Porn industry may boogie out of L.A. over condom law

For decades, the nation's pornographic film industry found a happy, largely accepting home in Los Angeles.

Producers operated lucrative businesses in anonymous office parks in the San Fernando Valley. Available in the city were a steady supply of actors and film production talent as well as opulent mansions that often served as theatrical backdrops. By one estimate, at least 5% of on-location shoots were for adult films.

But this coexistence has been suddenly shaken by sweeping health regulations that, starting March 5, will require porn performers to wear condoms while on location.

The landmark law marks a rare attempt to regulate how films are made, threatening an industry that has been a source of millions of dollars in revenue. AIDS activists are gathering signatures for a countywide ballot measure that would extend the ban to dozens of additional communities.

The industry, however, is fighting back. Leaders say they are considering plans to fight back either in court or by moving filming out of town.

It's a debate that pits the desire to protect the health of porn actors against the freedom to make films that audiences want to see.

The Los Angeles City Council acted earlier this year after a series of incidents in which adult film productions were suspended amid concerns that HIV had been transmitted among performers. Despite the health risks of having unprotected sex on movie sets, the industry has strongly opposed a condom requirement, saying that monthly testing already safeguards performers and that customers won't pay to see such films.

"It's certainly a fascinating conundrum," said Jason E. Squire, a USC professor of cinematic arts. "You want all performers, whatever they do, to be safe. That transcends content. I don't know what the proper solution is."

AIDS activists say that the fight over condoms is about protecting performers' health and opposing the promotion of unsafe sex.

"The fact that porn sends out a message that the only type of sex that's hot is unsafe ... we think that's detrimental," said Michael Weinstein, president of the Los Angeles-based AIDS Healthcare Foundation.

The Los Angeles law was the result of months of aggressive lobbying by Weinstein and other AIDS activists, who have long called on the government to step in and make the porn workplace safer. The council approved the law only after activists pressured it by gathering enough signatures to ask voters to decide the issue at the ballot box. The industry has been forced to suspend production several times amid reports that adult performers contracted HIV. One was Derrick Burts, who tested HIV-positive in 2010 and said clinic staff told him he was infected by a fellow performer.

"It's a broken system that they have in place," said Burts, who backs mandatory condoms. "What performer wouldn't want to feel more safe on a work set?"

Porn industry representatives say the law is unnecessary because they regularly test actors for HIV. They maintain that Burts was not infected on the job, and that they haven't had a confirmed work-related HIV case since 2004. When a performer turned up HIV-positive in another state in 2011, companies here voluntarily halted production until others could get tested.

Steven A. Hirsch of Vivid Entertainment said his company's performers are allowed to use condoms if they want — but most don't.

Filmmakers tried requiring condoms on their own in the late 1990s after an HIV scare, but sales began suffering.

"The viewers out there don't want to see movies with condoms," Hirsch said.

Diane Duke of the adult film lobby group Free Speech Coalition said performers should have the right to have sex as they wish. She compared the issue to boxers who fight for entertainment, even though they risk injury.

"The goal of that is to knock someone out — pound them in the head until you knock someone out," Duke said.

"This is the first step of government overreach into the way we make movies," Duke said. "It's clearly the government interfering where it really doesn't belong.… Because our industry deals with sex … we're vulnerable and easy to attack."

It's unclear how much money the city would give up if porn producers began leaving. Film L.A., the nonprofit that manages permits, estimates that it issues under 500 a year to adult film companies wanting to shoot on location. Some filmmakers, however, may not bother asking for permits. A survey found that one of the top 10 sites for on-location filming in Los Angeles in 2010 was a Chatsworth porn studio.

In the most recent study, local economists estimated a decade ago — before the recession — that the industry generated $4 billion in sales and provided 10,000 to 20,000 jobs annually to actors, makeup artists, camera crews, caterers and the like.

Even with the condom law, there are still options available to the porn industry. A loophole allows filming without condoms in certified sound stages like ones found at major movie studios.

They could also do filming outside the city limits, though it is unclear what kind of welcome they would receive.

The mayor of the Ventura County suburb of Simi Valley has already called on his city to draft a mandatory condom policy similar to that of Los Angeles.

"The people of our town do not want to be noted for being porn purveyors," Mayor Bob Huber said.

Porn producer Hirsch considers the condom requirement "a nuisance more than anything else. We will continue shooting the movies, and if that means outside of the city of Los Angeles, so be it."

Duke says she thinks that other states would welcome the industry. Some have suggested Nevada, which hosts an annual adult film trade show and even has legal brothels in rural areas — although they are regulated and require condoms.

But there may be a legal obstacle to pulling up stakes entirely: Porn generally became legal in California after a 1988 state Supreme Court decision ruling that adult film producers shouldn't be prosecuted under anti-prostitution laws. Only one other state, New Hampshire, has had a similar court ruling, issued in 2008.

There could also be political resistance in Nevada. As its population has grown and gambling casinos have become parts of major Wall Street-traded entertainment and resort companies, the state has become more economically and socially conservative, said Michael Green, professor of history at the College of Southern Nevada. For instance, he said, Nevada has voted to ban gay marriage and rejected the legalization of marijuana.

"Those are not necessarily the hallmarks of the old libertarian Nevada," Green said. And noting that government has tried to attract new industries to the state, "diversifying Nevada's economy by becoming the next Hollywood for porn strikes me as contradictory," Green said.

Additionally, there is plenty of talent in Los Angeles for the adult industry. Some aspiring actors, videographers and sound engineers who arrive here hoping to break into mainstream movies find their way working in adult films.

Weinstein's political march, meanwhile, isn't stopping at City Hall.

The AIDS group is gathering signatures for a November ballot measure that would ask Los Angeles County voters to require condoms when porn companies film in areas regulated by the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, which has authority over all 88 cities in the county except Pasadena, Long Beach and Vernon.

But at this point, city officials have not determined how they will enforce the new law. They are forming a committee of advisors from the Los Angeles Police Department, the city attorney's office, the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health, and others.

"Frankly, it's hard to tell" what the adult film industry will do, said Mark Kernes, senior editor at AVN Media Network, an adult film industry trade publication.

ron.lin@latimes.com

Los Angeles Times staff writers Ben Fritz and Richard Verrier in Los Angeles and Ashley Powers in Las Vegas contributed to this report.

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