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    Production still from Star Wars XXX. Image: Vivid Entertainment

    The Last Gasp of the Big Budget Porno

    Written by

    Lux Alptraum

    In 2011, award winning porn director Axel Braun produced and directed Star Wars XXX; a glossy, expensive, and very hardcore take on the story of Luke Skywalker. Not surprisingly, the film proved popular, taking home 8 AVN Awards and—at least according to Braun—becoming the highest selling pornographic film in history. (Since few porn companies publicly release sales numbers, this claim is pretty hard to verify.)

    With The Force Awakens renewing Star Wars mania, Braun’s hoping to dust off the old lightsaber and give the world The Empire Strikes Back XXX. But there’s just one hitch: porn budgets have plummeted over the years, and getting together half a million bucks just to shoot a porn that’ll likely end up freely distributed on piracy-driven tube and torrent sites—well, it doesn’t make much financial sense.

    So instead of getting the backing of a studio like Vivid, which funded Star Wars XXX, or self funding the budget and hoping for the best, Braun’s decided to turn to his fan base to finance the film. Two weeks ago, Braun launched an Indiegogo campaign for The Empire Strikes Back XXX, asking fans to chip in $500k—and promising that, should the project be fully funded, the resulting film will be available for free forever.

    If Braun reaches his target of half a million dollars, he’ll be making history. Though porn projects have turned to crowdfunding before, none have ever been quite as ambitious as Empire Strikes Back XXX. The only campaign to even come close received a mediocre reception, raising a mere 3 percent of its $250k goal. But with free porn de rigeur, and most consumers more interested in watching individual scenes than full-on features, it’s hard not to wonder whether the age of the big budget porno has passed. Even during porn’s most profitable eras, it was rare for filmmakers to devote six figures to a single porn flick. How could it possibly make economic sense to make one today?


    It's about what you'd expect.

    To understand the economics of big budget porn movies, I reached out to Adella, the former director of marketing for Digital Playground, the company that brought the world Pirates and Pirates II, movies that rival Braun’s claim to the biggest budget porno record.

    Though the Pirates flicks weren’t quite as expensive as advertised—Adella estimated that the budgets were about $400k and $800k for the original and the sequel, rather than the $1m and $8m commonly referenced online—they were still massively high budget for porn productions, which tend to max out around $50k per picture. And though the investment paid off—both films were wildly profitable enterprises—it wasn’t just a thirst for high-end hardcore that turned them into cash cows.

    While the XXX cuts of Pirates and Pirates II might have received the most media attention, they weren’t the only versions available. Digital Playground also produced softcore, R, and, somehow, PG versions of the film (available in Japan, and difficult to track down online), which were distributed through a number of different channels. It was available through hotel pay-per-view, offered on adult cable channels, and even in Blockbuster video. Pirates was also offered in multiple languages, all around the globe—Japan, Brazil, France, Germany, UK, Australia, Canada, Switzerland, Mexico, and Italy were some of the film’s international markets—and each international market had its own hardcore, softcore, and mainstream cut, to accommodate local smut standards.

    And all those different markets were essential to making these porno features profitable. Strange though it may seem, Adella informed me that the R-rated version of Pirates actually sold more copies than its XXX counterpart. (It’s worth noting that since the hardcore version was twice as expensive, it might have still brought in more total revenue.)

    The entire media landscape that made high-end porn features economically viable has collapsed in on itself

    But, as anyone with a passing awareness of the entertainment industry knows, things have changed quite a great deal since Pirates II debuted in 2008. Blockbuster Video is long gone, and most hotels have dropped pay-per-view in favor of onsite internet. Netflix and other streaming services have chipped away at viewer interest in cable VOD services.

    And the profit sources that are left pale in comparison to what once existed. “The traditional revenue streams that are remaining are earning so much less than before, just a fraction of what [they] earned during the time of Pirates,” said. Lee Roy Myers, who, in addition to being a celebrated porn parody director himself, owns a broadcast licensing company. According to Myers, DVDs that might once have sold tens or hundreds of thousands of copies now max out in the hundreds or thousands, period. In an effort to compete with Netflix, broadcast services are paying lower rates while requiring greater amounts of content.

    The issue isn’t merely that no one pays for porn anymore. It’s that the entire media landscape that made high-end porn features economically viable has collapsed in on itself. Without a thriving video rental and pay-per-view market, it’s harder to make back millions on a Hollywood-quality porn movie—and without the potential for vast amounts of profit, it’s difficult to justify putting in the blood, sweat, and jizz required to realize this kind of artistic vision.

    Which brings us back to the question of crowdfunding. If broadcast, Blockbuster, and hotel chains aren’t there to insure the profitability of a big budget porn project, will a direct appeal to the fans do the trick? Braun’s assembled a wide array of awards, from signed scripts and posters to dates with members of the cast, but will that actually be enough?

    It remains to be seen. One thing’s for sure, though: If we value hardcore entertainment with a level of quality that rivals Hollywood productions, we’re going to have to find a way to make it worth the time, effort, and money of producers, performers, and directors. If we can’t do that, the industry will continue to shrink—and we won’t get to see a pornified version of The Empire Strikes Back (let alone The Return of the Jedi, or a prequel series with long, complicated speeches about the role jizzichlorians play in the Force).