| FILM FEATURE|
|Skin city: From Bustleton Avenue to Hollywood Boulevard, Fishbein's business has come a long way.|
Philly-bred Paul Fishbein’s “Oscars of adult” turns 25.
by Anthony Layser
More people are familiar with Tera Patrick than will admit in mixed company. And her
renown, acknowledged or not, is a major reason why she’s been tapped to co-host the 25th
annual AVN Adult Movie Awards on Saturday.
“Adult is mainstream now, but the AVN awards are still the one day of the year that
the performers are validated for all the hard work we put in,” said the curvy,
dark-haired beauty weeks before taking the stage.
This year’s ceremony at Las Vegas’ Mandalay Bay Events Center will also serve as
validation for AVN founder Paul Fishbein. Now the company’s president, the publisher
from Northeast Philadelphia has guided every step of the magazine’s rise. It’s now
considered the bible of the adult video industry.
In its current form, the glossy 200-plus-page monthly melange of skin-flick ads,
industry-news blurbs and feature stories is much evolved from the eight-page
black-and-white newsletter that Fishbein, Barry Rosenblatt and Temple classmate Irv
Slifkin created back in 1983.
It was long before then, however, that Fishbein realized he wanted to get into the
magazine business. A fervent wrestling fan as a teenager, he cobbled together a
quarterly fan zine called Universal Wrestling out of his parents’ home
on Bustleton Avenue and Verree Road. While selling subscriptions for $10 a year, he also
had a lucrative side business.
“We’d print bootleg wrestling programs and sell them outside the Spectrum for $1,”
laughed Fishbein from his Los Angeles office in early December. “Our parents would drive
us down there; we’d hand them out, go see the matches and count 300 or 400 one-dollar
bills in the car on the way home. That was a good little gig.”
His accomplice in the wrestling-program racket was classmate Stuart Franks. In Franks,
the son of a printer, Fishbein found an important ally. So important, in fact, that the
two are business partners today with Franks’ Philly-based Printers Trade company
handling distribution for all AVN publications.
“We always deal with our issues, and if we disagree we put it behind us immediately,”
says Franks about the partnership. “It helps that I’ve always thought [AVN] was a great
The AVN idea was born in a video-rental shop on Castor Avenue called Movies Unlimited.
Now a mail-order video retailer located in a warehouse near the Northeast Philadelphia
Airport, Movies Unlimited once had shops throughout the region, and Fishbein and friend
Irv Slifkin worked as clerks for the company while attending Temple. Nearing graduation,
the aspiring journalists brainstormed what to do next.
“We noticed that people who had VCRs for the first time kept coming in wanting us to
recommend porn films,” says Fishbein. “We didn’t know. I’d seen five or six in my life.”
To address the void, Fishbein and Slifkin teamed with Rosenblatt, a graphic-design
student, to create a sample issue. They advertised in the back of men’s magazines, and
before long video-rental shops across the country began requesting the newsletter.
Slifkin, a film buff, saw the opportunity as a chance to write about adult cinema as a
legitimately artistic pursuit. It took only a year for him to realize that adult
“filmmaking” was changing with the burgeoning home-video industry.
“The product was getting worse,” says Slifkin. “It didn’t interest me as film anymore.
With the shot-on-video, all-sex stuff taking over, reviewing the movies became more of a
chore. How many ways can you write about movies that are all sex? It just bored me.”
After Slifkin’s exit, Fishbein and Rosenblatt got an office on Castor Avenue. Three
years later a falling out between the remaining two founders left Rosenblatt with the
office and Fishbein with AVN, which he went on to operate out of Upper Darby until 1991.
At that point the adult industry had become well established in California’s San
Fernando Valley and it made sense for Fishbein to move his publication west.
Over the years AVN has grown with the industry it covers and become an integral cog in
the multibillion-dollar adult entertainment machine. It looks to continue to gain
exposure with rumors swirling that big-name cable networks have expressed interest in
airing their awards’ ceremony, a staple of Playboy TV for the last decade. But with his
successes, Fishbein has had his share of setbacks.
AVN incurred heavy debts early (they were paid off in large part thanks to Franks
being added as a partner after Rosenblatt’s departure). And there have been personal
issues. Fishbein is on his third and, he claims, “final marriage” to a former adult
actress. Then there’s The Money Shot, a production Fishbein financed
with his own money in 2000. The series aired as a dozen 10-minute episodes on iFilm, and
Fishbein envisioned it as his ticket to producing mainstream fare.
“I got meetings at HBO, Showtime and Comedy Central, but they didn’t want to pick it
up,” he remembers wistfully. “So I wasted like $100,000, but at least I took a shot.”
These days Fishbein’s side project is his family. The 48-year-old had his first child,
a daughter, 18 months ago.
“He’s always been a little type-A since I’ve known him,” says Slifkin. “But I think
having a child has settled him down and grounded him in different ways.”
Part of being grounded seems to be that Fishbein has resigned himself to being on the
fringes. While stars like Tera Patrick may see adult as being mainstream, Fishbein is
more realistic about the way the business is perceived.
“It’s really not mainstream. It’s a subtext in our culture. It’s not as naughty, but
it’s still naughty,” he says. “The porn stars are never going to become major Hollywood
stars, and it doesn’t operate by the same rules. And by the way, I think that’s a good
thing. It needs to have a naughty edge.”