Steven Hirsch is recreating Hollywood’s old studio system in the pornography business
HOLLYWOOD is not much given to nostalgia (unless, of course, it can be captured on celluloid and turned into a profit). But every now and again studio executives allow themselves to wax lyrical about the golden age of Hollywood—the years roughly between 1920 and 1960—when the studios actually meant something and the system churned out classics. In those days, each studio had its own style, its own team of writers and its own collection of stars, bound by long-term contracts; these days, the studios are little more than banks and distribution systems. The classic studio system is impossible to recreate in mainstream Hollywood: power has long since dispersed to a handful of stars and myriad independent production companies. But in one corner of Los Angeles the system is being carefully reconstructed. That corner is the pornography business, which generated some $4.1 billion in 1998 and accounts for almost a third of all video sales and rentals in the United States. The person who has done more than anyone else to recreate the system is the president of Vivid Video, Steven Hirsch.
Meeting Mr Hirsch is an odd experience—and not just because he makes his living peddling images of prodigiously endowed people having sex with each other. The tanned and aerobicised Mr Hirsch looks like just another foot-soldier in that vast army of Californians who divide their time between the gym and the beach. Yet as he chats about corporate diversification, market segmentation and vertical integration, he sounds as if he has just graduated from a high-powered business school. He sits in front of an eye-catching display of Adult Video News Awards (in 1997, Vivid won no fewer than 15 of these adult Oscars, an all-time high). But if you focus instead on his collection of fossils, amber and presidential memorabilia, which he displays equally proudly, you can be forgiven for thinking that you are talking to an unusually technologysavvy executive in Hollywood proper.
Like a lot of people in Hollywood, Mr Hirsch grew up around the business. His father made his name producing 8mm “stag movies”; he and his sister, who now oversees production at Vivid, cut their teeth helping out in the company warehouse. In 1985, he co-founded Vivid with a barrel-chested Welshman, David James, whose curriculum vitae included a spell as a coalminer and 15 years as a member of the anti-terrorism unit of the British army.
Most people in the porn business want to get rich quick by selling the sleaziest product imaginable. Mr Hirsch’s idea was to take the business (relatively) upmarket. Vivid’s flagship products are the 30 featurelength films that it makes each year, shot on film rather than video, graced with such exotic devices as plots and dialogues, and a commodity that is exceedingly rare in the pornography business: good-looking women.
Reviving the studio system has been the key to signing up these women. In mainstream Hollywood, stars laugh at the idea of tying their careers to particular studios; in Silicone Valley, they jump at it. There are currently nine “Vivid Girls”, who have typically signed contracts to appear in a set number of films a year for anything between one and three years. In exchange, they get some kind of job security; a guarantee of exactly what they will do and with whom; and heavy promotion by Vivid’s powerful publicity machine, through websites, guest appearances and fan clubs.
The publicity machine opens lots of doors. “Vivid Girls” command a premium on the stripping circuit, earning anywhere between $5,000 and $20,000 a week. Every porn girl harbours a secret dream of crossing into the mainstream world; her chances of doing so, though pretty small, are probably higher with Vivid than anywhere else. Vivid girls have had cameo roles in films by Spike Lee and appeared, clothed, in advertisements for garments and sunglasses.
The studio system provides Vivid with brand identity. Now that anyone with a hand-held video camera can make a film, the market is being saturated (see chart). Vivid employs an in-house director to give its films a “Vivid feel”; it even makes sure that the boxes that the film comes in have a “Vivid look”.Significantly, Vivid’s biggest competitors, notably VCA, are adopting a similar strategy to deal with the glut in the market.
But Vivid is looking to the future as well as the past. Technologically, it is ahead of the rest of the industry. Fifteen years ago the pornography business was one of the first to turn the videocassette recorder into a cash machine. Today it is doing the same for DVD and the Internet.
Vivid is not only cranking out DVDs faster than any other studio, it is also using the medium’s capabilities to their limit to enhance the viewer’s experience—by, for instance, allowing viewers to watch a single scene from several angles. And by supplying video to other sites, rather than by running its own, Vivid is even making money out of the Internet—a trick that has so far eluded the Amazons of this world. It is one of the many oddities of the entertainment industry that the people who are selling the world’s oldest product are also thinking hardest about the future.
Yet building your future on a system of employment that has long ago collapsed in the rest of the entertainment business might sound a little risky. What happens if the Vivid girls decide to set up in business on their own, just as Humphrey Bogart and his cohorts did in the 1950s? The answer, as far as Mr Hirsch is concerned, is not much. Vivid girls are a lot easier to replace than the likes of Julia Roberts, not least because they appeal to the least discriminating parts of the consumer’s brain. And life outside the studio’s warm embrace is a lot colder in Mr Hirsch’s world than it is on the other side of the Hollywood hills.