Once upon a time, the adult film industry led technological trends for the entire entertainment business, but technological advances, rising costs, piracy and a saturated market have in many ways left the porn business adrift in uncertainty.
One of the most vexing issues for pornography producers and distributors is whether to back Sony's Blu-ray high-definition DVD format, Toshiba's HD DVD, standard definition discs—or if it's even worthwhile to stay with hard copies at all when online distribution is so much cheaper.
When mainstream film company Warner Bros, a unit of Time Warner , decided in early January to exclusively back Blu-ray over HD DVD, it came as a nasty shock to a lot of adult film makers that were leaning toward HD DVD, which is cheaper to replicate, or mass produce on disc, than Blu-ray is.
The decision resonated because it also happened right before the industry's annual conference, the AVN Adult Entertainment Expos in Las Vegas Jan 9-12.
"I think it freaked a lot of people out,” says Bill Rix, national sales manager at PurePlay Media, a film distributor out of Chatsworth, Calif., in the middle of what Rix calls "Porn Valley." “Most studios don't know where to go. Warner Bros. is a big player."
He says it's unclear whether it makes sense for adult film companies that still distribute on disc to upgrade to high-def at all. Rix, who worked in sales and marketing for Warner Music Group before entering the porn industry three years ago, draws a parallel to the music industry's transition to CDs from vinyl albums 20 years ago.
"Remember when we switched to CDs? A lot of people didn't like it. There's a warmth that you don't get with digital, because [digital] shows every flaw. I think the same is true of our industry," Rix says. Some porn actors have complained that high-def shows too many of their physical flaws. There has even been speculation that the format could shorten the average performer's career.
"Personally, for this industry and what people use it for, I don't think high-def and the imperfections it shows are the best thing," Rix said. "Porn is a fantasy, and some fantasies are best [when they're] not being overly representative of reality.”
That didn't stop Hustler Video Group, which produces 20 porn titles a month, from deciding four weeks ago that it was going to manufacture on high-def discs, starting this month. The company had been shooting in high-def for a year, so it was also in a position to reproduce 12 months of backlog titles on high-definition discs and redistribute them.
The problem with all those plans was that Hustler had committed itself to HD DVD. Then the Warner Bros. news came out.
"Now we've sort of put the brakes on a decision," says Hustler Creative Director Drew Rosenfeld, who heads up production for Hustler.
Hustler expected Wal-Mart and other discount retailers to slash prices on HD DVD players over the holidays, which is in fact what happened. Also adding to HD DVD's appeal was that replicating companies charge only about half the amount per disc to reproduce that format than they do for Blu-ray, Rosenfeld says.
Key Role of Replicators
Now Hustler has to consider switching to Blu-ray, but few replication houses are geared up to work with the format yet, Rosenfeld says. Making things more difficult, porn producers have to find companies that are friendly to the industry. He says many won't work with pornography companies.
Hustler could always turn to an Asian Blu-ray replicator, most of which charge less than their US counterparts, Rosenfeld says. But to do so could mean putting movie master copies straight into the hands of pirates who would illegally copy and distribute the movies themselves.
Rosenfeld says—tentatively—that he sees Blu-ray winning out over HD DVD in the end, but that doesn't mean it's necessarily a good business move to abandon the HD DVD format just yet.
"HD DVD is still a viable product, because there are a million players out there,” says Rosenfeld. “Why would all those people throw those new machines away?"
Jeff Snyder of KBeech Content, which produces about 16 movies a month, says market saturation has made it hard to make money with standard-definition discs, much less high-def. Basically anybody can make a movie and distribute it online with very little up-front money.
"It's hard to know where the market will go," Snyder says. "The question now is: Do you want to go HD at all? It's hard to get your money back these days. It's hard to move 1,000 (discs). It's not like it used to be. We used to move 5,000 pieces no problem."
Most adult filmmakers aren't abandoning hard copies just yet, though. Some online distributors are even expanding toward discs.
Eyeing The Internet
Boys Night Out Entertainment, a production company from Ft. Myers, Fla., has distributed through the Internet exclusively, but is now moving into hard-copy distribution. A producer for the company acknowledged that discs yield lower margins than online content but said the company sees potential in the market.
"If you look at ‘Girls Gone Wild’, they're selling millions of copies," says the producer, who asked not be named because he's involved in business ventures outside pornography and doesn't want his name associated with the industry. "A lot of people out there are still buying hard copies."
Boys Night Out already shoots in high-def but is holding off on making a decision between distributing on Blu-ray or HD DVD discs.
Others see discs becoming irrelevant as online distribution takes over. George Uzyak, who owns and operates BossDVD.com with his wife Irene, predicts over-the-counter distribution surviving only another five years.
BossDVD.com claims to run the oldest Web site specializing in "Fem-Dom," or female-dominated bondage, and it began distributing on DVDs in 1994, long before other small production companies. BossDVD shoots in high-definition and sells HD DVD discs, primarily in Europe.
George Uzyak says BossDVD will begin producing Blu-ray discs if the market demands it, even though he thinks hard copy distribution is short-lived. But Blu-ray distribution would severely cut into BossDVD's margins: Replicators charge about $1 per disc for standard-definition replication, whereas Blu-ray costs between $5 and $6.
Irene Uzyak, who stars in BossDVD films under the screen name Irene Boss, says higher replication costs and an increasingly saturated porn market will make it next-to-impossible for new companies to enter the high-def DVD end of the business. They'll stay online instead.
"We came into this at the right time," says Irene Uzyak, who has starred in more than 120 titles, 66 of which are on DVD. "If we had come in later, we wouldn't have been able to make money at this."
Piracy remains a worry when it comes to DVDs, George Uzyak says, but he has a simple approach to overcoming illegal copying: Make more movies.
"Beating pirates means get it out there first. Saturate the market with your own product," he says.
Current confusion in the industry contrasts starkly with 20 years ago, when the adult film business began striding toward the mainstream and held technological influence far beyond its own business, says Pure Play's Rix.
He contrasted the influence the industry had during the VHS v. Betamax videocassette war—which the porn industry is largely credited with deciding in favor of VHS, once and for all—with the uncertainty it deals with now:
"This time, we're sitting back and saying, 'Hey, let's wait and see where things go.'"