The actress known as Savanna Samson once relished preparing for a role. “I couldn’t wait to get my next script,” she said.
There’s no reason to look at them anymore, she said, because her movies now call almost exclusively for action. Specifically, sex.
The pornographic movie industry has long had only a casual interest in plot and dialogue. But moviemakers are focusing even less on narrative arcs these days. Instead, they are filming more short scenes that can be easily uploaded to Web sites and sold in several-minute chunks.
“On the Internet, the average attention span is three to five minutes. We have to cater to that,” said Steven Hirsch, co-chairman of Vivid Entertainment.
Vivid, one of the most prominent pornography studios, makes 60 films a year. Three years ago, almost all of them were feature-length films with story lines. Today, more than half are a series of sex scenes, loosely connected by some thread — “vignettes” in the industry vernacular — that can be presented separately online. Other major studios are making similar shifts.
The industry’s interest in scripted scenes has waxed and waned in recent decades because of changes in technology. In the early 1970s, movies with loose story lines, like Deep Throat and Behind the Green Door, won a mainstream audience, and others tried to copy their success, selling plot-centric movies to couples watching at home with the VCR technology introduced in 1975.
The falling cost of hand-held video cameras gave birth to a generation of pornographers with little interest in drama beyond a cliched plot involving a pizza delivery boy, said Paul Fishbein, president of the AVN Media Network, an industry trade publication.
Fishbein said plot came into vogue again in the late 1990s with the boom of the DVD. Big studios, he said, figured plots would make their films more appealing to women and encourage couples to bring them into their homes — whether on disc or pay-per-view.
Plot-centrism was in full bloom in 2005 with the release of Pirates, about a ragtag group of sailors who go after a band of evil pirates.
That movie, with a budget of more than US$1 million, had special effects (pirates materializing from the mist), and, yes, lots of sex. Two years later, the movie’s studio, Digital Playground, spent US$8 million on a sequel — a remarkable sum in an industry where the average movie costs US$25,000, according to the director of the two movies, Ali Joone.
But interest in DVDs has fallen sharply, Fishbein said, because the Internet has made it easy to watch snippets of video.
Fishbein estimated that pornographic DVD sales and rentals in the US generated US$3.62 billion in 2006 but had fallen as much as 50 percent since then. He notes that the slump has made some companies reluctant to share sales figures, so his estimates are getting rougher.
The big studios, like Vivid and Digital Playground, have turned to a subscription model, charging monthly fees for access to their Web sites and advertising the frequency with which they add new clips.
Joone said that of Digital Playground’s 60 productions this year, roughly 30 had little or no plot, up from about 10 two years ago. At Wicked Pictures, which averages one production a week, one-third are essentially just sex, twice as many as a few years ago, said the company’s president, Steve Orenstein.
“The feature is not as big a part of the industry today,” Orenstein said. But he says he still plans two to three bigger-budget releases each year, including the recently shot 2040, which is about the pornography business of the future. Orenstein described the movie as “an almost Romeo-and-Juliet story between an aging porn star and a cyborg.”
In lieu of plot, there are themes. Among the new releases from New Sensations, a studio that makes 24 movies a month, is Girls ’N Glasses, made up of scenes of women having sex while wearing glasses. “It’s almost like we’re back to the late ’70s or early ’80s when the average movie was eight minutes and just a sex scene,” Hirsch said, sounding wistful.
Some in the industry would prefer their sex with a little more character development.
Samson, for example, said she took her acting seriously and used to prepare studiously for her roles, like the character she played in the 2006 movie Flasher.
She said she played a psychotic who, because of the way her mother treated her, “had an obsession with flashing and doing things in public.”
“I used to have dialogue,” said Samson, whose given name is Natalie Oliveros, and who is one of the industry’s biggest stars.
“Getting it on in one hardcore scene after another just isn’t as much fun,” she added.