Pushing Porn on DVDs

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The future of digital entertainment is unfolding inside a room at VCA Labs, where a bank of whirring computers and video equipment is churning out such forgettable movie titles as "Stupid Cupid" and "Carwash Angels 2."

The Chatsworth company has produced more than 135 DVD movies that let viewers decide how the plot should twist, select a special camera angle and even interact with the on-screen stars.

It's cutting-edge work in a cutthroat industry--one that has always pushed the boundaries of technology, and always at a profit. It also happens to be pornographic.

"From the second the camera was invented, someone took their clothes off in front of it," said William Margold, a board member of the Free Speech Coalition, an advocacy group for the adult entertainment industry. "Now they're taking their clothes off on the Internet and on DVDs."

Once again, the world's oldest industry is shaping tomorrow's mainstream entertainment.

From the printing press to the Internet, purveyors of adult entertainment have consistently been a force in introducing and popularizing new technologies.

In the late 1970s, they released movies on videotape and prompted customers across the country to buy VCRs. In the early 1990s, they were the most enthusiastic embracers of interactive CD-ROM technology. A few years later, they became the first companies to make money building sites on the World Wide Web.

As the multibillion-dollar war for the eyes and wallets of the masses shifts from computer desktops to the wired living room, pornographers again are on the leading edge.

The industry has begun to make DVD movies that resemble video games, allowing viewers not only to watch but also to play. Online porn companies have rolled out services that allow Web surfers to chat with nude dancers as they shake and shimmy on screen. A handful of firms have developed devices that can be strapped onto sensitive body parts and then hooked up to a computer for the dubious purpose of having a virtual sexual experience.

"The technology fits our product," said VCA Labs' DVD producer, a straightforward and serious man who goes by the stage name Wit Maverick.

Adult Industry Leads in Tech Advancements

Technology offerings from adult entertainment companies grew so plentiful at the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas that this year the porn industry pulled out and established two shows of its own--one devoted to the Internet, the other focusing on DVD and home video.

Nobody knows exactly how many porn titles are among the 192 million DVDs that market researcher InfoTech estimates were sold in the United States last year for a total of $3.7 billion. But the industry's largest mail-order and online retailer, Adult DVD Empire, sells 30,000 DVDs at $24 to $30 apiece each month through its Web site, said Chief Executive Jeff Rix.

The popularity of porn DVDs worries anti-porn crusaders, who fear that anything that makes pornography more realistic will inevitably make it more popular.

Monique Nelson, chief executive of Enough Is Enough, a national group based in Santa Ana that crusades against pornography on the Internet, said that children could easily be pulled in by the interactive, game-like nature of these DVDs.

"With this being so high-tech, I'm not quite sure how many adults will know how to do this, but I know that kids certainly will," Nelson said.

Those who study the relationship between technology and pornography says it's no surprise that adult entertainment companies are in the vanguard. After all, sex sells, and the profit it generates fuels the experimentation with technologies that mainstream Hollywood is more hesitant about embracing.

Experimenting with even the kookiest ideas is relatively inexpensive for an outfit like VCA and its San Fernando Valley brethren, such as Vivid Video and Wicked Pictures. No female porn star makes close to the $20 million an actress such as Julia Roberts commands for a film. Other production costs also are lower, because most adult movies can be shot in one or two days.

With each company releasing a half-dozen or more titles each month, adult filmmakers can more easily afford to push the boundaries of technology than their counterparts in mainstream Hollywood.

Perhaps the most compelling force linking technology and pornography is the consumer demand for greater privacy.

DVDs Give Viewer More Active Role

Adult movies on VHS cassettes made it possible to "bring porn into the home," said Constance Penley, a professor of film and women's studies at UC Santa Barbara who teaches a course on pornography.

"You didn't have to go out to a theater and risk being seen," Penley said. "With regular video stores having a section for adult work, you didn't even have to go to a porn store. And with the Internet, you didn't even have to go to a store."

With Internet connections available in most homes, adult entertainment creators are raising the technology stakes by focusing on interactivity.

First they flirted with CD-ROMs. When inserted in a personal computer, the disks could play snippets of movies, though the picture quality often was grainy. They could also store pictures, text and bits of interactive video.

CD-ROMs' popularity fizzled with the advent of the World Wide Web, which offered a virtually limitless supply of pornographic pictures in addition to video clips.

But the advent of DVD has opened a new era with picture quality that exceeds home video. DVDs have also freed interactive pornography from the computer, allowing viewers to watch and play on a full-size TV screen.

Hollywood studios have released scores of films on DVD. In addition to the movie itself, a disk may contain scenes that wound up on the cutting room floor, interviews with the director and stars, and a behind-the-scenes look at how the movie was made.

All those features are typically available on adult DVDs as well. The difference is that adult films take advantage of other capabilities DVD has to offer, including giving the viewer a more active role.

VCA's "White Lightening," for example, tells a story through the eyes of five characters. Viewers can watch the movie in chronological order--skipping from character to character--or see the whole story from one character's point of view.

"Chasing Stacy," also from VCA Labs, is a choose-your-own-adventure flick that follows Stacy the porn star as she signs autographs, drinks coffee, works out at the gym and takes a shower.

At various points, a small green icon appears in the corner of the screen and Stacy looks straight at the camera. That's when viewers get the chance to ask Stacy out on a virtual date by pressing the Enter button on the DVD remote control.

The date scenes are filmed so that the viewer feels like he's sitting directly across a glass table from Stacy, who provides insights into her personal life. Later, the viewer can select whether to take Stacy back to her house, to her office, or to another locale for a tryst. With the remote control, the details can be chosen as the action unfolds.

Sales data confirm that the new technology is popular with consumers. Since its release in July, VCA has sold more than 12,000 copies of the interactive movie--the fastest any of its titles has ever reached that mark.

Though movies such as "Chasing Stacy" may seem a bit exotic for mainstream tastes, David Crawford, DVD production manager for Wicked Pictures in Canoga Park, believes this interactive technology will someday be used by Hollywood--even by such family-focused companies as Disney.

"It has a great children's application," Crawford said. "You can tell a nice little fairy tale and have this be the frame of it. The idea is great, whether the content is for adults or children."

Some Hollywood directors probably will never embrace a technology that gives viewers the chance to undo their careful storytelling. But others will certainly find interactivity a compelling way to grab fickle eyeballs and keep them engaged.

ABC has experimented with Enhanced TV links to its Web sites so that sports fans can look up statistics while watching "Monday Night Football." Last week, the newsmagazine "Dateline NBC" allowed viewers to determine the course of a murder investigation by voting on the Web.

As more digital set-top boxes are deployed in homes with cable and satellite television, mainstream Hollywood will surely be looking for ways to introduce interactivity, and they may find themselves following in the porn industry's footsteps.

The current adult entertainment offerings are still technologically crude and, compared with real life or even some advanced computer games, are interactive only in the most basic sense of the word.

Perhaps the clunkiest incarnation of the technology is the so-called virtual sex machine, a massage mechanism that attaches to the user's body and then is plugged into a PC.

The inventor, Eric White, says the massage mechanism simulates the sensation of a sex act as it occurs simultaneously on the computer screen. He says he has sold more than 750 of his $369 machines since they went on the market in June.

For more than a year, engineers at Vivid Video in Van Nuys worked on a neoprene cat suit adorned with phone wires and electrodes. The company eventually decided to abandon the project as unworkable.

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