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3 Days and Nights in Porn Land

Shop talk, following the money and girls, girls, girls—another year at the AVN convention, the nation’s largest porn gathering

Richard Abowitz



Thursday January 5: Following the Money


It may look like Sodom and Gomorrah but, on paper at least, there are very specific rules governing the 350 exhibitors' displays and behavior at the 2006 AVN Adult Entertainment Expo.


"No exposure of genitalia or breasts. No sexual contact or behavior, including, but not limited to penetration of any kind, simulated sex of any kind, fondling of breasts. No flashing. No throwing objects (shirts, DVDs, stickers, etc.)."


Except for throwing objects, I see almost every one of these rules broken within the first few minutes of arriving at the Sands Expo Center. On this first day, the convention is not even open to the fans, only to industry insiders. Yet, as anyone here will tell you, there are a lot of insiders who are really just glorified fans whose jobs in the industry have less to do with salary than simply wanting to be part of the "glamour" of porno. Therefore, the money anyone is actually making is probably a lot less than you would think.


Still, if there's one thing the porn industry wants to repeatedly emphasize to the mainstream, it is that size matters. According to what the adult-industry trade magazine, Adult Video News, claims is the most comprehensive and accurate survey ever done on the subject, the porn industry generated $12.6 billion during 2005. (By comparison, according to Reuters, Hollywood theatrical releases collected a mere $8.9 billion.) But this is only an estimate, and where it gets really interesting is that almost all adult companies are privately held. Therefore, how that money gets divided and distributed is substantially less well known.


The truth is that for most people in the industry, the money is not as good as you might expect. One industry insider joked to me: "There's only $10,000 in all of porno and it's just passed back and forth between everyone. That's a little exaggerated, but it also is sort of true." By this he meant that so much in the industry is done on consignment, credit and in other methods of delayed payment that collecting money can be a major part of the job for some agents, distributors, directors and even performers.


Looking at how the dollars in the porn pie are actually divided reveals a remarkably lopsided business, with most of the money funneled up to the owners of studios and distribution companies. For example, the biggest misconception is that the actresses are making the big bucks. In general actresses fall into two categories: independent and contract girls. The contract girls are bound exclusively to a specific company, among the biggest of which are Vivid, Wicked, Adam & Eve and Digital Playground.


Janine, one of the best-known adult performers (she's the girl on the cover of Blink 182's disc Enema of the State, and was a Penthouse Pet), notes: "I've always been a contract girl. The first time I was ready to do boy/girl I went to Vivid and said I needed $300,000 to put down on a house, and I got it. That was for one year." That was in 2004, and she made eight movies with Vivid. Now, she's contracted to Digital Playground, where she's among the stars of Pirates, one of the hottest adult titles this year. As for the money, Janine says bluntly, "You spend it as soon as you make it." Outside of the cash up front, in general, contract girls don't get royalties or other back-end payments. Sometimes they don't even own their own name. This is an old tradition. Arrow Productions, the company that made Deep Throat, owned the name Linda Lovelace, not the woman born Linda Susan Boreman. Janine's co-star in Pirates, Jesse Jane, has her name trademark-protected by Digital Playground.


As for actresses who don't have a contract, according to agent Mark Spiegler (whose clients include such well-known names as Flower Tucci, Melissa Lauren and Katja Kassin), they get paid around $900-$1,100 per scene. According to Spiegler, over the course of a year a typical actress among the 15 or 20 he represents can earn about $200,000 a year. (But he tends to work them more often than other agents work their clients, so the earnings enjoyed by Spiegler girls don't necessarily reflect the industry norm.)


Also not raking in the bucks are the average directors. "The basic rate is $2,500 for a director-shooter," one well-known director explained to me. "It could be less or more. But $5,000 is a going rate for a good, well-known gonzo director-shooter. It can be as high as $6,000. I've heard directors getting as much as $10,000-$15,000 a movie for a feature. There is also a gonzo director who would take, for example, $4,000 to direct/shoot, and then another $300 for their stills. There are many ways to work this out. And really, it just depends on how much the company wants the director and/or how desperate the director is. Generally ... a good working director will make around $60,000 a year."


So who is making all the money? At the very top of the food chain are the company owners, like John Stagliano of the distribution company Evil Angel. "My revenue is close to $20 million a year," Stagliano says. And he probably earns less than other company owners, because, breaking with the industry's standard practice, he partners with his directors, splitting the money earned on a film equally with them. The director makes the film and Evil Angel markets and distributes it. Therefore, many of the best-known directors in the business (like John Leslie and Jules Jordan) work for Evil Angel.


But Evil Angel is a special case, because of the brand loyalty Stagliano's films have built up over the years. Otherwise, according to one former executive for a major adult company, size has its downside: "The porn community is eating itself alive. They're putting out too much product. It's driven triple-X sales way down. A basic company is barely able to get 2,000 units sold per movie."




Friday January 6: Meeting the Fans


What do porn and country music performers have in common? Both require their stars to be totally obsequious to their fans like no other forms of entertainment. These days, even athletes can be bad boys like rock stars. But the porn and Nashville set are always "on" for the fans, always happy to pose for a picture or sign an autograph, and are expected to smile and play nice like no other entertainers.


Of course, Trisha Yearwood and Faith Hill aren't referred to as "the whores" by their fans.


All of the major companies (Vivid, Evil Angel, Club Jenna) have their stars sitting and signing for hours at their booths on the convention floor. Even the stars who aren't working are expected to be fan-friendly. Aurora Snow (AVN's Female Performer of the Year in 2003) was merely attending the convention this year. But walking the floor, she was stopped every few minutes by a fan for an autograph or a picture or a hug. "I don't mind at all," she says. Snow recalled for me what it was like to actually be working at the convention, like the time she spent an eight-hour shift signing without even a bathroom break.


Signing is too passive a word to describe what happens. Yes, they give autographs for hours. But that just scratches the surface. Porn stars are expected to coo at fans, call fans "sweetie" and "honey" and to allow an arm to be tossed around them or a hug inflicted on them as they are nagged for their e-mail addresses, real names or any other personal information a fan can get at. Even the friendliest fans can easily cross into too-friendly territory with a grope or a cheap feel. Fan is the root of fanatic, and certainly in adult that becomes very clear. Karen Stagliano (John Stagliano's wife) is running the Evil Angel booth, where stars Melissa Lauren and Katja Kassin are among those signing. Unlike most company executives, Karen Stagliano has a unique sense of what the actresses go through while signing, having made films herself under the name Tricia Devereaux.


"I am in charge of the girls who are signing for Evil Angel," she says. "I feel that they respond nicely to a girl who performed in the past because I understand how hard it is to keep a happy face for four to seven hours a day. We want guys to be respectful of them. But if something happens, we'll yell at the guy, but the girl can't have a breakdown because of it. They know I've been through it. So when I tell them to deal with it, they know I've dealt with it."


As Tricia Devereaux, Karen Stagliano made films from 1995 through early 1998. Although she agrees that even in the few years since then the industry has become more acceptable, like many here, she considers the claims that porn has become mainstream to be largely exaggerated. "It has changed a little bit. There was very little mainstream acceptance even in 1995. I got kicked out of graduate school because I did videos. So I'm very aware of the stigma. Things are a little more mainstream, like with even reality television shows being so sexual and out there. But there's still that stigma attached, and I think they [the actresses] need to be aware of that, know that their future husband may not approve or be OK with what you did."


Indeed, for all the talk of the mainstreaming of porn (the best-selling tell-all books, appearances in music videos, and porn stars gracing the covers of magazines like Maxim) the truth is that that outside the limited sphere of certain elements of popular culture, adult is not at all being embraced, the phenomenon of Jenna Jameson, aside. As Melissa Lauren notes, "When you tell your parents, 'I'm a porn star,' they're not going to be happy. It doesn't matter, Jenna Jameson or not."


Janine puts it this way: "Honey, how mainstream can you get? I personally am a mom with two kids; I don't want it so mainstream that it's out there." At 37, Janine is older than most adult performers still in the business, and she is perhaps in a special position to judge how things have changed. "I tried my hand at mainstream, and it's a tough road, and I found much more casting-couch kind of crap than I do with adult. I didn't have the patience. In adult, you have a job to do and you go in and do it with no bullshit: The casting couch is the movie." Asked if porn was therefore her second-choice career, Janine pauses and takes a sharp breath before answering. "Yes. At the same time, I do appreciate adult. But I come to work. I am a working mom and you need to pay the bills."


Janine is typical of the old school of thinking. According to director Paul Thomas (who performed in adult films back in the '70s and is currently a director for Vivid), traditionally adult films attracted actresses who could not catch a break in the other Hollywood. In that sense, things have changed. "A lot more people were in it then to be [traditional] actresses. Now, many of them have no interest in mainstream or acting at all."


Jesse Jane, 25, falls into this category. "Porn was my first choice," she says. "I started off as a Hooters Girl and did Hawaiian Tropics, and it wasn't enough. I am an extremely sexual person, and I am proud of it. It isn't about attention. It's about expressing myself sexually, and letting women know they can go crazy and not be sexually reserved; I want them to see that I am out there having fun and it is not bad." Asked if she considers being a porn star glamorous, she says yes. "I love my job. I never wanted to do mainstream; I wanted to do porn. I went to Digital Playground. They didn't come to me."


Listening to Jesse say this, Janine looks on, seeming almost bemused as she notes, "She is the future." Janine, in fact, is more than a decade older than her co-star in Pirates and though still stunning, I have to ask her how long she thinks she can do this before she will have to retire. "I don't want to know," she says. "It was just a couple days ago that people thought I was retired for the third time. I still feel a passion for this. But I can't imagine doing this after 40, and that's tough because I do enjoy it so much. Before a movie role, I bust ass and tone up real good." Asked what she will do after retirement she says, "I don't know. It's a very scary thought."


Later that night, a few blocks and a world away from the Venetian, intimations of that scary thought receive some illustrations at the Legends of Erotica induction ceremony at Showgirl Video (on South Las Vegas Boulevard). Among the inductees: Cara Lott (born in 1961), who offers escort services on her website; Tiffany Mynx (born 1971), who still makes films—these days for Evil Angel; and Paul Thomas.


Perhaps the most famous of the inductees at the Legends of Erotica ceremony was Georgina Spelvin (born 1936), who played Miss Jones in the 1973 porn classic The Devil In Miss Jones. The film was redone last year (directed by Paul Thomas), with Spelvin having a brief cameo as a bathroom attendant. Otherwise, Spelvin's on-screen sex career ended in 1982, when she was 47, after she'd made more than 100 adult films. She hardly retired with a porn fortune, according to LukeFord.com: "Now Georgina Spelvin works as a desktop publisher and graphics designer to pay the mortgage on her modest home in Hollywood Hills."




Saturday January 7: The AVN Awards


The AVN Awards show is more than the adult-industry Oscars. All by itself, it is one of the single biggest money-making enterprises in adult entertainment. A totally separate admission from the convention, every year the awards show sells out; this year the tickets cost $250 each, and there were more than 5000 seats. That's just the cover charge. Playboy also taped the event for cable broadcast, guaranteeing more money for the sponsors.


In addition to the thousands attending the awards show, thousands of other fans just come to see the porn stars walk the red carpet into the awards. It's one of the few free treats for fans. Of course, you sort of get what you pay for, as good views were scarce—the crowd was packed six-to-10 people deep for the entire quarter-mile walk between the front of Venetian to the back of the convention room. Robin Leach, covering the red carpet, reported seeing fans who "taped their cameras and video recorders to broomsticks and poles 20 feet high to go over the fans in front." According to one Playboy broadcast employee, there were about 2,500 porn actresses entering the banquet room. So those lining the route often had no idea who they were photographing. As I walked the route clutching my ticket amid the chaos, the two women in front of me kept tripping me up by stopping and posing for pictures, to the delighted squeals of the fans. "Who do you do films for?" I asked the starlets. "We don't," one said. "Her boyfriend works for Wicked, and I'm just with her." So why pose for picture entering a porn awards show? "It is just fun getting our pictures taken. Isn't it cool that they are taking our picture?" Her friend agreed.


There was also plenty of photography being done by the official press corps that, according to an AVN representative, numbered over 1,000 this year. While many press representatives were from tiny adult websites, reporters from the New York Times, The Village Voice and Reuters were also covering the awards this year.


The doors opened at 8:30 p.m., but the awards show didn't start until after 10. That left a lot of time for people-watching. Inside the banquet room, things were much calmer than the chaos of the red carpet or even the convention itself. Stars, from legends like Ron Jeremy to Jenna Jameson, were placed near the front for the television cameras, and while my seat was way in the back, there was nothing preventing me from exploring the room.


At the very front and center were the Evil Angel tables, where I found Katja Kassin. We talked briefly about her childhood in East Germany, where she grew up without even a telephone. She remembers the flood of adult films that came from Europe and America during her teenage years (she was born in 1979). "Everything came in from the West when I was 16 and 17. I had an older boyfriend, and he got me hooked on porn. He always had movies and magazines. I always thought it was cool." Among the films she eventually became a big fan of were the films of John Stagliano. "I got into the business in March 2003. Because I watched porn, of course I knew John, and I got to work for John Stagliano within the first few weeks of getting started in porn."


Nowadays, Kassin is best known for her derrière, which is said to move more video boxes than any other ass in adult. I ask her about this odd distinction. "Yes, I have been told this so often there must be something to it. Almost all the box covers (of me) use my butt. And when fans want to take pictures of me, they want to take the butt. Sometimes I tell photographers who take pictures of me for boxes or magazines to don't bother with the front. There is nothing wrong with the front; I just know they are going to use the butt."


Up for five AVN awards this year, Kassin, has yet to win one. Among the ones she hopes to win this year is "Most Outrageous Sex Scene," for mud wrestling in Vault of Whores, directed by Karen Stagliano. "We laughed a lot," Kassin recalls of the one-day shoot. "I like to work for directors who are female."


Kassin wound up winning Best Solo Sex Scene.


In fact, with over 100 awards (many categories having over 15 finalists), it seemed everyone won for something. Jesse Jane and Janine shared the Best All Girl Sex Scene-Video for their encounter in Pirates. Paul Thomas won Best Director- Film for his remake of Devil In Miss Jones. And Karen Stagliano won for Best Vignette release for Vault of Whores.


"It's really cool," Karen Stagliano said, beaming. Then probably summing up the view of many winners, she added, "I may do this thing that many people don't approve of, but at least I am the best at it."

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