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The XXX factor

A festival hit shows that porn filmmakers can cross over.

July 01, 2006|John Horn | Times Staff Writer

A drama about two Echo Park teenagers struggling to find acceptance, "Quinceanera" has become one of the season's indie darlings, winning awards and critical acclaim everywhere it goes.

This from the same filmmakers who brought you hard-core porn titles such as "The Florida Erection," "The Hole" and "Toolbox."

Not that long ago, it was nearly impossible for filmmakers, producers and actors to move from adult cinema into "legitimate" Hollywood. For every Barry Sonnenfeld (a former adult film cinematographer turned "Men in Black" blockbuster director), countless others failed to make the transition.

But those doors are no longer shut tight as the film business becomes increasingly reliant on outside financiers -- people freed from corporate worries about whether a filmmaker's background might hurt box-office business. What's more, porn -- though still widely reviled -- is no longer as socially condemned as it once was.

Another case in point: This May, independent distributor Lionsgate released "See No Evil," a thriller funded by World Wrestling Entertainment and made by director Gregory Dark, whose extensive list of adult film credits includes "Sex Freaks," "New Wave Hookers 3" and "The Devil in Miss Jones 5: The Inferno." Dark, who also has made music videos for Britney Spears and Mandy Moore, declined to be interviewed for this article.

Hollywood's inhibitions about sexually explicit content are receding so fast that a number of established independent film directors have started making movies in which their actors, rather than simulating sex, are having intercourse and performing other graphic sex acts with their costars. Theater owners may refuse to book such explicit films, and newspapers and TV stations may block their ads, but these filmmakers don't seem to mind whatever commercial restraints accompany the inevitable NC-17 rating that such fare is sure to generate.

At this year's Cannes Film Festival, writer-director John Cameron Mitchell introduced "Shortbus," a film Variety movie critic Todd McCarthy called "unquestionably the most sexually graphic American narrative feature ever made outside the realm of the porn industry." Independent distributor ThinkFilm will release "Shortbus" on Oct. 6.

At the same time, adult moviemaking has become a recurrent backdrop in several upcoming films. Producer Marc Toberoff says production should soon commence on the long-delayed "Blue Movie," a satire based on Terry Southern's novel about a major studio's making of a pornographic film. And in the comedy "The Amateurs," premiering Sept. 15, Jeff Bridges plays a small-town dreamer who recruits his neighbors to make an adult film. Says "Amateurs" writer-director Michael Traeger: "I think there is something just inherently funny about porn."

Hollywood's increasingly frequent connections to pornography only parrot what's happening in the rest of popular culture. Hard-core websites fill the Internet, adult performer Jenna Jameson's "How to Make Love Like a Porn Star" was a bestselling book and hard-core DVDs generate estimated annual sales in excess of $12 billion.

It was within that lucrative world of direct-to-video sex films that "Quinceanera" backer Nicholas Boyias met one of his lead "Quinceanera" collaborators, co-director Wash Westmoreland, who also got his filmmaking start in porn.

"We have always wanted to make a movie like this," says Boyias, who makes and distributes adult films through his Marina Pacific Distributors. "We just happened to make our money in the adult business."

Boyias says he met Westmoreland while working on an adult film in 2003, "The Hole." Westmoreland says he originally entered the adult film business to research a feature film about the world of adult entertainment called "The Fluffer." He says he ended up staying longer than expected, mostly because it took Westmoreland and partner Richard Glatzer (who co-directed "Quinceanera" and 2001's "The Fluffer") five years to find a financial backer for the R-rated film.

But the time was well spent, Westmoreland says. He gained invaluable filmmaking experience and was left free to experiment within the adult genre. Although others before him might have been tarred for working in the business, he says he wasn't.

"Toward the end of the 1990s, there was this porn chic, where it was considered very cool. It's never had an effect on my career," Westmoreland says.

He also says that, although others might have had a difficult time leaving adult films, he didn't. "It's sort of a glass ceiling -- you push hard enough and you will smash through."

Nevertheless, some people who have made the jump from pornography to mainstream films appear to be uninterested in calling attention to their past. In earlier interviews, some of "Quinceanera's" makers have said the movie was financed by real estate developers and businessmen. In press notes for the film, Boyias is described as running a "wholesale distribution company." No mention is made of what Boyias actually distributes.

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