(DISCLAIMER: This is an article about porn. You may not believe this, but I’m not a huge porn fan. I’m totally not.)
The greatest fictional adult film director of all time, Jack Horner, had a dream: he wanted to make a real film. He wanted people to care about his characters and his story. Then, VHS came along and ruined the industry forever. By the end of Boogie Nights, Jack’s movies were stripped (ha ha) down to their most elemental form – people having sex in his hot tub, shot on a video camera in one take. It’s a minor tragedy, but it still feels sad.
This is pretty much what happened to the porn industry in real life. Back when XXX films had to be seen in theaters, porn producers (or as I call them, “pornducers”) actually put effort into creating high-quality entertainment to lure in audiences. (“High-quality,” by the way, is relative. The very best of 1970’s porn was still worse than almost everything that was coming out of Hollywood – not that I’d know.) Once porn became available on video, people decided that enjoying it in private was the way to go, for obvious reasons. Since there’s a lot more room on video store shelves (behind those saloon doors) than in adult movie theaters, and since it’s a lot cheaper to make a video than a film, the market was glutted with product. Hot, hot product.
Home video made adult films more popular than ever (raking in over $8 billion a year by the early 2000’s), but individual movies didn’t make much, and it didn’t make sense to sink a lot of money into any one production. Porn became a perfect example of what Chris Anderson recently coined “the Long Tail” (which sounds dirty in this context). The industry no longer chased after big hits like Debbie Does Dallas, The Devil In Miss Jones, or Deep Throat, but it made more money than ever before through lots and lots of cheap product. This article from 2000 quotes a Toronto porn executive (or as I call him, an “XXXecutive”) as saying, “A good porn movie takes one week to make and costs $25,000.” And by “good” porn movie, he means “big budget.” Twenty five grand won’t pay the catering on a Hollywood production.
According to post-70s conventional wisdom, the average porn customer doesn’t want production values. He (or she, to be fair) wants just enough movie magic to see the sex. Anything more just cuts into your bottom line (man, everything sounds dirty in this post). The Internet has turned conventional wisdom to borderline natural law. When the world gets more cheap/free porn at home than it could ever need, producing a feature-film quality adult film seems totally quixotic.
So I guess that makes Ari Joone the Man of La Mancha.
In 2005, Joone’s company, Digital Playground, produced Pirates for a staggering one million dollars. Once again, everything’s relative; in Hollywood, a million is a minuscule budget. But by XXX standards it was so huge that Variety reported on its premiere. Pirates even got written up in an issue of Newsweek, under the headline, “XXX Blue, Spending Green.” According to the article, “It features lavish special effects, epic sea battles and skillful swordplay.”
That is a lie. I saw Pirates last weekend, when I gave it to a friend as part of a bachelor party. It’s sort of a spoof/ripoff of Pirates of the Caribbean, and it’s pretty damn bad. The “lavish” special effects look like a video game from five years ago. Ditto the epic sea battles, which last two minutes tops. And the swordplay isn’t anything you can’t see in a high school production of Romeo and Juliet. By the standards of mainstream film and television, Pirates is weak sauce indeed. But there’s no denying Pirates is a big step above most porn (um, I’m told), and investing in quality seems to have paid off. According to adult film news site Fleshbot:
“Pirates” has reportedly sold over 100,000 copies, and Digital Playground is duplicatingin 25,000 unit increments. On average, a standard, low-budget porn title is considered successful if it has a run of 5,000 copies.
When you consider that adult DVDs regularly sell for $50 or more, Pirates pulled in some serious doubloons. But that was just small potatoes compared with Pirates 2: Stagnetti’s Revenge, which was released last fall.