The XXX factor

Times Staff Writer

A drama about two Echo Park teenagers struggling to find acceptance, “Quinceanera” has become one of the season’s indie darlings, winning awards and critical acclaim everywhere it goes.

This from the same filmmakers who brought you hard-core porn titles such as “The Florida Erection,” “The Hole” and “Toolbox.”

Not that long ago, it was nearly impossible for filmmakers, producers and actors to move from adult cinema into “legitimate” Hollywood. For every Barry Sonnenfeld (a former adult film cinematographer turned “Men in Black” blockbuster director), countless others failed to make the transition.


But those doors are no longer shut tight as the film business becomes increasingly reliant on outside financiers -- people freed from corporate worries about whether a filmmaker’s background might hurt box-office business. What’s more, porn -- though still widely reviled -- is no longer as socially condemned as it once was.

Another case in point: This May, independent distributor Lionsgate released “See No Evil,” a thriller funded by World Wrestling Entertainment and made by director Gregory Dark, whose extensive list of adult film credits includes “Sex Freaks,” “New Wave Hookers 3” and “The Devil in Miss Jones 5: The Inferno.” Dark, who also has made music videos for Britney Spears and Mandy Moore, declined to be interviewed for this article.

Hollywood’s inhibitions about sexually explicit content are receding so fast that a number of established independent film directors have started making movies in which their actors, rather than simulating sex, are having intercourse and performing other graphic sex acts with their costars. Theater owners may refuse to book such explicit films, and newspapers and TV stations may block their ads, but these filmmakers don’t seem to mind whatever commercial restraints accompany the inevitable NC-17 rating that such fare is sure to generate.

At this year’s Cannes Film Festival, writer-director John Cameron Mitchell introduced “Shortbus,” a film Variety movie critic Todd McCarthy called “unquestionably the most sexually graphic American narrative feature ever made outside the realm of the porn industry.” Independent distributor ThinkFilm will release “Shortbus” on Oct. 6.

At the same time, adult moviemaking has become a recurrent backdrop in several upcoming films. Producer Marc Toberoff says production should soon commence on the long-delayed “Blue Movie,” a satire based on Terry Southern’s novel about a major studio’s making of a pornographic film. And in the comedy “The Amateurs,” premiering Sept. 15, Jeff Bridges plays a small-town dreamer who recruits his neighbors to make an adult film. Says “Amateurs” writer-director Michael Traeger: “I think there is something just inherently funny about porn.”

Hollywood’s increasingly frequent connections to pornography only parrot what’s happening in the rest of popular culture. Hard-core websites fill the Internet, adult performer Jenna Jameson’s “How to Make Love Like a Porn Star” was a bestselling book and hard-core DVDs generate estimated annual sales in excess of $12 billion.

It was within that lucrative world of direct-to-video sex films that “Quinceanera” backer Nicholas Boyias met one of his lead “Quinceanera” collaborators, co-director Wash Westmoreland, who also got his filmmaking start in porn.

“We have always wanted to make a movie like this,” says Boyias, who makes and distributes adult films through his Marina Pacific Distributors. “We just happened to make our money in the adult business.”

Boyias says he met Westmoreland while working on an adult film in 2003, “The Hole.” Westmoreland says he originally entered the adult film business to research a feature film about the world of adult entertainment called “The Fluffer.” He says he ended up staying longer than expected, mostly because it took Westmoreland and partner Richard Glatzer (who co-directed “Quinceanera” and 2001’s “The Fluffer”) five years to find a financial backer for the R-rated film.

But the time was well spent, Westmoreland says. He gained invaluable filmmaking experience and was left free to experiment within the adult genre. Although others before him might have been tarred for working in the business, he says he wasn’t.

“Toward the end of the 1990s, there was this porn chic, where it was considered very cool. It’s never had an effect on my career,” Westmoreland says.

He also says that, although others might have had a difficult time leaving adult films, he didn’t. “It’s sort of a glass ceiling -- you push hard enough and you will smash through.”

Nevertheless, some people who have made the jump from pornography to mainstream films appear to be uninterested in calling attention to their past. In earlier interviews, some of “Quinceanera’s” makers have said the movie was financed by real estate developers and businessmen. In press notes for the film, Boyias is described as running a “wholesale distribution company.” No mention is made of what Boyias actually distributes.

Boyias, who serves as a “Quinceanera” executive producer along with adult film colleague Avi Raccah, says he was intentionally vague about his background because he feared “Quinceanera,” which Sony Pictures Classics is releasing Aug. 4, would be attacked by anti-pornography critics, thus hurting its ticket sales.

“There are groups out there who will peg us all as people who have no concern for mainstream family values,” says Boyias, who describes himself as a Republican, NRA-supporting, churchgoing parent of four.

The filmmakers with mainstream credits who are now making movies with footage of actors engaged in actual sex acts say the inclusion of such sequences is not meant to be titillating but to illuminate personality and emotion. Sex, “Shortbus” director Mitchell says, is part of everyone’s life, and yet it’s either faked in big studio movies or devalued in adult movies.

“I thought, ‘Where is the sex that reveals something about the characters?’ ” Mitchell says of his film, which examines a number of relationships, its plots intersecting at a Manhattan performance space called Shortbus. “Kids today are only learning about sex through porn -- purely formulaic, joyless sex. I wanted to remind people that sex can be very human. I wanted to show the joy and the humor of sex. People keep asking me, ‘When is your porn film coming out?’ And I have to tell them until I am blue in the face that this isn’t a porn film.

“Most people, by the end of the film, have forgotten about the sex. Sex is just another brush stroke in the canvas of life,” says Mitchell, who also directed the acclaimed musical “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.”

Mitchell and British director Michael Winterbottom, who made the explicit “9 Songs” two years ago, are realizing a dream a few Hollywood filmmakers had a generation back. More than 20 years ago, “Mission: Impossible” director Brian De Palma toyed with casting adult film actress Annette Haven in a lead role in his “Body Double,” which he initially hoped also would feature real sex (he lost both fights to Columbia Pictures).

Although the theatrical returns of Winterbottom’s “9 Songs” were slight, the film has sold well in DVD stores, especially since it isn’t consigned to the adults-only section, distributor Tartan Films says. The company released two versions of the film, and the more graphic version of “9 Songs” has outsold its less racy counterpart by a factor of about 12 to 1 says Tartan’s Tony Borg. For Tartan’s DVD of “Battle of Heaven,” Mexican director Carlos Reygadas’ Spanish-language story of the fallout from a botched kidnapping that begins and ends with a scene of oral sex, the company affixed a sticker cautioning about the film’s sexually explicit content.

“It serves as a warning and a huge selling point,” Borg says. “There used to be a day when that was a negative. But no longer.” Even though “Battle of Heaven” sold only a few thousand DVDs, Borg says he’s confident “9 Songs” will total more than 100,000 units sold.

As the lines between mainstream and adult movies continue to blur, the director of one big-budget adult film just recut his movie, “Pirates,” to get an R rating in the hopes the redacted version will attract a new audience. (The less explicit DVD goes on sale July 10, hoping to cash in on publicity for the theatrical release of Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest.”)

“As a filmmaker, you want a lot of people to see your movie,” says the director of “Pirates,” who calls himself Joone. “But as an adult filmmaker, your distribution channels are much more limited.”

Sometimes, having an adult film star turn up in your independent movie can help create attention. When filmmaker Jay Floyd cast the role of a high school football coach in his “Forgiving the Franklins,” a black comedy that screened at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, he picked gay porn icon Zak Spears (whose real name is Khris Scaramanga).

“A friend of mine was vehemently opposed to it,” Floyd says of the casting decision. “He thought it would hurt its chances of being distributed. But now it’s a sales point. I have one star in my movie. He just happens to be a porn star.”

Westmoreland says it’s a myth that adult filmmakers are hacks; indeed, several of Westmoreland’s adult films (made under the noms de guerre Wash West and Bud Light) won prizes within the adult film industry. His film “The Hole,” for instance, won GayVN awards for best video, best editing and best solo performance.

His awards streak continued with “Quinceanera.” The story about teens struggling with their families over sexual issues (one is pregnant, the other is gay) won Sundance’s Grand Jury prize and audience award. Earlier this week the independently financed movie was singled out for the centerpiece premiere at the Los Angeles Film Festival. And to round out its accomplishments, it just won a Humanitas Prize -- annual awards given for films and TV programs showcasing positive depictions of human values.

“There is this presumption that people who work in porn somehow aren’t of very high quality,” Westmoreland says. “That if you’re an editor in porn, you’re not a good editor. That if you’re a porn cinematographer, you’re not any good. But nothing could be further from the truth.”