LOS ANGELES – Over the last decade, the adult industry has maneuvered its way into the mainstream, largely on the backs – and other parts – of celebrities whose homemade sex tapes went public: sometimes on accident, sometimes not so much.
Former “Teen Mom” star Farrah Abraham is the latest celebrity to take a slice of the action, earning a reported $1 million for her professional sex video, distributed by Vivid Entertainment.
“It has created such a phenomenon and is so popular, we were caught off guard,” Vivid founder and co-chairman, Steven Hirsch, told FOX411’s Pop Tarts column. “We had 10 million visits to the site in the first few days, more people trying to access the film in one week than we had in the first six months of Kim Kardashian’s tape with Ray J.”
Because of Vivid’s involvement with celebrity sex scandals, Hirsch himself is becoming something of a household name, and is deemed by many to now be the most powerful person in porn. The father of Hollywood film parodies and the celebrity sex tape, Hirsch is responsible for the distribution of the homemade productions featuring the likes of Pamela Anderson, Kendra Wilkinson and Montana Fishburne, among others.
“As a company owner, Steve Hirsch always has been and always will be a big power player in the industry. Even though Vivid has changed a lot over the years, it’s still one of the strongest brands and he has always been a very powerful person,” explained Joanna Angel, the mastermind behind the Burning Angel adult enterprise. “People really do not realize how much hard work and time and energy goes into having a successful brand in the porn industry. Making a profit right now is tough. It is possible, but it’s not easy.”
A second generation porn businessman, Hirsch co-founded Vivid in 1984 at the age of 23 with the notion of taking the adult industry away from the “sleazy backwater of Hollywood” and conducting business in the spotlight, focusing on high production values, engaging plotlines and supermodel-esque stars.
“Back then there was less competition, it was the beginning of VHS. We would sign girls to exclusive contracts and make the package appropriate to be displayed at your local video store,” Hirsch said. “Video changed everything. People felt comfortable renting from their local store, and then accessing adult content anonymously from their home cable, and now with the Internet you can watch an innumerable amount. We focused on parodies, celebrity videos, things people really wanted to see.”
From its early days, Vivid was known for using the latest technology, from interactive DVDs to High Definition to 3D.
“One of the biggest misconceptions is that the industry leaders are all guys like Larry Flynt with big, outrageous personalities, who got started primarily out of a personal interest in creating porn, or on the other end of the spectrum, shady anonymous characters who are connected to organized crime,” said Quentin Boyer, rep for the porn company Pink Visual. “These days, you find a lot more adult companies owned and operated by people who got started in the business simply as entrepreneurs who saw a money-making opportunity.”
Yet scandal still abounds.
Press shy German porn webmaster Fabian Thylmann, also regarded as a huge figure in the adult arena with an estimated net worth of $200 million, was arrested in December on suspicion of evading taxes. Thylmann, via his company Manwin, owns a wide collection of the world’s most heavily visited pornography sites, collectively generated some 16 billion hits monthly.
And yes, Larry Flynt is still a porn power player.
The well-known creator of Hustler and a string of other adult publications purchased New Frontier Media last year, bringing nine pay-per-view networks under his wing. Worth $400 million, Flynt’s brand includes Hustler Casinos, Hustler Video porn studios, Hustler Clubs and Hustler Stores.
Peter Acworth, the owner of Kink.com, is also a porn up-and-comer. Acworth started a fetish entertainment company that runs several sites with bondage themes when he was a PhD student in finance at Columbia University in the late 90s. At the Sundance Film Festival this year, actor James Franco even released a controversial documentary about his ever-expanding empire.
Aside from the company owners, some performers are also power players in their own right. Lisa Ann, considered the most popular porn actress in the world right now, told us that she proudly hands out her self-starring, XXX-rated DVDs – kinda like candy – everywhere she goes.
Some credit television personality and satellite radio giant Howard Stern for bringing conventional cred to the often watched, yet never discussed, multi-billion dollar business by bringing in the stars and discussing the films on his show.
“He was one of the first people, or really the first person, to talk to porn stars on terrestrial radio,” Angel said. “I think he is a main part of the reason why stars like Jenna Jameson had household names that spanned way outside of the adult industry.”
Indeed Jameson went from being a prominent adult actress to a huge force behind-the-lens, co-founding the multi-media adult entertainment company ClubJenna, Inc. in 2000, burgeoning from a single website to managing several other similar sites, and then venturing into producing hardcore pornographic content.
In 2006, Playboy Enterprises bought her company.
But the same problem that plagues mainstream entertainment companies also threatens the XXX world: piracy. By some estimates, 80 percent of the companies that were around five years ago are either gone or barely hanging on, while DVD sales have reportedly dropped by around 50 percent in the last six years.
“Unfortunately, in many cases, what consumers are watching is content that is being distributed for free without the permission of the studio that made it. It has created an expectation in many consumers that porn is, and should be, free,” explained Boyer. “So, ironically, while we have a larger market of consumers than ever watching porn, a smaller and smaller portion of that population is willing to purchase the product.”
But Hirsch is confident that the next 10 years will bring plenty of rewards, at least for him.
“There are more people than ever wanting to get into this business. We’ve got Vivid radio, licensing our name for two gentleman’s clubs,” he said. “We’re fortunate we have a reputation for producing quality. We sign the most beautiful women, and create sophisticated content. Even if people don’t pay for the content and watch it on a site, there is advertising and clicking through other links. They pay in some other way.”