Condoms in Porn? Just Another Day at Wicked Pictures
Special to CNBC.com
Now that voters in Los Angeles have passed a resolution mandating condoms be worn in any adult films shot in the county, porn companies are scrambling to fight the law.
Among their arguments is that the presence of prophylactics ruins the fantasy elements of their films – and that using them will cause further declines in already slumping DVD sales. But that reasoning conveniently ignores Wicked Pictures. Since the late 1990s, the studio has been using condoms in all of its films, yet it is still one of the biggest filmmakers in the porn industry.
"We've never waved our flag about it; it's just something we do," says president and owner Steve Orenstein.
You might think that having learned how to make condom-mandatory films that appeal to adult video consumers, Wicked would see a competitive advantage in the new law. However, the company was quick to join ranks with other studios to lobby against the measure last November.
Among the reasons? The protective measures could go far beyond condoms.
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"Even if it would put us in a better position than everyone else, we don't believe this should be mandated or dictated by the government," says Orenstein. "And we don't really know what it means. It could mean dental dams. It could mean people wearing masks on the set. It could mean things that make it impossible to exist as a company in this industry."
And as for that advantage? Wicked shrugs that off, noting that the competition will simply shoot elsewhere to avoid the law if it's unable to have it overturned in L.A.
When Wicked chose to adopt a condom-mandatory practice, the industry was in the midst of an AIDS scare after a male performer tested positive for the disease. Roughly 15 companies vowed to use condoms, but as the scare cleared up, the number of studios standing by that promise began to drop.Within 18 months, just three were left – VCA (which was later bought out by Hustler), Vivid, and Wicked.
Eventually, Wicked was all that remained.
While Orenstein won't discuss sales specifics, he acknowledges the company is feeling the effects of the slowdown in the DVD market. And while there are no plans to change the company's condom-mandatory rule, he admits that the thought has crossed his mind from time to time.
"Sometimes I question why I am still doing it," he says. "At the time, it was a decision I made and I said 'For the health and safety of the talent, here's what we're going to do.' So it's hard for me to back off of that. … We're surviving in a bad economy and a declining DVD economy. Could it be better? It's possible. But it hasn't caused me to change my mind yet."
One of the ways Wicked has managed to stay healthy is by putting a focus on high quality productions – many of which are female-friendly. And Orenstein works with retailers on in-store positioning, encouraging them to place movies alongside lingerie and sex toys that blend well with the film's theme.
The company has also expanded into new lines of adult films, launching a sex education series headed by one of its contract stars Jessica Drake and an "entry level" series of adult films called "Wicked Passions" for couples who are just beginning to explore porn as a supplement to their own love life.
In terms of non-film expansion, though, Wicked has been a slow-mover. While other companies, such as New Sensations, have diversified into the adult novelty market and other fields, Wicked's chief non-film product is a line of lubricants, massage oils and related products that only launched last year.
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Part of the reason for that slow roll-out is Orenstein's conservative business nature. But he also says he's extremely careful with the Wicked brand name.
"I'm absolutely late to market," he admitted."I wish it was a year earlier, but I am extremely happy with the products we put to market. … When you start something from scratch and you build a brand and it turns into something that means something to people, it's important. I've said for years I want to be successful… but if I don't feel comfortable doing things and because of that I don't make money someone else is making, I have to be able to sleep at night."
Perhaps as a result, the focus will remain on movies at Wicked for the foreseeable future.
"At the core, Wicked is a movie studio, so we are going to continue to be a movie studio as long as it makes sense financially," says Orenstein.