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How the Porn Industry Set the Stage for Micro-Budget Filmmaking

How the Porn Industry Set the Stage for Micro-Budget Filmmaking

Making a documentary is a bit like putting together a puzzle without knowing what the damned thing is supposed to look like. To give it some structure, you start at the edges, but you have to assemble a lot of pieces before the final picture reveals itself.

We began "X-Rated: The Greatest Adult Movies of All-Time" to combat a stereotype. It’s true that the vast majority of adult films are artless, disposable crap, but there are exceptions. Like any other genre, porn has produced some extraordinary, well-crafted and even important films, and we set out to prove it.

A difficult task, sure, but a fairly straightforward narrative. However, as we got deeper into shooting, and especially when I starting assembling the movie, we realized what we had actually created was a shorthand history of the modern adult industry. From the birth of theatrical porn features with "Deep Throat" through the HD epics of the mid-2000s like "Pirates" and "Upload" right through to "Submission of Emma Marx," and similar small, "romance" features, the whole story is right there in our documentary.

It’s also a microcosmic view of the bleeding edge of micro-budget filmmaking, dating back to a decade when that term hadn’t even been coined. For me, as a director, that’s some of the most fascinating stuff. I directed four ultra-low budget features for Roger Corman, and I thought we worked fast and cheap, but once you start digging around behind the scenes, you realize no one — absolutely no one — works harder, faster or cheaper than porn crews.

"Then why are most porn films so awful?" is usually the next question. My answer is that you truly don’t understand how quickly and cheaply those movies are made. The average five-scene, two-hour feature costs around $25,000 all-in, post included. It’s not uncommon for adult directors to have to finish 10 (or more) pages of dialogue and one or two sex scenes (each of which can take two to four hours to shoot) in a day. Given those limitations, I’d be curious to see what Soderbergh or Scorsese or the Coen Brothers would turn in.

That incredible pressure to constantly do more for less has led to adult filmmakers pushing the envelope to squeeze the last ounce of production value out of every dollar. Even in the modern era when it isn’t considered absurd for someone to watch "Lawrence of Arabia" on their phone, some pornographers are shooting in 4K. This, despite the fact that the studios they’re shooting for will likely never release the end product in any resolution greater than 1080. These directors want to do the best they can, even if there’s a disconnect between production and distribution.

In the beginning of the theatrical era, the choices were simple. You shot flat 35mm, and if you were short on production cash, you looped all the audio in later. Home video changed the entire paradigm. The first ripples of the VCR shockwave were felt on the distribution side as movie theaters saw customers slipping away into the comfort of their own homes. People kept shooting film, but once the primary target became home video rather than theaters, 35mm became a very rare animal, replaced by 16mm.

A few years later, video cameras had caught up with players. They were expensive, and the quality was terrible, but they offered instant playback and blank tape was a helluva lot less expensive than film stock. Also, there were no lab fees, editing was quicker and cheaper, and there was no telecine to get the movie onto tape.

For a long time, porn studios cranked out lousy movies as fast as tapes could be duplicated. Quality plummeted, but sales soared, thanks largely to well-photographed, misleading boxes. When people explain that VHS won the first home video format war over Beta because Sony stopped allowing porn to be released on its proprietary Betamax tapes, it isn’t hyperbole. But there’s also a good reason we have very few films from the ’80s in our documentary… they stunk.

Eventually, consumers began voting with their wallets, demanding something better inside the pretty box. Some companies began shooting occasional films (on 16mm) as prestige projects. Others invested in higher-quality video equipment, like digi-beta cameras. The adult industry got back to making movies, and doing the best they could with the little resources they had.

This led to some great movies that still stand up creatively, but have aged badly for various reasons. Paul Thomas’ "Justine" is a well-written, well-acted film, shot on 16mm. Unfortunately, the 1993 transfer of the film leaves a lot to be desired, and it’s likely the actual negative is long lost. Brad Armstrong’s Jenna Jameson vehicle "Flashpoint" is an incredibly ambitious project, with big fire scenes throughout. However, it was shot on some of the best video gear available in 1997, which leaves it looking dated, and there’s no fix for it.

Porn became so entrenched in VHS that other formats were ignored, to their own detriment. A handful of adult titles were released on LaserDisc, but it remained a videophile format. No porn was ever released on RCA’s CED discs. But when DVD came along, the adult industry took notice in a big way. 

At roughly the same time, directors rushed to embrace Mini-DV cameras for production. These produced a broadcast-quality image which didn’t degrade when copied or transferred. It seemed like magic. 

Studios loved having the opportunity to sell all their old catalog titles all over again. For new productions, DVD gave them some additional features to charge extra for such as commentary tracks and multiple angles. The seamless branching ability inherent in DVD programming allowed for virtual reality adult discs; essentially, a first-person POV choose-your-own-adventure film. Hollywood never really took advantage of these DVD features, but porn exploited them from day one.

When HD rolled out, some of the very first productions to shoot Hi-Def were adult. Sony’s F-900 was quietly product-tested in the adult industry. There were porn films shot with Panasonic’s VariCam before there was even a player available to capture the tapes.

Today, the production innovation all rests on the shoulders of the directors and videographers rather than the companies. The rampant piracy and ubiquity of the internet era has changed the face of the porn industry forever. Contemporary XXX shoots make the average student film look expensive and over-staffed. A crew of three with a handful of lights and a 5D MkIII do the best they can to adapt and overcome, shooting 20-hour days in unpermitted locations. 

On the distribution side, the big ideas have nothing to do with the "content." They’re about traffic and conversions and making sure the girls are wearing colors that sell. It’s tough for pornographers to justify working harder to tell a story in the era of clickbait.

"X-Rated" ends on a bittersweet note as we acknowledge that our list of the greatest films might, in fact, be the last if its kind. It makes me glad that our little documentary outgrew its bounds to become something more. At the very least, the films we’ve documented won’t be forgotten.

With the current state of the adult industry, it’s tough to imagine too many more truly exceptional films being made. But maybe there are still pieces of the puzzle waiting to fall into place.

"X-Rated: The Greatest Adult Movies of All-Time" premieres Friday, February 6 at 11 pm ET/PT on Showtime. Director Bryn Pryor tells us how his documentary not only chronologically captures achievements in filmmaking by the adult industry, but it also documents the evolution of filmmaking technology and its early adoption and application by pornographers. For more information about Pryor’s documentary, click here.

In addition to "X-Rated," Pryor’s most recent projects include the horror indie "iKllr" (as the Director of Photography), set for theatrical release in 2015, and the steampunk western "Cowboys & Engines," starring Richard Hatch, Walter Koenig and Malcolm McDowell. He also directed four extremely bad films for Roger Corman’s Concorde Studios.

READ MORE: 15 Tips on Making Your First Micro-Budget Feature

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sahil

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Pls help me

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