In the celeb sex-tape trade, there’s more flirting than hookups
The callers are usually nervous, cagey about their identities and vague when it comes to facts, but to the porn companies on the other end of the telephone, their message is easy to decipher: I know of a celebrity sex tape and I want money.
“Not a week goes by that we don’t get at least five calls,” said Steven Hirsch, the co-chairman of Vivid Entertainment Group, the country’s leading adult film producer.
Actor Verne Troyer’s summer-long legal battle over a sex tape put a spotlight on the market. The result has been a surge of inquiries to people like Kevin Blatt, a Web publicist who got the title “celebrity sex tape broker” for his involvement in a Paris Hilton video.
“I’ve had four tapes shopped to me in the past two weeks. B-list, C-list stuff,” Blatt said. Those feeling out the market are most often former lovers or their friends, relatives or roommates. With video camera prices falling and the definition of celebrity expanding to accommodate each new reality TV show, there seems to be no shortage of explicit tapes of recognizable people.
In the end, however, only a small fraction of the videos touted in phone calls or described in e-mails will ever be screened by distributors. A smaller percentage still will be boxed and sold to the public.
Vivid is the established leader in celebrity sex tapes, having marketed videos of Pam Anderson and Tommy Lee, Kim Kardashian and, most recently, one purporting to show Jimi Hendrix with two groupies. But in the company’s 24-year history, it has put out just nine celebrity sex tapes, Hirsch said.
SugarDVD, the distribution company sued by Troyer, has yet to buy a celebrity sex tape despite dalliances with several sellers.
The low yield is the result of a number of factors. Callers often drop off the radar once a company suggests a conversation of hypotheticals move into a real screening. Sometimes sellers exaggerate what they have. In other cases, companies decide the person in the tape is not famous enough.
“We’re very picky. We definitely pass on a lot,” Hirsch said.
But nothing limits what tapes end up for sale more than the law. Federal and state statutes are virtually ironclad when it comes to the commercial distribution of tapes of private sexual encounters. Without the express permission of all the participants, the sales violate rights of privacy and publicity and, in some cases, infringe on copyrights.
“If you don’t have full model releases and documents on the movie, you just don’t market it,” said Allan Gelbard, an Encino attorney who has a client roster of adult companies. He said the likelihood of a big civil judgment discourages distributors from moving forward without consent, no matter how famous the subject. “It might end up costing you more than you earn on the movie. So what’s the point?”
Troyer, best known for his role as Mini-Me in the Austin Powers movies, shut down his ex-girlfriend’s attempts to sell their video within a few days by filing a $20-million federal suit that made clear he did not want it made public. His attorney alleged the woman, Ranae Shrider, continued hawking the tape, but the suit and a restraining order made it untouchable in the industry.
“You can’t really do anything with it other than use it for your own private use. That’s the extent of its value if you do not have consent,” said Paul Berra, one of the attorneys who represented Colin Farrell in his suit against a former girlfriend trying to find a buyer for their sex tape. The actor got an injunction blocking sale of the tape.
The legal need for permissions is frequently news to sellers who often believe they own the video because they owned the camera or the residence where it was shot. Many have dollar signs in their eyes, having heard about the big profits in sex tapes. (Vivid says the Anderson-Lee tape, its most successful, brought in “several million” dollars.)
“They are just very excited about the prospect of money, but they learn very quickly that they need consent,” said Angie Hoover, a SugarDVD employee who speaks to people trying to find out how much they can get for tapes.
The public’s confusion may be based on the legal twists and turns in the most infamous and bestselling sex tapes. Hilton, Kardashian and Anderson each filed suit to stop release of the tapes. Later, they reached confidential settlements with distributors that allowed the sales.
Attorneys who have worked on sex-tape cases say some people settle because they have run out of money for legal fees. Others see their video already widely available on free sites or file-sharing networks online and decide fighting is pointless.
But many say it is an open secret in the industry that some celebrities leak their own sex tapes to help their careers.
“There’s a lot of semi-covert permissions that are given with a wink, wink, nudge, nudge,” Gelbard said.
Troyer’s attorney, Edwin McPherson, who has also represented rockers Perry Farrell, Bret Michaels and Fred Durst in sex-tape suits, said that in two or three of the cases, a distributor approached him with a proposal for “fake litigation.”
The celebrity would sue for invasion of privacy and then settle a short time later, the lawyer said.
“They say, ‘Everybody gets paid, but your client doesn’t look like they’re exploiting themselves,’ ” McPherson recalled. He said he turned down the offers.
Even when a celebrity objects and the tape is doomed commercially, it still has some worth as a publicity vehicle. After Hilton sued to stop distribution of a sex tape in 2003, broker Blatt appeared on “The Howard Stern Show” on behalf of an adult website involved in the case.
The site’s owners were legally barred from selling the tape and, in fact, had returned the tape to Hilton, but they offered to pay Blatt for every time the site’s name went out over the air, he recalled. He managed to mention the URL 12 times and get Stern to repeat it nine times in an eight-minute radio appearance, boosting Web traffic.
At smaller distributors, like SugarDVD, the video is almost beside the point.
“We can get 80 to 85% [of the publicity] without the tape,” said Chief Executive Jax Smith.
After TMZ.com reported that SugarDVD had screened the Troyer tape and was preparing an offer, the company put a statement on its website describing the tape and asking the actor to grant permission.
When Troyer filed suit, the company’s name made it into newspapers from Missouri to Australia and got 15,000 mentions online, according to a Google search.
“Many of the places would never carry adult banner ads or other advertising, but they’ll use us in a story,” Smith said.
Troyer’s attorney said it was frustrating to see an invasion of his client’s privacy become a PR vehicle.
“It’s unfortunate. We really don’t want to help them,” he said.
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