Syphilis Outbreak Prompts Porn Shutdown

For the third time in three years, adult movie studios have largely shut down production as a precautionary measure after a performer was diagnosed with a potentially fatal sexually transmitted disease but didn't immediately disclose it.

Photo: Don Farrall | Getty Images

A male performer in the Los Angeles porn community was reportedly diagnosed with syphilis last month, but apparently hid the fact from producers, prompting fears of a spread among other actors and actresses. Several big studios have voluntarily suspended production for an unspecified period, while the Free Speech Coalition (a trade group that represents the adult entertainment industry) has called for a moratorium on filming until all performers have been re-tested for the disease.

Generally, the porn industry doesn't shut down unless there is a confirmed case of HIV (which happened in both 2010 and 2011). Syphilis, of course, is a curable disease, but can be fatal if left untreated. And since the performer worked several times with a doctored sexually transmitted infection (STI) test before coming forward, there are fears about the disease spreading.

While the porn industry is under significant financial pressure due to piracy and the rise of “amateur” Web sites, insiders say this shutdown should not have a noticeable effect on revenues at major studios. Big players in the porn industry typically have a large stockpile of films awaiting release and can ride out a shutdown.

The porn industry shoots roughly 20,000 scenes per year. Bigger companies tend to produce four or five films per month – with costs reaching upwards to $300,000 – allowing them to stockpile releases.

The porn industry, as a whole, is thought to generate roughly $14 billion in revenue per year, but revenue from porn films has been shrinking, due to piracy and an abundance of free content on the Internet. (Related: Is the Porn Industry Imperiled?)

"The nature of the industry is we don’t make nearly as many products as we did once," says Scott Taylor, president and founder of New Sensations.

The $14 billion figure is an estimate, since porn companies generally guard their financials carefully – especially these days. Porn giant Manwin is on a buying spree and no one wants to divulge revenue figures, since they fear it could hurt their asking price if Manwin turns its attention their way.

One insider, who asked not to be named, said he believes current revenue figures are vastly underreported, since online revenue is growing exponentially. Manwin's Fabian Thylmannseemed to back this up in a keynote speech at a conference in January, saying "I've looked at many books to see if something is interesting to buy. I know of many companies today that are making more than the big ones did in '98, '99 and 2000."

(Manwin, which was the first company to announce a halt in production until performers were retested, says its current growth rate – without accounting for acquisitions – is currently about 15 percent each year.)

While the health concerns for performers are certainly real, the notion that a performer doctored his test results is likely to add to the porn industry's woes as it faces new legislation from the state of California. (The performer reportedly obscured the syphilis portion of the paper test results he presented to directors, according to Xbiz, a trade news outlet for the adult entertainment industry. When one director noticed this and began making inquiries, the performer ultimately admitted to the action.)

The Los Angeles City Council, in January, voted to make condom use mandatory in porn shoots that are filmed inside the city limits. A similar measure for Los Angeles County will be on the ballot in November, which would require studios to pay a permit fee to cover the cost of enforcement. The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health estimates those will cost producers between $12,000 and $60,000 per permit per year.

L.A. City officials have not yet begun enforcing the ordinance, as officials have spent seven months figuring out how best to do so. Many industry insiders say they don't expect the city to begin inspections until early next year.

While several porn companies have threatened to leave Los Angeles because of the legislation, none have yet done so and the gestures are now largely viewed as empty threats.

Related: Porn Stars Who Went Mainstream