Same As the Old Boss: Paul Fishbein on the X-cellent “X-Rated”

(A version of this article also appears on Gamelink’s Naked Truth, in which I talk to my old boss, Paul Fishbein.)

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Showtime’s “X-Rated: The Greatest Adult Movies of All Time,” a documentary produced by Paul Fishbein, tells the story of the American porn business through backstage anecdotes from 32 significant movies. Fishbein, who launched the adult industry trade magazine AVN (Adult Video News) in 1982, corraled dozens of pornographers for interviews and commentary on films from 1972’s “Deep Throat” to “The Submission of Emma Marx” four decades later, and the result is as compelling and comprehensive as it is titillating.

Fishbein was instrumental in the way porn is perceived in the United States. While skin flicks had been reviewed on their own merits before, and though there were adult film awards shows since the early 1970s, AVN and its satellite trade magazines gave pornographers an insider forum that was increasingly sourced — and grudgingly respected — by mainstream media. Since their debut in 1984, AVN awards have been the most-coveted prizes in the adult world.

Fishbein left AVN in 2010 and now has a production deal with Showtime. We talked about the early years of AVN and the job of putting together “X-Rated.”

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Gram: That the “Adult Industry Bible” was launched in Pennsylvania is a surprise to some people.

Fishbein: I was a journalism major at Temple University, working at (seminal Philadelphia video retailer) Movies Unlimited, and I thought that adult movies should be reviewed the same way Hollywood movies were. AVN just started as a newsletter for our customers.

Gram: Were you a porn fan?

Fishbein: Porn was not my passion — I can’t tell you how many people who own porn businesses don’t care about porn — but we treated AVN like a movie magazine. We had real reviewers from newspapers. We took out ads in men’s magazines. And then we realized that the people who should be subscribing to it were the owners of video stores. We could suggest what to buy.

Gram: What did your parents think?

Fishbein: I told my family when I started. The first issue was conceived in my parents’ basement in Philadelphia! I’d moved back in after graduation to save money. They let me do what I wanted. I remember in the early days of the AVN Awards, I brought my father out with some of his friends, and my mother was there, too. I think it was at Bally’s (in Las Vegas). Chi Chi LaRue came out to do some number. Just vile, shocking lyrics. My mother turned to me, half appalled and half proud, and said, “I hope you’re making money.”

Gram: When did you decide to motor west?

Fishbein: I’d been coming out to L.A. every few months since AVN started, staying with (director/InTropics Video founder) Dick Miller and (Vivid co-founder) Steve Hirsch. AVN’s office was in Upper Darby, PA at the time and three of us — me, (senior AVN writer) Mark Kernes, and Gene Ross came out here permanently in 1991; all the business was out here, 70 percent of the clients…

Gram: Before the earthquake and OJ and the riots?

Fishbein: Before and during the earthquake, riots, floods. And despite all that it was a fun time. We had nothing but growth ahead of us. We made more money every year until 2007. Then the bottom dropped out. We thought it wouldn’t end.

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AVN filled multiple needs at a time in a rapidly growing industry — 1988’s Freeman Decision decriminalized porn production in California and, even though much of porn’s “Golden Age” output had been filmed here, the Supreme Court’s decision (thanks, Sandra Day O’Connor!) opened the floodgates to even more. The company would become one of Porn Valley’s biggest employers after 1991 (I worked there on and off between 2002 and 2005), enjoying a powerful but occasionally problematic position with the industry it covered; porn companies advertised with AVN, but AVN also gave awards to porn companies. In Hollywood terms, it would be like Variety choosing the Oscars.

Fishbein: I honestly didn’t know it was going to be such a business. But then 12 issues later and it was. AVN wiggled its way into what it became.

Gram: How so?

Fishbein: Well, starting with the reviews by people who wrote reviews about Hollywood movies — newspaper reviewers — to catering the magazine more to people who owned stores and knowing who our real customers were, to people getting mad about whoever we picked for Best New Starlet.

Gram: Generations turn over in porn a lot faster than on the other side of the hill. You, the porn industry, and AVN went through a lot of changes from 1982 until 2007, and you adapted. What slowed things down?

Fishbein: Well, everyone will tell you, and it’s true, that free porn is killing the industry. Guys would just show up in the 1990s and make money. You could be an idiot and make money in porn. It’s porn! But a lot of the idiots are gone. One guy who didn’t change with the times fast enough was me. Print was going down, but I didn’t reduce print fast enough. But people like (Vivid’s) Hirsch, (Evil Angel’s John) Stagliano, and (Wicked’s Steve) Orenstein changed their business with the times, they figured things out, and adapted their delivery systems.

Gram: These guys have been your friends for decades, though some of them are bigger porn fans than others.

Fishbein (laughs): Yeah, John Stagliano is a filmmaker and it’s in his head. He’s an artist who’s made a business out of it and done quite well.

Gram: When you left AVN, did you entertain thoughts of not staying around in porn?

Fishbein: Well, I’ve been in this business for more than 30 years. I have a lot of friends and history here. All my marriages have been within the adult industry! So what I’m doing now is like starting over. It’s like the early days of AVN all over again.

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“X-Rated” is a comprehensive documentary about 20 porn movies that made a difference in the adult industry and, often enough, beyond. Competently hosted by Chanel Preston, “X-Rated” draws on original and archival interviews with dozens of performers associated with the featured films, including Constance Money, Veronica Hart, Gloria Leonard, Mike Horner, Georgina Spelvin, Marilyn Chambers, Sharon Mitchell, Nina Hartley, Ron Jeremy (of course), and dozens more. Where there aren’t classic performers available, a contemporary starlet like Casey Calvert or Stoya might be interviewed, or Kimberly Kane or Jacky St. James will discuss a transition in the porn industry that she experienced firsthand.

Fishbein: We modeled it on an AFI Special, but Showtime budgeted it like a piece of late-nite entertainment. Luckily they are marketing it as a documentary, and it’s doing very well.

Gram: I remember seeing something on Playboy TV back in the 1990s, a “100 Years of Beauty”-type thing that was sponsored by Max Factor. I worried that the documentary would be soft like that, but I learned a lot, people said what they thought — Kylie Ireland‘s appearances were pretty great — and I was impressed with how many people you got.

Fishbein: Yes, thank you. Bryn Pryor and I spent six months in a room together calling in every favor we had. I mean, Constance Money had never done a filmed interview before. Richard Pacheco got her to do it. And we had footage that (director/porn historian) Cass Paley brought with him.

Gram: I didn’t know too much about the early days when I first got into the business, and there’s still movies I haven’t seen, like “Barbara Broadcast” and “Cafe Flesh,” that made me want to find them.

Fishbein: A lot of those guys, like Radley Metzger, were real filmmakers who wanted to make real movies and just said “What the hell.” Ambitions were different. It was a totally different world. Sex was an afterthought to the actual story.

Gram: How did you make your choices? I imagine you’ve been getting calls from people whose work was left out…

Fishbein: Oh yeah. It was a long, laborious process. Our criteria were whether these movies were impactful, combining the cultural touchstones with the great movies. For example, “Deep Throat” was not a great movie but it’s in there because it’s undeniably a cultural touchstone.

Gram: Yeah. When I saw “The Devil in Miss Jones” (“Deep Throat” director Gerard Damiano‘s other classic film) it really made me scared of Hell. It made Hell look chilling. Were there things you left out, and why?

Fishbein: We left a lot out for time but also because it’s Showtime and we needed soft (non-penetrative) footage. Sometimes we couldn’t find soft footage, or the licenses weren’t available. That happened with Alex Derenzy. He’s my all-time favorite adult director and we couldn’t get rights. We wanted “Pretty Peaches” and “Femmes de Sade,” two of my favorites.

Gram: Still, I like how you don’t present it as a countdown, just chronologically. Is there news about how people are responding?

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Fishbein: People like the movie. Showtime has commissioned us (Fishbein and Pryor) to do another one that will debut next February about the 100 Greatest Porn Stars. We shot in over 50 locations for this one, so it’s going to be a nightmare with a hundred people. I don’t imagine we’ll get to fly to Prague to shoot Rocco (Siffredi).

Gram: You seem more excited about things than I remember you being.

Fishbein: You didn’t know me in the 1990s. But this producing work feels like the early days of AVN to me. It would be great if I were in my 20s.

Gram: You and me both, man.

Find a listing of most of the movies in “X-Rated” right over here.

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