The “Smut Glut” Part 3: The Victors and the Vanquished

The depression into which the porn industry had plunged produced at least one good laugh.  Finances had become so bad at Visual Entertainment Productions (VEP) that the company’s in-house bill collector had turned against them   My mob-connected, former boss Tony Romano had staggered into VEP only to find his partner Norm on the floor. ( Passages from SKINFLICKS are in italics.)

According to a VEP saleslady, “Tony came in, drunk as usual, and goes, ‘What’s Nahmy doin’ layin’ dere on da flahr?’ Somebody tells him Ron punched Norm out.  Tony just shrugs and says, ‘Hey dese t’ings happen.’  Then he goes into his office and locks the door.  A couple hours later, his secretary looks in. There’s Tony with his head on his desk, fast asleep.”

With VEP in tatters, my chances of collecting on the $10,000 bounced check they had stuck me with looked slim indeed.  Superior Video’s own money woes were so dire that I actually considered barging into VEP with “Maggie” (my .357 Magnum).  In the porn video business of the late 1980s, “bad paper” had become an epidemic.

So had bankruptcies.  VEP joined such industry giants as Select-Essex and (my former employer) VCX in Chapter Eleven.  Even the “General Motors of Porn,” Caballero Control Corporation, was so deeply in arrears that Adult Video News stopped running its ads.  But emerging from the rubble of fallen leviathans–like small mammals scurrying over the remains of dinosaurs—were niche companies that tapped the limited but steady “specialty” market.

Among their titles were Kinky Midgets, Black Anal, She-Males, The Enema, Foot Worship, Latex Slaves, National Transsexual, Pregnant Mamas, and Anal Nation.  But even good old-fashioned all-American straight sex could be a specialty in the right context.

A popular new genre had lone women taking on groups of men, such as Biff Malibu’s Gang-Bang Girls line.  Agent Jim South complained about girls being offered “a seemingly large amount of money for a day’s work, but on the amount of sex, she’s getting short changed.”  Another genre that allowed dirt-cheap porn-making was the “pro-am” (professional/amateur) hustle, which allowed horny men (the “pros”) to make money screwing new ladies (the “ams”).

Scrawny San Francisco Bay Area porn agent Joe Elliot starred himself in the Joe Elliot’s Girlfriends and Joe Elliot’s College Girls lines.  When a girl answered Elliot’s ads in publications such as The Berkeley Barb, he would give her a quick on-tape interview then proceed to have sex with her.  If a cameraman such as myself wasn’t available, Elliot would lock his camera on a tripod and shoot the sex in one continuous wide-angle shot.

Bespectacled, big-nosed, nerdish-looking Ed Powers ostensibly picked up women in streets and bus stations, then taped himself having sex with them.  Actor/author Jerry Butler wanted to know why every time Powers “picked up” a girl, agent Jim South got $50.  “I DO pick up girls on the street,” Powers protested. “I really do!”

The biggest success in this niche market was cheerfully sleazy John Stagliano, who resembled an anorexic John Travolta.  Starting his Evil Angel Productions in 1988, Stagliano exploited his fascination with the female posterior.  As “Buttman,” he approached women in public, begging them to bare their bottoms before his camera.  With little more than that documentaire shtick and lots of rump-romping sex shot from low, ant’s-eye angles, the Buttman series found a ready audience of males disgruntled with the bland, couples-oriented drift of the overall market.

The “couples market” was a niche in itself. Anthony Spinelli’s Plum Productions, a family affair (wife Roz, son Mitch), adapted well to the age of the micro-budget.  Like haiku, the short stories of H. H. (“Saki”) Munro, and Twilight Zone reruns, their spare, interior dramas appealed to the cerebral end of the market.  Plum’s “one-act morality plays”—as AVN’s Joe Daniels called them—gave couples a springboard for more elevated post-coital conversation than “Was it good for you too?”

A new generation of porn fans discovered—to their delight—the high quality of the 35-millimeter (35mm) films from the 1970s “Golden Age of Porn.”   Reinvigorated, the stumbling 35mm king, Caballero, rose up and purchased Reuben Sturman’s Vidco, creating a 700-title monster.  Caballero head Noel Bloom said, “Catalogue is the strength today.  And now we have…the largest adult video catalogue in the world.”  Another 35mm giant, the over-extended Video Company of America (VCA) roared back to life.  Originally despised as “dupers (video pirates),” VCA’s Russ Hampshire and his menacing, mob-connected partner Walter Gernert had invested their earnings in premium 35’s.  Their new-found success allowed them to pay small creditors like Superior Video.

Superior Video was hemorrhaging money.  My choice: try to ride out the slump in hopes of returning to profitability or sell off rights to my titles and shut down the company.  What finalized my decision was a mistake that could have put me in prison for a long time.

Next post:  Trying to Sell Illegal Pornography in Canada, eh?

The “Smut Glut.” How the Porn Movie Industry almost Destroyed Itself Part 1: Stupidity

The distributor was screaming obscenities so fast in his New York accent that my office manager, Allyssa couldn’t understand him.  She had phoned to ask when Superior Video could expect overdue payment.  Between F-bombs, Allyssa managed to learn that the man’s partner had just been murdered. Sixteen .22 slugs in the head—the result of a much more serious unpaid debt.  Another of Superior’s distributors had just lost his warehouse to “arson.” (“For the insurance,” Allyssa guessed.)   And Ferris Alexander of AB Distributors in Minnesota, also in arrears, was preoccupied with the aftermath of an anti-porn demonstrator immolating herself in one of his bookstores.

In 1986, the porn video business became afflicted with three crises: the Traci Lords scandal (Chapter 12 in SKINFLICKS), the newly-declared War on Porn (the fried demonstrator being an extreme manifestation of the hysteria) and—the worst of the three—the “Smut Glut,” for which the industry had only itself to blame.

(Passages from SKINFLICKS are in italics.)

We were entering a time of rip-offs, lawsuits, arsons, and even murders; a time of bitter price wars, when even large, long-established companies would go bankrupt; a time when production of big-budget X-rated motion pictures would end.

The cause?  The same thing that had made Superior Video, Inc., successful.  We were the first to shoot full-length adult features entirely on videotape, with budgets of $20,000 instead of the $60-70,000 it would cost to shoot the same movies in 35 millimeter film.  For the first half of the 1980s, we produced hits like All the King’s Ladies, Physical, Night Moves, Running Wild, Chocolate Cream and our most lavish production, Deviations ($35,000 budget).   Our philosophy was to create adult movies as good as the 1970s “Golden Age of Porn” films. (Such as The Opening of Misty Beethoven, Sex World, and Behind the Green Door.)   When our competitors discovered the ease and economy of shooting in videotape, they didn’t share Superior’s philosophy.

Instead, they followed the pornographer’s dictum: If it works once, do it a thousand times. They began cranking out cheap videos.  Adult Video News noted that the number of porn video releases soared from 400 in 1983 to 1100 in ’84 and 1610 in ’85.  The market couldn’t absorb them all.  “There used to be 25 new titles a month and the store owner would buy 15 or 20 of them,” lamented VCA’s Russ Hampshire. “He’s still buying the same number of tapes, but now he has hundreds to choose from.”   Retailers began buying those 15 or 20 videos based on price alone.  As prices plunged, so did pornographers’ profits.  Companies had to crank out more titles to maintain their cash flows: a vicious cycle.  Something had to give, and that something was quality.

“What’s the difference between the old silent 8 millimeter loops and the video features of today?” asked reviewer Steve Austin in the February ’91 AVN issue. His answer: “The guys take their sox off now.”  

In the mid-‘80s, director Bruce Seven groaned, “What kind of quality can you turn out in two days?”  By 1993, the “one-day wonder” had become standard, and AVN editor Gene Ross recalled Seven’s earlier complaint: “Seven, as any other director in the business, would probably kill for that kind of latitude nowadays.”   Then, even one-day wonders became too expensive.

Henri Pachard was forced to crank out three features in one day! (Not as impossible as it sounds: the trick is to shoot three separate dialog scenes with the same cast on each setup, to fit three separate stories.)  

The demand for tons of titles at micro-budgets led to the Stallion Productions debacle of 100 titles in thirty days, after which the producers and their tapes disappeared without paying cast and crew.  AVN’s Gene Ross made the sarcastic prediction that “thanks to new Japanese technology that actually condenses time, some adult video company will hit on the brilliant concept of producing 100 videos in thirty minutes.”

As the downward vortex continued, porn companies resorted to cutting out production entirely.  The “Smut Glut.” Part 2: Scams will discuss “wraparounds,” re-titles, Hollywood rip-offs, Disney lawsuits, “borderline” child porn, bankruptcy epidemics, and desperate promotions such as pubic hair in cassette boxes.