Pirates 2 had a budget of ten million dollars. That makes it more expensive than Juno or Little Miss Sunshine. I skimmed through it, and I must say it has a lot less to apologize for than Pirates 1. The special effects have risen to the level of a cheap made-for-TV movie, the cinematography actually looks a little cinematic, and the acting has been upgraded from “amateurish” to merely “bad.”
But by porn standards, Pirates 2 was Citizen Kane. It currently has an 8.3/10 on IMDB (which, sure enough, is within striking distance of Citizen Kane‘s 8.6/10). By comparison, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End only has a 7/10. Theoretically, that means that Pirates 2 is the better film. I think that’s comparing apples to, um, ripe, luscious melons. But that 8.3 definitely means is that the porn fans who vote on IMDB think Pirates 2 blows other porn out of the water (a metaphor which sounds both sexual and nautical).
If the average skin flick costs $25,000 to produce, than Pirates 2 was 400 times above average. To put that in perspective, this PDF says the average Hollywood film costs $60 million. Pirates 2 would be as if Warner Brothers made a movie that cost $24 billion… and then doubled its money on opening weekend.
When Pirates 2 was released last fall, it sold 240,000 copies in its first week, at somewhere between $70 and $100 a copy. Most porn films don’t even sell 1,000 copies, period. Now keep in mind, that sales figure comes from Digital Playground itself, and I can’t seem to find a third-party report on how much the movie’s actually made in total. But it seems clear that Pirates 2 is a monster hit.
By porn standards, Pirates and Pirates 2 are something novel. But Hollywood has known for years that if you put giant stars in a film, add special effects, and market the hell out of it, you get buzz and business. What’s surprising is that until Joone came along, no one made it work with an adult film.
So why not? Big budget porn looks like a license to print money. How come we haven’t seen it since the 70’s? Well, I’m not a freakconomist, but…
1. Producers confused the best way with the only way. We all learned from Boogie Nights that big budget adult productions didn’t stand a chance against an avalanche of cheap videos. But we’ve learned from the YouTube era that it’s possible to carve out a niche even in a saturated market. Given the right value proposition, people will pay for Judd Apatow movies even when they get fewer laughs for the dollar than from cheap/free online comedy. The existence of large amounts of low budget content doesn’t mean people won’t pay for slicker, higher-quality content. It may even mean there’s a huge pent-up desire for slicker content. It’s the Grey Goose phenomenon, only with dirty pictures.
I’m betting a lot of Pirates copies were purchased by people who don’t usually buy adult films. By giving it a Hollywood sheen and a plot, they made it appeal to people who are curious about porn, but are turned off by videos that look like they were shot in someone’s condo. Pirates bridges the gap between Hollywood and the San Fernando Valley, thus pulling in a whole new audience.
2. The people producing low budget porn weren’t wrong. Low budget porn makes money. The same article that said a “good porn movie” costs $25,000 also said you can potentially make a million bucks off that investment. That’s a 40x return. Now, I’m not exactly sure how much the Pirates movies have made, but it’s a safe bet they haven’t grossed forty times their budgets. Looking at it that way, cheap porn seems like the way to go. You risk less, and you stand to gain a lot more (relative to your investment). So maybe people in the industry always knew you could do very well by producing big budget stuff – they just were doing even better with the low budget stuff.
3. Pirates wasn’t just expensive – it was a certain kind of expensive. Let’s say I came to you with a proposition. “Hey, I know what people are looking for in their pornography – animated skeletons and naval combat. All I need is a million bucks to make it happen. You want in?” This sounds strange, and it IS strange. If you’re in the mood for a sex scene, you don’t want to see a swordfight, and if you’re in a mood for a pirate adventure, you don’t want to sit through long sex scenes. Swashbuckling and hardcore sex are like steak and donuts: they’re both tasty, but they have no business sharing a plate. And yet, it’s exactly that combination that made Pirates a huge success.
Producers spend millions on movies about sex all the time. Nine and a Half Weeks had a budget of $17 million. But Pirates isn’t about sex, it’s “about” swashbuckling piracy. It’s an action-adventure movie with explicit sex in it – that’s much more innovative than your standard “erotic” studio fare or indie film. You could actually remove all the sex from Pirates and still have a feature length film. In fact, they did this, creating a pointless R-rated version.
Joone realized that spending millions on porn is bad business, and he didn’t spend millions on porn. He spent millions on special effects. If you just put the money towards nice sets and lights, all you’d have is a smutty independent film, and it’s not like Shortbus was a huge hit. You’ve got to buy yourself some crazy shots for a (clean) trailer you can put on YouTube. To make a porn blockbuster, you recreate a Hollywood blockbuster, and add sex. In other words, you make a tentpole film, in every sense of the phrase.
4. There’s a big difference between “expensive” and “most expensive.” A lot of the press about Pirates focused on its record-breaking budget. That was the story: “The biggest production in the history of adult films.” (But as Wikipedia points out, Caligula should probably hold this title.) Joone put so much money into the movie partly because he knew that would interest the mainstream press, which would do his advertising for him. The budget’s a publicity stunt. It certainly doesn’t follow that every expensive porn from now on will receive the same publicity. The next time someone makes a $1 million skin flick, it won’t be news. Nobody will write about it in Newsweek, and the movie won’t do nearly as well.
But once again, I’m not a porn expert, and it’s totally possible that a bunch of people HAVE produced million-dollar adult films in the wake of Pirates. If anyone’s reading this and knows, write about it in the comments. I’d love to know if a new era of big-budget skin flicks is dawning, and Jack Horner’s dream lives on.