April 22, 2001 09:00pm
Dot-Com Refugees Find Welcome in Porn Industry
by: Ralph Frammolino and P.J. Huffsutter
Displaced dot-com employees and nervous Hollywood technicians have found an unlikely shelter from the economic downturn: the porn industry.
Executives at the area's leading adult entertainment firms report a surge of resumes and telephone inquiries from disillusioned techies, as well as mainstream camera operators, grips and lighting experts who are worried about strikes by Hollywood writers and actors.
The porn companies, many of which produce X-rated videos and popular erotic Web sites from San Fernando Valley industrial parks, have not been hit by the faltering economy. Instead, porn is one of the few profitable enterprises on the Internet. For employees, the work is steady, although the nonunion wages generally are low by Hollywood standards.
Just how many dot-com refugees are heading to the thousands of porn-related sites is unclear, but a check of some of the larger firms indicated that most are actively hiring technicians from the mainstream Internet world.
"We're getting all sorts of calls from technology head-hunters asking if we have openings," said Bert Manzari, chief executive of DHD Media in Santa Monica, an online adult entertainment company. "They're asking to place everything from database administrators to programmers to executives.
"It's funny, because a year ago, we couldn't get anyone to call us back," he said.
Industry watchers in tech and entertainment centers across the country say the migration is increasing as the porn industry expands. Executives in the recession-proof adult entertainment field say the calls and resumes underscore the mainstreaming of porn into American corporate life.
"We get bombarded with calls all the time," said Jimmy Flynt II, director of marketing and public relations for Hustler, founded by his uncle Larry. "The sex industry really isn't affected by the markets. Sex always sells."
For film crews, that translates into a short-term solution for a short-term problem. For the tech-savvy, adult entertainment can be a permanent oasis of financial stability.
E-commerce sex Web sites blossomed from 230 in 1997, to 1,100 sites in 2000, according to American Demographics Magazine, citing a report from sextracker.com. Web sites offering free sex content jumped from more than 22,000 to nearly 280,300 during the same period.
Porn is becoming increasingly acceptable, especially among young professionals. "At least I know my paycheck isn't going to bounce," said Jon, 25, who asked that his last name be withheld. He jumped to take a Web designer job at Vivid Entertainment Group after he was laid off last winter from Los Angeles music start-up ArtistDirect Inc.
His old job was the stuff of E-envy. Plush offices filled with chic industrial furniture. Free concert tickets and all the CDs he could carry. A kitchen stocked with hyper-caffeinated drinks and snacks.
Cut loose during the Internet bust, Jon now toils in a Van Nuys warehouse that just last week got a refrigerator, filled with the brown bag lunches of a half-dozen other dot-com castoffs.
"A friend of mine worked at Vivid and knew that I watched porn," said Jon, who now spends eight hours a day digitally covering up female nipples for the company's front-page, which entices visitors to pay for the full peep show. "Besides, this is a dot-com. We just sell sex instead of CDs."
Although he started full time in October, Jon hasn't told his family. "My mom would kill me if she knew."
Over the last 16 months, more than 75,500 Internet workers lost their jobs, according to research by Challenger, Gray & Christmas, a Chicago-based employee outplacement firm.
"Right now, it's hard to find any E-commerce plays that seem to be working. Sex works," said President John A. Challenger.
Few people want to leave the tech world, say industry watchers. Their specialized skills have made them an ideal work force for the digital porn world.
Flynt said Hustler will look to dispossessed dot-com types to beef up its Internet enterprise, a "cash cow" that will be expanded from 60 to 75 employees in the next six months.
"We'll expect them to play a big role because we'll be looking for the highest quality people," Flynt said.
Chatsworth-based Wicked Interactive interviewed eight programmers who lost jobs after the online venture Etoys of Santa Monica went out of business last month, and hired one. Wicked is looking for high-end programmers to roll out a new porn database for its Internet site.
Vivid Entertainment Group, which has expanded its online team in the last few months, says that 35% of its technical staff hail from the dot-com world. And officials with Playboy.com, the New York-based Internet subsidiary of the Chicago-based publishing company, say that "almost all" of its technical employees have--at one time--worked at traditional dot-coms.
For many Hollywood veterans, working in porn is just another day on the set. An increasing number of mainstream movie technicians are calling adult entertainment companies to line up work if Hollywood actors and screenwriters go on strike this year.
"People have called and said, 'I've been a camera operator for 15 years and we think there's going to be a strike and I'd be interested in shooting camera for one of your productions,' " said Marci Hirsch, production director for Vivid, which makes up to six videos a month.
"I'm not sure they really realize what the pay is," she said. "We [porn industry] have no union . . . but I guess if you don't have a job, it really doesn't matter."
At Hustler, Jimmy Flynt said he's logged at least three dozen calls in recent months from Hollywood technicians who are inquiring about temporary work. Hustler produces about six videos a month requiring 120 film freelancers, ranging from cinematographers and production managers to line producers, he said.
"People of very high caliber are interested in finding work," said Flynt, adding that the pay generally is less than Hollywood union scale. A line producer, for example, will make $2,500 for a three-day adult shoot where he could make $50,000 to $75,000 for a regular movie.
Union leaders said they hadn't heard whether members had been contacting the porn shops.
"It doesn't sound bad to me," joked Norm Glasser, business agent for Hollywood electricians, Local 728, of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees. Turning serious, he added: "If there's a strike, everybody's on their own, more or less. . . What people do as individuals, we have no control over."
Thom Davis, business manager for Local 80, which represents grips and crafts service workers, wondered aloud what some of his members might do.
"Obviously, they [porn productions] have cameras and I'm assuming they have sound, but to what extent they put their resources into lighting, I can't tell you," Davis said.
Davis said union scale is $26.22 an hour for grips, in charge of balancing lights and moving cameras, and $25.04 an hour for crafts service employees, gofers who do odd jobs and round up food for crew and cast. That's more than double the wage of nonunion work, which can pay a grip $175 per 14-hour day, he said.
At Sin City Entertainment in Chatsworth, there's been a veritable casting call of people inquiring about jobs, said spokesman Jeff Wozniak. "They're trying to line things up now in case there is a strike," he said.
So far, the firm has been contacted by a few mainstream film editors, grips, one director of photography and "several B-movie actors and actresses looking for nonsexual roles."
Not that there are very many at the production house, which releases six to eight adult films a month ranging from $100,000 high-concept films with plots to those featuring "wall-to-wall" intercourse with little or no dialogue.
"If we were to use B-movie actors and actresses, it would be a big-budget thing where we would need somebody in a room or at party . . . or a secondary story line, where we'd need someone to actually act," Wozniak said.
Interest in porn industry jobs is clustered around the Los Angeles area, but also is rising in other tech centers. Shea Tisdale accepted the position of E-commerce director for PHE Inc., an adult entertainment firm headquartered just outside North Carolina's high-tech Research Triangle Park.
Tisdale, 32, sold his Web design firm last fall and was promised a pile of stock from the new owner. By November, Tisdale's potential stock market winnings "were worth pennies." He interviewed with executives at PHE, the parent company of Adam-Eve.com, a leading erotic mail-order company and video production firm with an extensive online store.
"I made a rational decision. I went to go work for a real company," Tisdalesaid.
Porn executives say some potential employees express interest but then change their minds because of discomfort with workplace chatter and content.
"Our daily conversations include 'anal sex,' things like that," said a Wicked Interactive official. "It's the nature of the business."
The official said that reality was too much for one recent recruit, a highly qualified programmer whose salary demand Wicked Interactive matched. "The next day, he called and said his wife wouldn't let him work there."
But most of the dot-com refugees are young and fairly comfortable with pornography, which has become a casual form of entertainment on many college campuses.
Adult entertainment executives say the bigger recruiting barrier had been matching the promises of stock-option bonanzas and early retirement.
That was more than a year ago, before the NASDAQ tanked and Net firms collapsed. The fallout has been a boon for adult entertainment, at a time when porn firms are gearing up for the next wave of E-commerce--videos on demand and DVD transfers, Vivid President Bill Asher said.
"We don't need to do any more than run an ad. It's amazing how good their resumes are," Asher said.