A sleek, informative, and convivial adult business conference with an accompanying awards ceremony, January’s XBiz360 conference was also a subtle battleground of ideas the adult industry is chewing on, from Content vs. Traffic to Free vs. Pay to Old vs. New.
The conference underscored the lingering division between Content and Traffic in the porn business, a philosophical and practical parting of ways that has its roots in the “video” vs. “internet” sides of the business.
Traffic: The Low Spark of Alec Helmy
“I stayed out of the spotlight for a long time,” XBiz founder Alec Helmy said after delivering a keynote speech at his own conference (“No one else would ask me,” he joked), “but I thought it was time to step forward a little more.”
XBiz360, held at Beverly Hills’ Sofitel Hotel, was a coming out party of sorts for Helmy, despite the fact that he has been a porn biz entrepreneur for nearly two decades.
By way of a Powerpoint presentation, Helmy introduced himself to an audience that had sort of known him for 17 years. Launching a sex toy e-tailer in 1996 after “animating cockroaches” for the MTV show “Joe’s Apartment,” in 2000 Helmy bought the XBiz domains for $4,000. Since then he grew a brand that would often capitalize on porn trade publication pioneer AVN’s mistakes, creating a comparative model of efficiency, with three print publications and nine worldwide events.
It is a measure of XBiz’ success outside of AVN’s shadow that Helmy did not mention AVN once in his presentation.
But even as XBiz now unabashedly takes aim at AVN’s crown in the “porn awards” category—for years XBiz did not touch the “movie” side of the adult business, focusing instead on the online phenomena of affiliate programs, cam networks, and content management systems—Helmy remains a proponent of traffic and content delivery methods, drawing a distinction between that and content itself.
“Years ago it was the general belief that content was king,” Helmy said in his keynote. “Today, without a doubt, traffic is king.”
What happened next crystallized a debate that isn’t exclusive to the porn business. From the audience, where he waited to deliver the second of the event’s keynote speeches, Evil Angel founding director John Stagliano took issue with Helmy’s statement. (I happened to be sitting close to Stagliano, who uttered the sound “Muh?”)
“How can there be any traffic if there’s no content to support it?” Stagliano said.
Helmy explained that content would always be there, that content is a given. For example, in reference to porn parodies, Helmy said, “As long as Hollywood continues to produce compelling content, the sexually explicit version will remain popular.”
[Via Twitter, Helmy writes: "Yes, you need content to generate traffic but my point was that you can deliver LOW quality content and draw MASS traffic.]
This did not satisfy Stagliano, who sat down and proceeded to use some of his free-form keynote to rail against something he admitted was inevitable—that the quality of the material people like he and other Evil Angel directors created would take a back seat to the effectiveness of the delivery system. It just didn’t seem right.
“The DVD business is dying and going away,” Stagliano said, acknowledging that he was “ready for DVDs when they replaced video,” but that “DVDs did not hone me for the intense competition of the internet.”
It is understandable that the medium really is both the message and—in porn’s case—the money shot. Pornographers who became accidental entrepreneurs in the video and DVD age, stamping their images on tangible media, might not have appreciated the inherently volatile internet world that rewards adaptability. It is easy to see why people of Helmy’s generation come frontloaded with an understanding that the media change, whereas people like Stagliano would put on a porn show in a barn if that was the only way to serve their art.
As you will see, Stagliano would later talk about his company’s concessions to the Internet.
Meanwhile, Helmy outlined his vision for the future, a future that both addressed mistakes of the past and constantly positioned itself to be scalable. To do this, he argued that adult needed to be more mainstream in its business practices.
“In mainstream,” he said, “Vendor trust is high. In adult you have a lot of fly-by-night organizations that do damage to consumer trust.”
This is true, and might trace its own history to a more profligate age in porn, when making adult material constituted a license to print money.
Now, Helmy said, “The quality of premium entertainment must increase relative to Free. Because Free is not going anywhere, and some genius will always find a way to deliver Free.”
Because the paradigm has shifted away from laissez-faire pornography—where people just expect to make money—Helmy said the burden on producers would be to become more responsive to customer needs, including Responsive Design of websites (“one page readable by several devices”) and sites that dynamically determine the resolution of displays.
He said that the web display language HTML5 would “kill” Flash, and that webmasters needed to get on board with that and with Gamification, the system of rewards for participation favored by apps like Foursquare, which doles out virtual badges for checking in at businesses.
Finally, in a contracting industry, Helmy said that “market share is better than industry growth.”
This is a very traffic-centered concept because it acknowledges that a lot of traffic is (like the gamified social media sphere), an internal feedback loop. Much of the adult world just buys, sells, and trades the same traffic back and forth.
Finally, Helmy shared some personal philosophy that has helped him navigate the changing landscape of adult, even if that philosophy had nothing to do with digital depictions of Hot Young Teens or Anal Creampies.
“If you don’t believe in what you’re doing,” he said, “it’s too easy to give up.”
And, in a blow to anyone raised with the idea that one could rest on laurels and the hope of passive income, “Don’t snooze.”
John Stagliano: Content with Content
“I was severely handicapped when the internet came up,” said John Stagliano moments later. “In 1989 I was really successful early on, but the internet threatened to do me in.”
But while Stagliano—who says he’s never been on a torrent site—admits that he will not let his directors “deliver three bad movies in between the good ones” and that he “will not stay on a site with bad content,” also acknowledges that the traffic-over-content model has driven him to make more creative choices.
“These competitive pressures forced me to go back to my roots,” he said.
The result was “Voracious,” a 10-episode internet series that debuted on EvilAngel.com and recently released as a DVD. Like Stagliano’s “Fashionistas” series (but much less expensive), the vampire-laden “Voracious” features an American/international cast and locations.
Admitting that the delivery method (Evil Angel’s revamped website) was instrumental in making “Voracious” successful, Stagliano spent the bulk of his time talking not about content distribution but the historical battles of art vs. commerce and pornographers vs. government.
“‘Voracious’ will be lucky to sell 3,000 copies,” he said, “whereas the first ‘Fashionistas’ sold more than 100,000. But producing movies is so much easier today, with HD cameras costing about $150 [Stagliano doesn't trouble himself with Canon 5Ds or $20,000 Red cameras]. It doesn’t cost you anything to come up with a good idea.”
Stagliano, who once had a career as a dancer and who is the only person to adapt a porn movie as a Vegas revue (“Fashionistas” played for several months in Vegas, but ultimately lost money), claims that he is adapting to and even likes the constraints of a more competitive porn world.
“I’m better off in the world we have,” he said. “I’m making less money but this keeps me young and is very exciting.”
Stagliano then talked about government regulation. Oddly enough, it was at this point that people started filing out of the auditorium. Though it was the end of the day and a Happy Hour was about to start, Stagliano’s remarks concerning his Libertarian views on government meddling are a direct link to the pioneers of the porn industry. In fact, as someone who arrived on the scene during the waning days of the so-called Golden Age of porn, Stagliano is old enough to have appreciated the fights his predecessors waged even while benefiting from their victories.
“This industry has blossomed without government regulation,” Stagliano said, adding that “all Libertarians are going to fight for your right to control your own body.”
Sitting in Stagliano’s audience was Max Hardcore, looking just a little worse for wear after a stint in prison. Hardcore has had a number of obscenity trials, but lost the last one. It was obvious the two men respected each other’s eagerness to fight, even if their pornographic sensibilities aren’t always the same. Still, Stagliano praised Hardcore from the stage, saying “You can’t look at a porn movie today and not see something that Max did first.”
“Like the piledriver,” Hardcore said.
“Yes, the piledriver,” Stagliano said.
Stagliano endured his own federal obscenity trial two years ago, but it was dismissed due to prosecutorial incompetence.
“Max had better prosecutors than I did,” Stagliano said.
As the speech wound down, Stagliano reflected that the passage of Measure B was making him think of the old days of watching out for the L.A. Vice Squad.
“I don’t want to know where my directors are shooting,” he said. “Long ago we used to meet in the Norm’s parking lot on Victory and Woodman…it’s going to be like that again. I’m shooting my next movie in San Francisco.”
Evil Angel’s business model is simple: Stagliano acts as a first among equals, distributing the movies of directors like Rocco Siffredi, Omar Galanti, Manuel Ferrara, Nacho Vidal, Bobbi Starr, Belladonna, Jay Sin, and (soon) Dana Vespoli, and takes a little cut. His business reflects his politics.
“My company would never have become successful if I told people what to do,” he said.
“On the Set” with Lee Roy Myers, James Bartholet, Ivan, and Porno Dan
I was delighted to moderate a panel the next morning featuring four gentlemen from different walks of porn. I had been asked by Dan Miller—formerly my colleague at AVN and now the editor of XBiz—to host this panel, and he told me a few of the people who were already on it, after which I suggested another name or two to round out the group.
I mentioned to Miller that one of the people already on the panel had last year fit me into her Hatred Rotation. “She’s tried to lose me jobs before,” I told Miller, “so I understand if you want to drop me to avoid the drama. For my part, I promise to be professionally solicitous of her valuable opinion if she chooses to stay on the panel once she learns I’m moderating it.”
Miller relayed this information to the other party in—I’m sure—the diplomatic way that is his hallmark, but the panelist still dropped out in a flurry of entertaining tweets and emails. I was sad that we would not have a female perspective, but the four guys who remained were both entertaining and informative.
I didn’t take notes while I was moderating, but if you can imagine the earnest Huell Howserness of James Bartholet: Non-Sex Porn Actor And Publicist, next to hirsute Ukrainian Ivan, who herds top-level gonzo girls for Puba.com, mixed with Lee Roy Myers, genteel Canadian parody king and impresario of WoodRocket.com, and then Porno Dan Leal, the bleach-blonde model of decadence, creator of FuckAFan.com, you have an idea of how intriguing this panel was, start to finish.
We all agreed we could have stayed up there for five hours if only alcohol had been served.
We discussed the Porn Workday, the things civilians think they know about porn but don’t, tips to handling talent, things we learn on the job, and the phenomenon (fresh in my mind from the recent cancellation) of the Self-Hating Pornographer. I don’t know if images from the panel exist, but I’m sure they are incendiary.
It’s Fun to Stay At the DMCA Panel
1998′s Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) is a lynchpin in the fight against internet piracy. In addition to supporting the retainers of a phalanx of attorneys (among them J.D. Obenberger and Gil Sperlin, both on the panel) and companies like Takedown Piracy and Porn Guardian (headed by panelists Nate Glass and Dominic Ford, respectively), the DMCA serves as a barometer of who is serious about continuing to make a living in porn and who isn’t.
Not only that, but DMCA warriors (Nate Glass notes that their enemies are known as “freetards” or “freehadists”) also drop a dipstick in the zeitgeist: if more and more people are getting things for free, doesn’t that change the culture to one in which succeeding generations expect things to be free?
“If someone in the porn industry asked you to license all your content for free, you’d punch him in the face,” Glass said. “Why would you allow it to happen online?”
Glass and Ford have sent out millions of DMCA notices to torrent sites and tube sites on behalf of their clients, who watch their movies being ripped, digitized, and uploaded hours after they become available.
Sperlin and Obenberger suggested producers add watermarks to their films, or even greenscreen barcodes to make their movies easier to track.
Obenberger further suggested copyrighting the material via the U.S Copyright website.
“Money is paramount in effective legal defenses and precedent-setting,” Obenberger said (and later said that the first rule of civil litigation was “Don’t Sue Poor People”). “If getting a copyright is not worth $35 to you, why would you assume the government would care?”
Glass and Ford noted the growing number of DMCA notice recipients who scoffed at their silly legal papers, which was both discouraging and a bellwether of the Free Isn’t Going Anywhere movement.
“…and when I see a pirate site located in Russia, I’m like ‘Fuck,’” said Glass, who said you just can’t shame Russian porn pirates.
The Ubiquitous, Invisible Manwin
Manwin has become a metaphor for the uncomfortable choices that lead many to the porn industry. The (now) Luxembourg-based, Borg-like entity made its money from pirate sites like YouPorn and has since purchased Digital Playground in addition to its other holdings like Brazzers and Reality Kings. Now one of the Porno-Industrial Complex’s biggest employers, it uses the original content produced by its companies as a loss-leader for its traffic-rich free tube sites.
In other words, it makes a token amount of money from actual tangible sales of DVDs and memberships to its sites, but makes the brunt of it through traffic revenue on its pirate sites.
Manwin is like porn’s rich, creepy uncle that helped out with hairdressing school for a price.
In addition, Manwin bankrolled the brunt of the No on Measure B campaign and donates $50,000 a month to subsidize performers’ STD tests in Porn Valley.
Manwin’s handiwork is all around the conference, yet I peruse a copy of XBizWorld and the name of Manwin owner Fabian Thylmann is mentioned only 40 percent of the time in stories about his own high-profile arrest in the Brussels Airport on suspicion of tax evasion. Instead, Thylmann is referred to obliquely as a “leading adult internet figure” and as “top dog with one of the richest and youngest internet enterprises.”
In a case of financial Stockholm Syndrome, the porn world has ignored its past hatred of the pirating Manwin and fallen in love with its reassuringly deep pockets.
Orlando Jones in Cumline XXX
After two days of riveting conversations with porn perpetrators and perambulators, I am ready to hobnob with porn stars. I travel with the scintillating Nate Glass and Chauntelle Tibbals, Ph.D. to the Century Plaza Hotel in Century City, dubbed The Western White House during the Reagan years due to that President’s affinity for the place and its Secret-Service-approved security features.
I wonder what Ron and Nancy would have thought of Max Hardcore and date strutting down the same basement red carpet.
I refuse to stand in the red carpet velvet rope ghetto. Instead I mingle and look at the Presidential art. There was also a lavish reception for Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and many other astronauts of the Apollo program in the same ballroom where Tera Patrick will, moments later, say “What’s up, guys?”
Patrick co-hosts the show with Orlando Jones, star of 7-Up commercials, “Drumline,” and one of my favorite cameos in “Office Space” in which he pronounces “crack” as “cra.”
Jones also has no idea what he’s doing there. He launches into a monologue about the difference between black people and white people, calls the starlet “Asia” Akira, and returns at intervals throughout the night commenting on how the audience wishes the evening were over.
And yet it is the most efficiently-run adult awards show I have seen. Alec Helmy opens the show and makes sure to thank his little brother, Mo, who hugs him on stage, visibly moved. It is a nice family moment, trumped only by Adam & Eve’s genial Bob Christian who, announcing an award with the inked and newly-boobtastic Bonnie Rotten, says that he has all the same tattoos she does.
There’s a lot of content to think about, and by the time the XBiz Awards let out around 2 a.m., there’s no traffic at all.
Previously on Porn Valley Observed: B is for Condoms, and other illogical arguments; XXXLaw—blind justice for naked people; Nate Glass—the last man working in porn; Stagliano trial ended for incompetence; This is the story of Bonnie Rotten; Tribulation-free tribbing with Sinn Sage and Dani Daniels
See also: XBiz360