THE SECRET ECONOMICS OF GAY PORN, OR ‘WHY GAY PORN BECAME SO VANILLA’

Posted February 22, 2013 4:59 PM by with 18 comments


I got this email from a reader yesterday morning. It seemed worth answering.

When did porn get so vanilla?

For many years, porn sites have had “theme” categories to organize content. You could choose fetish themes like “cops” or “jocks” or “military” or “cowboys” or “leather” and find lots of content. If you built a site just with just the content from the past few years there’d only be one category: “naked white gym rats fucking”

Yes the guys are hot, but there is so little that sets one scene apart from another anymore. The theme and setting of a scene can crank the excitement up to 11. Just look at To The Last Man, a smoking hot cowboy themed movie from back when Raging Stallion made movies instead of just “naked white gym rat” scenes.

Did gay men somehow lose all sense of creativity? Or did the creative ones just stop making porn?

No. Maybe. Sort of. Here’s what happened.

It’s a little like Flowers for Algernon, isn’t it? In the first decade of internet porn, diversity flourished like the Breakfast Club: the jocks, the brains, the basket cases, the princesses, and the criminals. Heck, you even had people that weren’t white. Pretty sweet, right?

Then the bottom dropped out. I’ve written about it before, elsewhere, but I didn’t really touch on how it affected the content of the movies themselves. Here’s what happened:

DVD ECONOMICS
Studios used to make a hell of a lot more money per movie. Until about five years ago, a studios could sell a DVD for $69.95. That’s more than $15 per scene. (I know a lot of you didn’t buy actual DVDs, but studios were still making money buy selling to rental stores.) Until about 2007, it wasn’t all that strange to hear of a gay porn studio bragging about a production costing $250,000 or more — To the Last Man, Dangerous Liaisons, Cross Country. Five years ago, you might be able to make triple that back — now, you’d come out in debt.

You see, studios never made a ton of money online — it was just mad money. The people really making money off of internet porn were largely people like Randy Blue, Sean Cody and Corbin Fisher — companies that shot most of their movies (well, scenes) in the same bedroom. No dialogue. So when DVDs began to slow and studios had to adjust to online income, those fancy things had to go. Because membership to something like Falcon or Titan is $30 a month. And they’re expected to do two updates a week to be competitive. That works out to less than $4 per scene — more than a 75% drop in profit from the DVD days.

And that’s for people who are paying. Piracy and a lousy economy meant that people weren’t forking out money the way they used to. If you’re under 25, you might not remember how difficult it was to get your hand on porn, especially gay porn, before 2004. It wasn’t everywhere online. You had to go. You had to borrow. You had to pay. And that meant that studios could do bigger productions, rent impressive locations, buying uniforms and props. You know, Hollywood stuff.

With some exceptions here and there, like the Other Side of Aspen, that’s all gone.

BLOND AND BLAND
So how did that lead to Our United Nation of Gym Rats? Well, quite simply, of all the niches blond, bland and muscled sells the most copies. But in the new economy, vanilla is one of the few flavors that’s profitable. Five years ago, you could still fill a niche like leather or wrestling or Blatino in gay porn and have enough customers to make it worth your while. Someone like Tiger Tyson, who — let’s say — sold a fourth of what a blond, bland and muscled sold. He could make a profit because his productions were cheaper — even when he went to Paris. When the bottom fell out economically, the new normal for major studios meant $30K. And if a blond, bland muscle studio was shooting a feature for $30K, a niche producer would have to do it for $10K to be profitable. That’s not a business, that’s a hobby. So a lot of people who were doing more interesting, less profitable things left the business. (A lot of smaller producers also left when they felt they’d have to go bareback to compete in the new economy.)

Some niches are still profitable — but generally, because they’ve been able to consolidate or economies of scale. Take a studio like Kink — they have a massive production studio in San Francisco. They can afford to build an expensive set because that set will not only be used for, say, Bound Gods, it can also be used for Men On Edge. It can also be used for fetish sites, like Foot Worship. Or a straight sites, like Hogtied.

It’s similar with something Men.com, with all their different sites. Except instead of using a set five times for different sites, they rotate the same guy through each site. Think of porn studios like a Costco shopper — they get volume discounts. So if you can promise Tommy Defendi five scenes, you can get his per scene rate down.

GAY PORN TUBE: JOHNNY RAPID AND TOMMY DEFENDI

 

SIX THINGS THAT COST MONEY:
Here are six things that cost money:

*Locations
*Orgies
*Themes
*Stories
*Award Shows
*Exclusives

Here are six things on gay porn’s endangered species list:

*Locations
*Orgies
*Themes
*Stories
*Award Shows
*Exclusives

THE NEW NORMAL?
You’ll notice that when studios do DO big features on location, they shoot closer to home or use local talent. In 2005, I went to Hawaii with Raging Stallion for a week to shoot a behind-the-scenes feature for Lords of the Jungle. They flew probably two dozen people out for the shoot. When we shot this, I was sitting pretty on the Big Island watching this from the side:

Now, if you look at a big location shoot it’s more likely to be somewhere driving distance, or they use talent that doesn’t need a plane ticket (say, Michael Lucas’ Men of Israel). It’s just a different world.

That’s not to say all is lost. Sites like NakedSword can aggregate other content and produce their own. They’re an important outlet for smaller producers who can’t reach a wide audience on their own. And sites like Staghomme still do creative stuff, because they don’t have to travel for exotic locations — they’re based there. Like every one else, gay porn studios are adapting to the new economy. And, I’ll say managing to produce some incredibly hot scenes week after week, and still with a stunning amount of variety. I have no problem finding hot sex — it just isn’t really shot in the Turkish desert.

Will the pendulum swing back? Will Hollywood return to 70mm? Probably not. But will people and studios eventually find a way to make creative, incredibly hot porn? Yes. I just hope it happens fast. I want to go back to Hawaii.

Mike

Related:
The End of Porn’s Golden Age (via Salon)
Sneak Peak: To The Last Man

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18 responses to THE SECRET ECONOMICS OF GAY PORN, OR ‘WHY GAY PORN BECAME SO VANILLA’

  1. Q of M February 22nd, 2013 at 9:12 PM

    Flowers for Algernon…lol

    Reply

  2. Peter E February 22nd, 2013 at 10:31 PM

    This is all true. I’ve been buying porn for over 30 years, before VCRs were the rage. (Who remembers 8mm and 16mm loops?) The Internet changed everything, like it has with so many things. Before, movies had scripts with stories that carried through from scene to scene; they were so much hotter back then, even with the bad “acting.” There are a few themed movies still being produced, but they are far and few between. Look at television: What’s popular? Reality TV. Garbage! No one wants to pay a writer. It’s too expensive, blah, blah, blah. I just bought some early Kristen Bjorn on DVD, when his movies used to feature four or five cumshots per model per scene! He can’t afford to spend that kind of time or money on a scene anymore, and the quality (read:hotness level) of his DVDs has plummeted, IMO. (They’re still technically and cinematically the best on the market.) These days anyone with a camera, a motel room and some hungry college kids can shoot porn. It’s pathetic. There are very few good directors, but the good ones stand out. Bigger studios use the same sets repeatedly, and the same models, and have the nerve to charge $49.95 for a DVD. Are you kidding? I hardly buy DVDs anymore because of the banality. I belong to a few sites (Sean Cody, Randy Blue, Men.com) because they do still produce some technically good scenes with lots of new models. If I do buy a DVD it’s usually from Bel Ami, Chaosmen or Bjorn. Falcon and Raging Stallion have become stagnant and lost all the creative juices of the old Falcon. There are very few beautiful black or Asian models, too, which I find disappointing. And people who don’t pay for viewing scenes online (however they steal it) should be shot! Enough of my rambling…I’ve got some surfing to do.

    Reply

  3. CogitatusSex February 23rd, 2013 at 8:06 AM

    So what of Sean Cody and its long drought of orgies? Does the same hold true? Only four or five years ago, you could count on a 5- or 6-man scene from that site every four months or so. Now? We only occasionally get even three guys to a scene, the most recent being the one which images you use in this article. Is that also simply a matter of expense, or is it something else? I would think that a site like Sean Cody, that uses exclusively amateur (thought not amateurish!) models and just one or two sets would be able to vary the content a little bit more frequently. Is it really a matter of economics there? Or just lack of effort?

    Reply

    • Mike February 23rd, 2013 at 9:24 AM

      Economics! An orgy has more people, and thus more in model fees. And flights for models. And coordinating schedules. And maybe an extra camera man. If you’re not making dramatically more money for an orgy, it cuts into your overall profit margins.

      The other thing is the mentality. With a shrinking financial pie, people are less likely to take risks — you want as much guaranteed ROI as you can get. I know the feeling well.

      Reply

  4. Rich February 23rd, 2013 at 2:11 PM

    Yes, there were “movies” long ago, but that died out in the VHS era. What hasn’ts urvived was the cheap crap from the pre-VHS era that was compiled on early cheapie videos but otherwise has disappeared. For every Higgins or Falcon masterpiece, there was dreadful stuff filmed with transients, hustlers, and other fairly desperate characters. In between were studios like Nova whose work seems lost to litigation.

    There have been waves of massed produced stuff. The early VHS era had a lot of this as studios consolidated and the straight porn studios briefly captured a lot of teh market. This was the era that gave us the overshaved, blonde look that was perfected by Falcon. Bel Ami was the first big break from all of this–the production values and the men in the initial Falcon-released Bel Amis were a reall sea change. Yes Bjorn was around and if you looked hard you could find Ropes McGuirk and the like, but most stuff was pretty much in the blonde hairless mainstream. There were occasional blockbusters, but they were occasional and often disappointing. And then there were the overly choreographed and often surprisingly dull ChiChi Larue orgies.

    I think wqas bankruptcy that killed the consolidated studios and I don’t know what drove the straight comapnies out, but by the late 90s, there was much more diversification. There also were more niches like thug studios and the awful low budget stuff that came from Atlanta. Well before the internet supplanted DVDs there were complainsts about video having lowered the bar to entry. Interestingly, there is still a wide variety of porn–there’s probably more twink stuff than ever and the old like Kinsters are still around. There has been complaining about the good old days for as long as I’ve paid attention to porn and yet there’s always been a lot of crap.

    Reply

    • Mike February 23rd, 2013 at 2:49 PM

      You make a good point about the good old days — by and large, they’re illusory. We’ve often defaulted to form, and the form is blond and hairless.

      I think what you saw in the late 90s was that the price of filmmaking dropped. The prosumer cameras got better, but more important the editing equipment improved — things like Avid, and especially Final Cut Pro liberated filmmaking from the pros. And once people could edit on a computer, it meant you didn’t have to pay an editor, or invest in (as much) specialized equipment. If you’re a filmmaker with a specific taste or fetish, and your margins are low, it’s make or break if you can do it yourself. I think that’s a lot of what you saw in the late 90s — people launching their own studios.

      You also saw a lot of people breaking away from the dominance of Falcon and Catalina, two brands that had really ruled the late 80s and early 90s. Bill Higgins left the country, and that Falcon look really dominated. But by 1992, people who had worked at Falcon were breaking off — Steven Scarborough launched Hot House, Bruce Cam launched Titan, George DuRoy launched Bel Ami in the first half of the decade … and later, Chi Chi and Channel 1, Chris Ward and Raging Stallion, Michael Lucas and Lucas Entertainment. Each of them had ties to Falcon, and many tried to differentiate themselves in order to capture market share. And when DVD really took off, it mean there was a lot more market to share.

      The other things you saw in the 90s was that obscenity prosecutions — a huge factor in the 70s and 80s — began to drop off. Which meant that people who wanted to do something different could really do it and still get distribution. Tom Ropes McGurk is a good example of this (as well as of someone who, like Tiger Tyson/Pitbull, made a smaller, but dedicated market share work for him.)

      Reply

    • This kid March 2nd, 2014 at 9:05 PM

      What is the name of the sexy guy in the first picture in the middle ?

      Reply

  5. Irish Boy February 23rd, 2013 at 3:40 PM

    I miss the orgy scenes from Sean Cody, in the era of my favorites like Zack. And the Hawaii trip with all those models.. Isaac, Matt, Keith, Jake, Doug and ooft, Kurt. Granted, still muscly relatively hairless white guys, but somethings changed, the models seemed to have more personality, or were more hyped if that makes sense.

    ‘Back in the day’ eh?

    Reply

  6. Mark February 23rd, 2013 at 6:39 PM

    Interesting; very interesting.

    Reply

  7. John N. February 24th, 2013 at 4:23 AM

    Personally, I couldn’t care less about high end production values for porn. For me, it’s more about the guys. If there is a guy I really like, I wanna see him in a sex scene, plain and simple. I’ve seen alot of of high end stuff, such as Falcon’s annual big budget releases, but I didn’t see them because they went to shoot them oversees, I saw them because they were sure to include all of their hottest men in them. Corbin Fisher has some of my favorite guys, and those scenes are always low production value, but I’m sure to always watch the onces featuring Connor, Aiden, and Cain because those are my faves. When all is said and done, it’s the men that make us buy the product, and we all are sure to check out the movies that feature our favorite guys. It’s the stars that drive the industry.

    Reply

  8. fred February 24th, 2013 at 9:56 AM

    VANILLA? I LOVE vanilla instezad of the fuck-automatics without any feeling, the problem is there isn’t even any decent vanilla, vanilla means good cock sucking and hot kissing, very few performers can kiss and hardly ever it is filmed in a good way.
    MORE vanilla!!!!! I even love underwear and jeans, it’s all in the minds guys and no i don’t need piss and spit ‘sex’…

    Reply

  9. Uncle Mark February 24th, 2013 at 6:39 PM

    It is said that the first revolution in television was the remote control (early ’60’s) the evolution was color TV (again the ’60’s) and the transformation was cable. Porn on film goes all the way back to the beginning of film in the early 1900’s. The first time I saw porn on film was the ’70’s. You either had to go to a porn theatre or watch “loops” on an 8mm projector. The revolution in porn was the VCR (late ’70’s) the evolution was the rental shops and the tranformation was the internet. There is more product on the market now than ever before, to fit every taste and fetish, in the history of the world.

    Reply

  10. dissi February 25th, 2013 at 6:29 PM

    I guess, like all media, it’s dictated more and more by the consumer. I wasn’t around in the 70’s but I imagine watching porn in a theater with other people was a much different experience than watching it alone on a computer screen. now that it’s more personal and “intimate” there is a different demand for certain genres/ fetishes. I always thought 70’s porn films contributed to forming and shaping gay men’s sexuality. maybe now it’s the reverse??

    Reply

  11. B February 26th, 2013 at 7:26 AM

    Changing American demographics means that for the industry to be viable in the future it needs to take a hard look at who it’s representing in movies, who it’s current audiences are, and who they’ll be in the future. Right now, the white gym rats sell because the people buying the porn are white and the producers/directors are white with a white preference/aesthetic. However, in order to reach a larger audience and potentially increase their income to maintain their business. It’s a known fact that there are more black, Latino, and Asian queer people than whites however this isn’t shown in the porn industry (1). Additionally, if one notes that in the near future there will no longer be an ethnic majority in the US “The census calculates that by 2042, Americans who identify themselves as Hispanic, black, Asian, American Indian, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander will together outnumber non-Hispanic whites”, the gay porn industry has some serious changes it needs to make (2). It’s well known that quee people of color are either exoticsized or isolated from the mainstream queer media but unless the gay porn industry wants to have some serious image problems in the ne’er future, it’s should take some cues rom contemporary tv, film, and advertisement. Shows like scandal, deception, the mindy project, modern family, etc all have at least a couple cast members from ethnic backgrounds and this is partly where they’re finding their success. They’re able to reach larger audiences because more people can identify with th people they’re seeing on tv. So if the gay porn industry wants to keep showing white gym rats, that’s who their audience is going to be.

    1. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2220120/White-people-likely-gay-Huge-study-reveals-highest-proportion-homosexual-people-African-American-community.html

    2. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/08/14/washington/14census.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

    Reply

  12. Lukebrux March 1st, 2013 at 12:25 PM

    The worse are those scene with the perfect fit gym guys without any kind of passion, very few kisses and no passion, in few words BORING! With those guys looking the camera or simply not mentally there.

    Reply

  13. KeithSF March 4th, 2013 at 12:02 PM

    Could the fact that there are so many gay-for-pay models contribute to the rise of boring vanilla sex? G4P models are limited in what they will do, and don’t make the same type of connection that gay models do. Just a thought….

    Reply

  14. SamDS March 7th, 2013 at 3:50 AM

    Next Door still charges 50+ for DVDs. i happily pay.

    Reply

  15. Mtlmec March 10th, 2013 at 4:32 PM

    I for one will continue buy memberships to see these perfectly fit “straight” guys on Corbin Fisher and Sean Cody. The models on these sites have gotten a bad rap. If they are genuinely G4P, they do a lot, and they do it bareback. Kudos to them for kissing, eating ass, eating cum, and fucking each other with bravado. See Corbin Fisher’s gym orgy, it’s definitely not vanilla. These sites, and many other’s with this formula, have the largest number of memberships on the Internet, so I’m definitely not alone. They give us what we want. Does anyone actually still buy DVDs. In the age of the internet, I thought you just streamed them or dowloaded them to watch later.

    Reply

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