When it comes to making a profit from Web content, one breed of filmmaker has blazed a trail. They've understood the limitations and possibilities of the technology and how to create a regular revenue stream. It's not Hollywood, and it's not the Sundance set. It's the adult-film industry. Porn.
Depending on whose figures you look at, Internet porn grossed as much as $2.5 billion last year in the U.S. alone. While some indie producers may get squeamish about learning anything from pornographers, they should recognize a lot of the problems faced by the adult industry: distribution, exposure through "mainstream" and broadcast media, and just getting their product on the retail shelves. The reasons for this market ghettoization might be different, but the solutions might be the same.
Apart from being a Webby-winning blogger (with work including PinkBroadcasting.com and HugNation, a weekly podcast with his 93-year-old grandfather), John Halcyon Styn is the business-to-business marketing and branding consultant for an adult Web company running 30 sites and providing content for 30,000 affiliates. His experiences in the adult market can, he feels, provide pointers for the online indie filmmaker.
Austin Chronicle: Why has porn taken to the Web so strongly?
John Halcyon Styn: The adult industry doesn't have the option to go through traditional channels, so they've been forced to innovate. There are not a lot of advertisers who are prepared to subsidize adult content. But they have a product that is so much better suited to get people to pull their wallet out, which is a greater incentive to take risks and try new technology. Video distribution via IP and download on demand are convenient for every part of life but are a godsend for a porn consumer. In the same way the VCR revolutionized our viewing habits and was pushed by the porn consumer who enjoyed the privacy of it, this just takes it to the next beautiful level. It's a purely personal, private commerce.
AC: One of the criticisms of watching downloaded mainstream movies is the poor picture and sound quality. How does porn avoid that criticism?
JHS: Because people are very forgiving of porn at every aspect, from lighting to sound to storyline to video quality. Although, one of the main draws for people paying for their porn is longer length, high quality; and the industry is shifting to high-def downloads.
AC: A lot of low-budget content has similarly low production values but can't convince consumers to pay up; what's special about the porn market?
JHS: Porn is different because we have such a pattern of paying for it. Recreational viewing has such established patterns, especially for those who have been online for a long time. They have this attitude of free, free, free. As soon as a site puts an ad in front of a video, everyone gets upset. But no one would bat an eye if they're watching Heroes on TV and a 30-minute show takes an hour because there's so much culture.
AC: So what's the current online business model, and could it be adapted by other content creators?
JHS: Long before I did consulting for adult companies, the mainstream company I worked with was always looking at porn firms, because that's where the cutting-edge work is being done. The industries that are surging are pay-per-view and downloads. It used to be monthly memberships, but people are transitioning to a sort of paid porn TiVo. At the most recent Adult Video News expo, everyone had just come from the Consumer Electronics Show, and the focus was on hardware, on bandwidth. It was glaring that download-on-demand is the next big thing for the adult industry, and the mainstream Web is very close behind that, with full movies and microcontent sites.
AC: What's the biggest barrier to other Web content creators adopting these systems?
JHS: The consumer will have to start making choices, and the delivery systems will have to make choices, the same choices when you're going to watch broadcast TV or HBO. It'll be a very small percentage of people who'll be paying for nonadult content for the time being, unless it's downloadable movies. But we don't have a value attached to short content, so we don't have a concept of paying for it. It's almost like a donation to the creator now. It's silly, but that's the mentality that we have.
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