| ON THE COVER
We Want Our Porn and We Want It Now!
The Youth Market: Who Is It, Why Is It, and What Does It Mean for Retailers?
CHATSWORTH, Calif. - Fifty years ago, troubled, angst-spewing insurgent James Dean lurched across the big screen in Rebel Without a Cause and into the cultural anthropology textbooks as The First American Teenager. Of course, by the time the film premiered, Dean had been dead for a month at the not-so-teen-age of 24, but that hardly mattered. His sexy ghost heralded a new generation, one that did not have to head off to war, one that would and could embrace cars and fashion and music and leisure time in a more passionate and catholic way than any generation before it.
And, most importantly, these merch-hungry young hedonists possessed the key ingredient, the grand enabler for all of the above: disposable income.
This fact did not go unnoticed by Madison Avenue, and thus began a deluge of product for this newborn demographic that was just waking up and learning to stretch its spending wings. The boys and girls gobbled up the goods. Mustangs, mini-skirts, movies - things created just for them by people who were specifically not them, all based on meticulous street-trend marketing research.
But in the late 1970s something happened, specifically in the realm of music. Certain factions of the youthful public became disenchanted with the current batch of corporate longhaired plod rock; thus punk was born. Young people creating music and fashion outside of "the system" for their own crowd based on a middle finger mission statement. It didn't take long for all that Attitude and all that crappy-chic clothing to go from piss-scented nightclub to Parisian runway to a Target near you. The "I Want Mine" cry has reverberated down to the current Echo Boomer consumer with suppliers and dollar signs not far behind.
And now it has come to porn.
Whether you call it "youth market" or "alt-porn," it's adult material created for young adults, often by their contemporaries. It breaks down into two sub-genres: On one side, it's dark and hip. It's sex slathered with a kink veneer of tattoos and piercings and all the trappings of a downtown dive nightclub, including soundtracks by punk auteurs such as Rancid and Youth Brigade. On the lighter side, it's couched in the party-time, beer-chugging world of fuck-filled collegiate hijinx, a clean, well-lighted arena that, for some, may be more welcoming and just as sex-niche satisfying.
What does this mean for retailers? Though the alt audience at this point may be relatively small, it can only increase in size. The "youth" emblem has always been a major marketing point in mainstream culture, and it should be pointed out that the term has widespread purchase appeal. It attracts not only those qualified by literal age, but consumers long removed from that demographic. It's sexy.
In a business sense, adopting a pro-active, non-prejudicial approach is potentially win-win: sell to the young and the not-so-young will follow. Hook in the currently secondary non-mainstream buyers now, and hold on to them as they mature and their favored product gains acceptance.
No matter what your personal taste in youth porn is, it's supplying the ever-increasing demand of people aged 18 to 25 who want to watch Porn They Can Relate To. They also want porn they can purchase on-line (where that computer genus was born and raised), and porn they can see advertised and promoted in their publications. In their world. According to some, the mainstream porn world has yet to wake up to much of this.
"The industry as a whole, if they're smart, will jump on the bandwagon and start promoting for the younger generation," states freelance actor/director Rob Rotten, a well-pierced man who has more ink than skin showing. "I just turned 24, so I'm still like a kid, and it's really hard for me to go in and talk to people who've been doing porn for 20-plus years. They've had this same formula that's worked for them for that time. If they put a blond on the cover, they're going to sell 4,000 pieces and make money off a $20,000 movie."
Keep in mind that Rotten is no rogue porner, standing on the outskirts screaming at the establishment. He's worked for no less a company than Metro; it's released two Rotten titles, Fuck the System and the upcoming Porn of the Dead.
"It's really hard to convince these people that if you hit a new angle, you're going to go way over the 4,000 mark," he continues. "You need to hit up a new generation of viewers because the people you're marketing to right now are at some point going to stop watching porn, or they're just going to die. They're hitting up a generation that's getting old."
Petite, raven-haired Rutgers grad Joanna Angel co-founded the New York-based Burning Angel Website four years ago, devoted to the downtown loft-dwelling lifestyle of her audience. Featuring band interviews and indie-goth-emo-punk (read tats, piercings, dyed hair) girls displaying their wares, Angel and company have lately branched out into XXX movies starring herself, notably Burning Angel: The Movie (Burningangel.com), and her latest effort, Joanna's Angels (VCA Pictures). At this stage, all of her material is available at burningangel.com, far from the traditional market shelves of brick and mortar.
"The problem is that most of the people making porn are pretty far from the youth demographic, most of the directors are older, and they're selling to people like them," she states. "I'm making movies to sell to people like me. I don't really know how to make movies for anyone else, and if it just so happens people who aren't like me like my work, so be it."
Angel concedes that there are pros and cons when selling product to her age group versus the 30-plus fogey sector.
"It's a little bit harder because some younger people maybe don't have as much disposable income, but maybe they get laid more often than older people, so it's easier to sell to the older demographic."
This yearning for adult fare untouched by "older people" extends across the Atlantic, according to 33-year-old Brit director Anna Span, who's been behind the camera in her native land for seven years. Her work consists in large part of gonzo material geared toward the young set, notably Hoxton Honey and Anna's Mates, produced for Union Jaxxx.
"I went to art school, and when I got out I just made films about people like me because I was bored stiff with the settings of the [then-current] films, the ages of the people in it, the fact that there was nothing cool about them," she declares. "I work with young models in environments that they'd actually be in," Span declares. "I get a lot of young fan mail, and I meet a lot of people who are younger, who tell me it makes a difference in that it talks to them about their own lives in their own language. Whether it's art students or young professionals, it speaks directly to them. People are sick, especially in England, of the very pneumatic blondes."
When the mainstream press writes about alt-porn, the name Eon McKai stands out (and not merely because he named himself after DIY straight-edge punk legend Ian McKai). In fact, Eon is more or less the poster boy for the movement; his two releases to date - Art School Sluts and Kill Girl Kill - providing a kind of stylistic blueprint. Unlike Rotten and Angel, he's a hired gun for venerable VCA, owned by Hustler. Though he's given a great deal of creative freedom, there are basic principles of production that must be adhered to, even by a genre-forging maverick.
"They're always worried about the release schedule and quality control and meeting the release schedule," McKai reveals. "That's what they talk to me about on a daily basis. I'm making a product, and the moment it stops being a product is the moment VCA stops giving me money to make it."
Despite McKai's success, the youth market is essentially an unproven one at this point; it's difficult to blame the established powers that be for not immediately switching genres, and many companies have and will always maintain a strong market for what they do. Still, the outspoken Rotten's forecast is unfazed.
"I understand the porn world is afraid to take risks, but it's going to have to happen," he offers. "What's going to happen is some small company - the way the gonzo market started - is going to take control of the whole industry and everything is going to get shuffled again. It's all because people are unwilling to change."
One company that defies the Rotten theory (and a company that has no need to change, thank you) is Shane's World, a pioneering concern that has been catering to the youth market for a decade. Founded by AVN Hall of Fame vixen Shane, the World's vision was and is built around fun, informal gonzo sex romps that take place in habitats natural to the college set. Current co-owners Jennie and Brian Grant have been around since its inception (Brian was the original shooter and editor, jobs he still enjoys); the pair bought Shane out in 1999. She hasn't appeared in her namesake series since then.
"We started in the beginning knowing that [youth] was the market we wanted to go for, and we think Shane's World has had a big influence then and with what's happening now," states Brian. The company's highly branded trademark of college location shoots have been somewhat controversial. Certain school administrators aren't exactly thrilled with the idea when they learn about it post-coitus.
The company has received much press over the years, including a feature in Rolling Stone detailing its filming excursions to actual college campuses, where actual college students get to couple with actual porn stars. Talk about the mountain coming to Mohammed. Shane's World's College Invasion 1-7 are prime examples of this device.
"For us, [the youth market is] the college age crowd," emphasizes Jennie. "We've always wanted to be like the adult MTV for them, and do anything that appeals to them. We've done things like Jackass in Shane's World 31; we look at our company as a studio, and we don't just make one type of product," she continues. "We don't just take porn stars on trips. We look at is what different lines or shows will appeal to that market. Like we just did our first gonzo feature, and that's very geared toward a younger demographic. We go after that with our graphics and things, but it's more of a sensibility."
Though the Grants are no longer in the mid-20s age range of McKai, Angel and Rotten, they make it a point to keep their finger on the pulse of the young.
"If you're talking about market research or anything like that, we have a lot of young people that work for us, that's the first thing," says Brian of the Shane's World strategy. "The second thing is, our viewers contact us. They email us, we talk to them, they tell us what they want to see."
"We're also living in this culture," reminds Jennie. "We watch TV, we read magazines. Youth is all around you." Though, over their tenure in the business, they've seen things progress, which has opened up the market place in terms of buyers.
"Young people's attitudes towards sex and towards being in videos have definitely changed in the last 10 years," Jennie states. "Ten years ago, the amount of girls that considered themselves bisexual was far smaller than it is now. If you go to colleges, it's no big deal to be having sex with your best friend." Excellent news for parents of freshmen.
Other companies and directors might offer similar, porn-stars-on-the-road product (the rousing Billy Glide's XXX Adventures, for example, for Billy Glide Productions/Maximum Xposure), but the Grants feel they've long-cornered their unique corner of the market.
"Nobody was doing what we were doing 10 years ago," says Jennie. "And honestly, in a lot of ways, no one is doing it now." And their feelings about the darker alt-porn artistes?
"I think it's great," stresses Brian. "We don't see it as competition."
"I think the more voices there are doing different visions, that's what makes it more diverse and interesting," Jennie says. "I think people trying to have a creative vision is cool."
One major, genre-defining element (and selling point) of the alt-porn crowd's vision has to do with female talent. The manicured, augmented, blow-dried look of a lot of mainstream porn starlets is strictly verboten. In fact, it's major tent pole of the alt-marketing ethos.
"I don't want to shoot fake boobs," McKai registers succinctly.
The honest-chested Angel has her own take on it (for the record, the Burning Angel site does have "a couple girls with fake boobs."):
"I go by what I like, whereas most people in the industry think about whether the girl's going to make a lot of money. They think more in terms of marketing than passion."
"When I cast movies, I cast chicks that I think are rad, and that corresponds to the viewers [tastes] I have in mind," reveals Rotten. "I don't want to use a Jenna look-alike - and I love that shit to death - but I think there's so much more beauty in an alternative chick who didn't have plastic surgery and go through all these enhancements to make her look like a Barbie doll."
Of course, what the alt honies lack in the dreaded Breasts That Are a Lie department, they make up for in body art and bits of skin-inserted metal. And none of that was included in the initial God-designed package either. According to the irrepressible Rotten, however, the alt-natural look needn't appeal only to those who've personally adopted that aesthetic.
"It's one thing to see a punk rock chick get railed if you're a punk rock dude, it's like, 'Oh yeah. I fucked a chick with a Mohawk yesterday.' But the pretty frat boy wearing a sweater vest might be like, 'Dude! I've never even had the chance to talk to a chick with a Mohawk, let alone rail her!' So I think, across the board, it's going to work out. And I don't mean just in my movies."
In keeping with the underground appeal of alt-porn, there is alt-promotion, an avenue of getting the word out beyond advertising in the pages of the magazine you're reading. The Internet is key for the youth demographic.
"Since watching Suicide Girls [the popular alt-chick Website] grow, I try and promote my product in the same way," says McKai, who is also promoted by his company, VCA. "One of the first things I did was create a Myspace profile and start talking to the kids, just open that channel. We sent buttons to people, IM'd people, flirted with girls."
"Every gonzo line should have a Website," states Rotten, "and don't make it a pay site, just make it a place where you can buy DVDs. People of my generation don't want to go into stores and buy this shit."
And there are other, even more guerilla-style methods. Rotten will tell us about them.
"I wouldn't be where I'm at now if it wasn't for all the street promoting that I've done. Wheat pasting and putting up posters and things I've taken from the music industry and switched to porn, and it works so good."
At 48, New York-based porn writer/director/actor/musician Joe Gallant, is a couple booms away from the upstart 20s crowd. Yet for many years, his outsider pro-am adult work (such AVN Award-winning titles as NYC Underground: Times Square Trash 2 and The Luv Generation, both for Gallant's Black Mirror Productions) and attitude has been steeped in the urban-cool essence in vogue with the current alt-porners. There are differences, however. Gallant's movies feature a smorgasbord of unique delights (butt bongs and geysering milk enemas, par example), and, though stylistically there are ties to the product of those mentioned above, some would venture his radical work out-alts alt. It ain't for the kids.
"I have some older friends who have been watching porn for along time and need something over the top and different," states fellow Gothamite Angel. "But I think his stuff is for 25 and older at least. It's not like a first porno to watch."
Mr. Gallant (who likes McKai's output, "Eon's a good kid.") would beg to differ.
"As much as people my age like my stuff, a lot of kids love it because it's really reflective of a certain grit that they find lacking in other types of porn," he says. "Pardon me for addressing this, but isn't the whole point of youth to be pushing boundaries?" he questions. "It was when I was a young'un. We live in an age when they're so Seinfelded, they're so co-opted, they're so commodified, that anything that involves a sleeve of tats or a couple piercings is suddenly retro-edgy. Tats and piercings do not good porn or even youth market porn make."
Bold words indeed, and the man isn't finished.
"The hippest, ground zero kids I know, I'm talking like 19, 20, 21, the ones that really are accomplished and smart and aware of the world, they watch porn from the '60s through the '90s," he continues. "They're watching Japanese bondage enema flicks; they're watching Brazilian German shepherd movies; they're watching old Vanessa Del Rio tapes. They're watching stuff that they find that they like. ... It's still about the dick and the pussy, and if someone wants a nipple ring and a nose ring and a death metal score, well, it's still about whether the dick and the pussy turn you on."
If you listen to folks like Angel, Rotten, McKai and the Grants, yes, they want to make money, yes they want to succeed, but they claim honest passion for what they do can co-habitate with all those potential fuck bucks.
"I'm trying to hit up my interests. Hopefully the general public will agree with my tastes," states Rotten. "When I'm coming up with ideas, I'm not thinking about sales or who's going to watch it, I'm thinking about what I want to do and what I think is going to make a cool movie."
"We just want to make product that we enjoy making," echoes Jennie Grant. "Everything we do we have to have fun doing it, or the audience knows."
Obviously, the passage of time will dictate changing audiences and their attendant tastes and purchasing options, but the potential growth of the alt-porn/youth market begs an interesting point. If, as Rotten predicts, the genre takes over the industry, it could become the thing it seems to deplore. It will become the norm; it will be the mainstream. Meet the new boss?
Ten years from now, will there be a new wave of hopped-up young industry blood clambering for a return to fake boobs and perfect make-up when McKai and Angel and Rotten are teetering into their mid-30s?
Whether or not alt becomes a swollen-teated cash cow waiting to be milked all the way to the bank remains to be seen. Right now, for McKai and others, the job at hand is clear.
"My goal is, when you go to the store, there's going to be a spot on the shelf for us," he says. "If there can be a tranny shelf, there can be an alt-porn shelf. There just needs to be enough movies. The distributors are starting to wake up to it, but we're not there yet. It's a slow ride."
- Peter Stokes