeing southern California for the cheaper climes of Australia and British Columbia, porn is accounting for as much as one in five movie location shoots in the Los Angeles area.

And then, of course, there is the Internet. By one estimate, there are no fewer than 50 million online sites devoted to porn - making it hard to escape the conclusion that the medium was virtually created for it. More than 70 per cent of all revenue generated off the Internet comes from such so-called "adult" sites - making the headline-grabbing commercial activities of amazon.com, the leading online retailer, seem like a drop in the bucket by comparison. Dollar amounts are hard to quantify, particularly since revenues are spiralling upwards all the time, but Internet porn generated at least $1bn in profits over the past year.

"One thing is sure," says Humphrey Knipe, who runs one of the higher- profile websites. "There are more man hours now being devoted to looking at erotic pictures than ever before in the history of the planet."

Knipe is part of a husband and wife team with the photographer Suze Randall, an incongruously sweet-natured Englishwoman with a passion for horses and the wild mountain landscapes of her home in the canyons high above Malibu, who doubles as the most sought-after stills photographer in the business. The Internet has, she says, "saved my bacon", since the success of her site - featuring more than 70,000 images of the most lusted-after names in porn doing everything from smiling sweetly to gang-banging in whips and leather - has enabled her to escape from the thrall of the big magazine proprietors. In the past, Hustler or Penthouse would own her images; now, if they want her to work for them - and they almost all do - they have to agree to give her exclusive copyright.

That means she can use her magazine contracts to cover the expenses of a porno shoot, including personnel to take care of make-up, hair and clothes (such as they are), and turn her subscription-based online service into almost pure profit. With more than 5,000 members paying $25 a month each, she and her husband can clear well over $1m a year.

"Pornography effectively created the home video market in the early 1980s, and now it is motivating people to go online," says Knipe. "If the next step in the technology is video streaming and broad-bandwidth cable and DSL lines, then porn will be a powerful incentive for people to pay for these things at home."

One can argue about just how far pornography has pushed the Internet revolution, but the extent to which technology has pushed pornography is undeniable. Video and cable got porn away from the fleapit cinemas and the dirty raincoat brigade; now the Internet provides an almost perfect veil of anonymity for the would-be porn consumer. Put crudely, the advent of video meant you no longer had to worry about who you bumped into on the way in or out of the cinema; the advent of the Internet means you can keep your habits concealed even from your wife.

The Internet has transformed the industry in other ways, too, notably in its almost total obliteration of all censorship rules. Before 1988, hard-core porn movies were considered the legal equivalent of prostitution, and production was restricted to a few free-wheeling havens, notably New York and San Francisco, where prosecution was unlikely. Magazines never dared publish hardcore shots, and even erect penises were a no-no because it was feared they would be deemed obscene, and thus illegal.

The Internet has swept all those concerns away, presenting such an awesome challenge to any prosecutor's office that nothing is going to trigger the wrath of the law any more apart from the use of images of children and underage teenagers - something that is still rigorously watched.

With nothing left to the imagination online, the magazines have hurriedly dropped any lingering pretence to good taste and, as of a few months ago, started publishing their own images of explicit, unsimulated sex. Indeed, rather than try to compete with either the quantity or, at the top end, the quality of the images on the Internet, many magazines have turned rough and dirty, exploring specialist fetishes and the pornography of disgust - fat porn, granny porn, excretion porn, and the rest.

The surge in production has had an uneven effect on the industry itself. At the top end of the market, it is making life both lucrative and - certainly in comparison to the past - relatively comfortable. The top film production companies, such as Vivid Video and VCA, now have contract players whom they promote through a well-structured star system, much like the Hollywood studios of old.

The more popular performers get to choose their sex partners, can use condoms if they wish and undergo regular health checks. Drug use is down, and many models take care to work out and keep fit. Aside from the money they make in movies, the top names can earn as much as $20,000 a week dancing in strip clubs, pushing porn as close as it has ever been to being a viable career option. Several swear they enjoy their job. Suze Randall views her models with great affection and admires them for their almost athletic abilities. "It's like watching a good game of tennis," she says.

At the far larger bottom end of the market, however, almost anything goes. Video shoots last no more than a day, production values are dismal, and the risks to performers - many of them desperate, miserable people - are considerable. Last year, an AIDS scare broke out in the San Fernando community after five performers tested HIV-positive. One of them, a mother of a small child, had been gangbanged by 250 men in one movie.

The companies who employ such people are themselves flying by the seat of their pants, churning out the product in the hope that they can make money through saturation-bombing of the market. Jim South, for one, regrets this bottom-of-the-barrel tendency even though he makes more money from it. "There's too many shoots, and too much garbage," he says.

One reason the garbage is bad for business is that the porn industry craves mainstream recognition - partly for publicity reasons and partly to get the justice system off its back - and the only way to get it is to ape some of the glamour of the mainstream movies. The creeping tabloidisation of the media has made that recognition easier to come by recently, with porn stars making regular appearances on slots like the Howard Stern Show and Entertainment Tonight.

Porn performers are being used more extensively in conventional settings, whether it is the punk band Blink 182 hiring Vivid Video star Janine to pose on the cover of their latest album, or the Italian stud Rocco Siffredi turning up in the explicit, but non-pornographic, French movie Romance. The porn industry points to films such as Boogie Nights, or articles like this one, as evidence that it is breaking through to the mainstream. Vivid Video's press clipping portfolio - from publications such as Rolling Stone and The Economist - is entitled "Crossover Dreams Realised".

The dream of porn producers is that one day explicit sex will become an accepted spectator sport alongside wrestling and kung fu movies. That may be a pipe dream for now, but with the industry turning over more and more billions of dollars each year, it is an aspiration we cannot afford to ignore.

Tomorrow: Television and the future of pornography

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