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Demand Is Strong, but Police Crackdowns and a Saturated Market Spell Trouble for One of L.A.'s Biggest Businesses

February 17, 1991|John Johnson | John Johnson is a Times staff writer.

WHEN PEOPLE IN THE PORNOGRAPHY industry talk about why it's so much tougher to make a buck these days, Mark Curtis' name inevitably comes up.

Curtis is not an FBI agent or a Moral Majority lobbyist. Curtis, 35, is a video porn prince who has flooded the market in recent years with inexpensive X-rated videocassettes. He's a renegade among renegades, out to become a billion-dollar pornographer, and he doesn't care who knows it. He's proud of the fact that he has made cheap sex even cheaper. He compares his competitors to American auto makers who were "lying on their laurels" when the Japanese figured out how to make good cars that cost less.

Curtis seems to be daring the world to give him his comeuppence.

"I'm always looking to cut corners, to cut people out of the picture," says the shaggy-haired owner of Video Exclusives, whose speech is bland and filled with "stuffs" and "that theres" that belie his hard-edged style of doing business. His spacious Canoga Park office, in the heart of the San Fernando Valley, the nation's porn capital, is littered with stacks of videotape boxes bearing the images of over-inflated, glycerine-coated men and women, while above him are 10 security monitors that allow him to keep an eye on every employee and every phase of his burgeoning operation.

He says his sales figures rose from $3 million less than a decade ago to more than $30 million last year, which allowed him to open up a 7,500-square-foot sound stage. Housed in a Valley warehouse, it is a cheap knockoff of a Hollywood set, with faux hospital rooms and an ice cave made of Styrofoam for a wilderness thriller. His success in porn movies, along with an Indiana mail-order business, also has allowed him to amass an impressive collection of exotic cars, including a Bentley, a classic Corvette, a Porsche Carrera and a Ferrari Testarossa.

"I came up with the idea that instead of shooting over two to three days, you could do it in one day. Instead of a 30-page script, you could use a 15-page script. If you didn't move to different locations, that cut costs tremendously."

Others dispute the idea that it was Curtis who caused the price of an X-rated cassette to plunge from $100 a few years ago to as low as $5 today. Critics say he is just the industry's most swashbuckling price-cutter, delivering an inferior product. Curtis doesn't spend much time worrying about what his competitors think of him. He is too busy planning his next move to out-flank his opponents in the flesh wars.

In his office on this sparkling winter morning, for instance, Curtis unveils his latest project. She is a 19-year-old blonde from Sydney, Australia, who uses the name Kelly Blue. She pertly declares her ambition to be "the No. 1 Australian porn girl." In what she may have imagined was true Yank-speak, she adds enthusiastically, "I want to make big dollars."

Curtis is happy to help. After signing her to an exclusive contract, he paid for plastic surgery to shrink her nose and enlarge her breasts from a Size 32A to a DD cup. "Girls that Mark built" is how an aide refers to the women Curtis has redesigned for maximum erotic appeal. "We make the stars, instead of waiting for them to come to us," he says.

Curtis' love of tinkering with the female anatomy extends to his dating habits. Before picking up a woman for a night on the town, he sends his makeup man ahead to prepare her. "That's not weird, is it?" he asks.

Next in line after Blue is a director who proposes shooting a sex movie in Mexico, near the famous ruins in Chichen Itza. The idea catches Curtis' fancy.

"Can we do a sex scene on the ruins?" he asks eagerly. The director, who asks not to be identified, politely replies that he doesn't think the Mexican authorities would go for it. Curtis offers $20,000. The director is disappointed.

"If I'm going to do this, I want it to be good," the director says, trying to appeal to the businessman's artistic instincts. "I want to keep a certain type of quality."

"That's what we're shooting for," Curtis replies. He doesn't change the offer.

Seeing his dreams of producing the Mexican version of "A Man and a Woman" drifting out the window, the director changes the subject. "How's the talent? Still as flaky?"

"They never change," Curtis replies.

Firing up his Bentley minutes later for a trip to a favorite expensive Italian restaurant in the Valley, Curtis sums up his attitude toward the performers: "My mother used to tell me, 'All women are whores and sluts.' And she was right."

It sounds like a purposely tasteless jab, the kind of misogynistic joke that might be told after a few beers at a boys' night poker game, but he isn't smiling. In a business with a reputation for degrading women, Curtis is every feminist's nightmare. He denies it, however. "We're not rapists and pillagers," he says.

"This man has a heart of gold," his aide says on cue.

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