The Business of Pornography
Most of the outsize profits being generated by pornography today are being earned by businesses not traditionally associated with the sex industry
Even larger revenues are being earned by companies that offer adult films in hotels. Last year guests spent about $175 million to view porn in their rooms at major hotel chains such as Sheraton, Hilton, Hyatt, and Holiday Inn. Few hotels have refused to carry adult material on their pay-per-view systems. Whenever a guest orders an adult movie through pay-per-view, the hotel gets a cut of up to 20 percent.
Hirsch also sells the foreign distribution rights to Vivid's films, sometimes covering the entire cost of a production through an overseas sale. Canal Plus, one of France's biggest cable companies, broadcasts two hard-core Vivid movies every month, which earn some of the channel's highest ratings. European countries tend to have much looser standards about nudity on television and much tougher restrictions on violence. In Germany, films like Rambo and RoboCop cannot be broadcast on television or rented in video stores by anyone under the age of 18--and yet German pay cable service offers extremely hard-core films. Although the French sex industry is growing, American porn dominates overseas markets.
In order to meet domestic and overseas commitments, Vivid shoots eight new hard-core movies a month, half on video, half on 16-mm film, with an average budget of $80,000. "We're like a big machine," Hirsch says. Logistical nightmares are common: Screenplays fail to arrive on time; performers don't show up on the set.
Hirsch says his job is not as exciting as some people think: "You spend half your day on the phone selling product and the other half of the day collecting for it." He also believes there's nothing wrong with being in the porn business; indeed, he grew up in it. Hirsch's father is a former stockbroker who started his own adult-film company and put his teenage kids to work in the warehouse during summer vacations. Hirsch's sister is now the head of production at Vivid.
Nina Hartley is the stage name of a well-known porn star whose career in the sex industry has lasted more than a decade. Hartley grew up in Berkeley, considers herself a radical feminist, and comes from a long line of American rebels. She says that her grandfather (a physics professor) and her father (a radio announcer) were members of the Communist Party. Raised as a feminist to distrust the male gaze, Hartley secretly fantasized about dancing naked. After graduating magna cum laude with a nursing degree from San Francisco State, she decided to become a porn star. Since the early 1980s, she has appeared in more than 300 hard-core films. She is a proud exhibitionist. For the past 14 years, she has lived in a stable, triangular relationship with her husband--a former member of the campus radical group Students for a Democratic Society--and another woman. "Nina Hartley" is a deliberate creation of theirs, a larger-than-life persona designed to show that a woman can be strong and sexually autonomous.
Fear of sex? "For all the lip service we give to sex being holy and wonderful and spiritual," Hartley says, "we let Madison Avenue use it to sell spark plugs and dishwashing detergent--to sell anything but sex." She thinks a great deal of today's porn is not only misogynous but misanthropic, treating men with disrespect. It is a disposable commodity, reflecting the culture's deep fear of sex. "The people who run the porn business are not sex radicals," she notes, with regret; their sex lives at home tend to be extremely conventional. "You'd be surprised how many of the producers and manufacturers are Republicans."