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Pushing Porn on DVDs

Movies: Adult productions are exploiting newest home entertainment form. Interactivity intrigues Hollywood, alarms others.

January 09, 2001|KAREN KAPLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The future of digital entertainment is unfolding inside a room at VCA Labs, where a bank of whirring computers and video equipment is churning out such forgettable movie titles as "Stupid Cupid" and "Carwash Angels 2."

The Chatsworth company has produced more than 135 DVD movies that let viewers decide how the plot should twist, select a special camera angle and even interact with the on-screen stars.

It's cutting-edge work in a cutthroat industry--one that has always pushed the boundaries of technology, and always at a profit. It also happens to be pornographic.

"From the second the camera was invented, someone took their clothes off in front of it," said William Margold, a board member of the Free Speech Coalition, an advocacy group for the adult entertainment industry. "Now they're taking their clothes off on the Internet and on DVDs."

Once again, the world's oldest industry is shaping tomorrow's mainstream entertainment.

From the printing press to the Internet, purveyors of adult entertainment have consistently been a force in introducing and popularizing new technologies.

In the late 1970s, they released movies on videotape and prompted customers across the country to buy VCRs. In the early 1990s, they were the most enthusiastic embracers of interactive CD-ROM technology. A few years later, they became the first companies to make money building sites on the World Wide Web.

As the multibillion-dollar war for the eyes and wallets of the masses shifts from computer desktops to the wired living room, pornographers again are on the leading edge.

The industry has begun to make DVD movies that resemble video games, allowing viewers not only to watch but also to play. Online porn companies have rolled out services that allow Web surfers to chat with nude dancers as they shake and shimmy on screen. A handful of firms have developed devices that can be strapped onto sensitive body parts and then hooked up to a computer for the dubious purpose of having a virtual sexual experience.

"The technology fits our product," said VCA Labs' DVD producer, a straightforward and serious man who goes by the stage name Wit Maverick.

Adult Industry Leads in Tech Advancements

Technology offerings from adult entertainment companies grew so plentiful at the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas that this year the porn industry pulled out and established two shows of its own--one devoted to the Internet, the other focusing on DVD and home video.

Nobody knows exactly how many porn titles are among the 192 million DVDs that market researcher InfoTech estimates were sold in the United States last year for a total of $3.7 billion. But the industry's largest mail-order and online retailer, Adult DVD Empire, sells 30,000 DVDs at $24 to $30 apiece each month through its Web site, said Chief Executive Jeff Rix.

The popularity of porn DVDs worries anti-porn crusaders, who fear that anything that makes pornography more realistic will inevitably make it more popular.

Monique Nelson, chief executive of Enough Is Enough, a national group based in Santa Ana that crusades against pornography on the Internet, said that children could easily be pulled in by the interactive, game-like nature of these DVDs.

"With this being so high-tech, I'm not quite sure how many adults will know how to do this, but I know that kids certainly will," Nelson said.

Those who study the relationship between technology and pornography says it's no surprise that adult entertainment companies are in the vanguard. After all, sex sells, and the profit it generates fuels the experimentation with technologies that mainstream Hollywood is more hesitant about embracing.

Experimenting with even the kookiest ideas is relatively inexpensive for an outfit like VCA and its San Fernando Valley brethren, such as Vivid Video and Wicked Pictures. No female porn star makes close to the $20 million an actress such as Julia Roberts commands for a film. Other production costs also are lower, because most adult movies can be shot in one or two days.

With each company releasing a half-dozen or more titles each month, adult filmmakers can more easily afford to push the boundaries of technology than their counterparts in mainstream Hollywood.

Perhaps the most compelling force linking technology and pornography is the consumer demand for greater privacy.

DVDs Give Viewer More Active Role

Adult movies on VHS cassettes made it possible to "bring porn into the home," said Constance Penley, a professor of film and women's studies at UC Santa Barbara who teaches a course on pornography.

"You didn't have to go out to a theater and risk being seen," Penley said. "With regular video stores having a section for adult work, you didn't even have to go to a porn store. And with the Internet, you didn't even have to go to a store."

With Internet connections available in most homes, adult entertainment creators are raising the technology stakes by focusing on interactivity.

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