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.