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A weekend in a porn movie

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REUTERS

Getting to work on a porn set.

London - It began in a bar with some friends and the porn-name game. You know, you take the name of your first pet and your mother’s maiden name, and that’s your porn name. In my case, it’s “Tiddles Mills”, a nom de sexe which suggests (not incorrectly, as it happens) that I’m probably best left to make the tea.

There were cheers at “Ricky Pagan” and admiring gasps at “Puss Puss Summers” before a square-jawed stranger leant forward, his hand outstretched. “Hi,” he said. “I’m Steve Steel.” I welcomed him into the company and asked him to work out his porn name.

“I don’t need to,” he said, diffidently. “It’s Steve Steel. I’ve been in a few films, but mostly I make them.”

A strange silence descended.

Two months later, I am in a beautiful apartment on Kampa, an island in the Vltava river opposite Prague Old Town, and I have the awful feeling that I have committed a terrible porn industry faux pas.

A statuesque blonde called Bianca has just completed a scene with a pneumatic brunette called Marketa and, having agreed to do an interview, Bianca is apparently resisting my efforts to shake her hand.

pornweekenderwebsite

Website screenshot

pornweekender.com

I look down to see that she is holding a well-lubricated sex toy in her right hand. She knows I have now seen this and I know she knows. I can’t take my hand away – it would be like refusing to shake the oil-stained hand of the AA man who’s come to rescue you – and so I stand with it outstretched and we smile politely, maintaining eye contact for about one hundred thousand years.

This is Steve Steel’s world, a world I have agreed to visit not only because it is usually closed and draped in taboo and suspicion, but also because Steve believes he has found a way to save an industry that is dying on its feet because of the proliferation of websites that allow films like his to be stolen and watched for free on the internet.

“My idea – it’s called Porn Weekender and it’s interactive,” he tells me when I meet him again. I stare at him blankly.

“Look, first there were dirty pictures, then magazines, then videos, then DVDs and the internet. I’ve been fascinated by all of them since I was a kid (he’s now 34), but it was something on a DVD that grabbed my attention.

“It claimed to be interactive in as much as you could choose which scene to watch next and maybe what angle to view from, but I thought ‘That’s not really interactive. I’ll show you interactive’.”

“You mean…?” I ask.

“Precisely,” he says. “You can join in.”

It is nigh-on impossible to quantify the value of the porn industry because much of it is illicit, many of its operatives would never dream of declaring their income or paying tax, and much of that in circulation has been filched from paid-for sites and uploaded on to free ones.

It would be fair to say that it is worth hundreds of millions to someone, but also that because of the proliferation of free sites, that wealth is being concentrated in fewer and fewer hands.

And these are not the hands of those you might expect – Larry Flynt at Hustler or Hugh Hefner at Playboy – but new players, particularly Fabian Thylmann, a thirty-something German businessman who recently came out of the shadows when he was arrested in Belgium at the behest of the German tax authorities. (He’s contesting the allegations and maintains that he was merely minimising his tax burden in accordance with widely accepted practice.)

Thylmann is not the only new porn magnate, but he is probably the biggest, and to examine his involvement is to understand what is happening across the sector. Thylmann is managing partner of Manwin, a Luxembourg-based company that owns eight of the 15 most popular and lucrative free and paid-for porn websites in the world.

The company also manages online operations for Wicked Pictures, a major studio that makes adult films, and for Playboy’s TV and online operations. In any given month, there will be around 16 billion unique visits to Manwin sites – traffic that generates a personal income for the reclusive Thylmann of about $100 million (R879m) a year.

“No one can compete with them,” says Steve. He lives in Clapham, south London, and has been in the business only since he came up with the idea for pornweekender.com two years ago. He claims that his wife approves of the venture but he won’t be identified for the sake, he says, of his six-year-old daughter and eight-year-old son.

“Even though there are free sites out there, some viewers are still prepared to subscribe to pay sites because they are better quality, use more attractive models and are filmed in high definition.

“The problem is that with most small, independent companies, customers who pay are given access to one site – but with some of the big boys like Brazzers, they get access to about 30.”

As if that didn’t make life hard enough for the smaller filmmakers, Manwin owns lots of the free sites, too, sites on which the independents’ paid-for porn scenes are illegally uploaded by viewers, making paying for them seem ever more pointless. The free sites make their money from taking advertising from the paid-for sites that still survive, and from cross-marketing their own sister sites.

The broadcaster Louis Theroux shone a bright light on the porn industry in America in 1997 and found a self-confident and upbeat world where stars and filmmakers could make big money. He returned last year to track down the people he met then, only to find them broke, depressed and pessimistic.

In one or two cases, people he interviewed 15 years ago had since committed suicide.

“This time around, I discovered the industry is struggling,” he wrote in an article on his return. “Illegal downloading from YouTube-style sites is such a problem now that very few people are still paying for adult content, whether that’s DVD or online. This means few films are made, the performers are largely out of work and the little work they do get is very poorly paid compared with a few years ago.

“Profits have been slashed and companies are going bust in droves. You only have to look at Adult Video News, the trade magazine of the porn world. It used to be as thick as a phone book seven or eight years ago. Now it’s like a pamphlet because there are so few companies to advertise and so few films to review. Male porn stars now might only get £70 (R956) to £100 for a scene and, if they’re only getting one or two scenes a week, that’s not enough to survive.

“In five years, the job of full-time male porn performer will probably no longer exist. Historically, female performers always got bigger pay packets than the men but they’re not commanding top dollar as they once did. Instead, the women are creating sideline businesses (such as appearing on paid-for live webcam sites). There is also the practice of ‘doing privates’, which is basically working as a prostitute and is a sort of open secret in the business. There are undeniable dangers here, both to the women’s safety and because of the risk of introducing an STD into the porn-work pool.”

Steve Steel is not joking when he says he wants to make the porn experience interactive, but that interaction comes on three levels, depending on how far you want to go. In the immaculately furnished Kampa apartment (weekend filming rent: £500) with its oddly complementary oak beams and 1970s furniture, five uncomfortable-looking men and one woman have paid £999 each for the Porn Weekender experience.

For their money, they are provided with accommodation, taken on set for two days to see how films are made, and are allowed to direct the actors and create scenarios that they would like to see filmed, tell the performers what to wear, what to do, and so on.

They can also request which models they’d like to take part and they can use their own cameras to film and photograph as much as they want. At all times, the models can veto any request they find distasteful.

For a further £200, the Porn Weekenders may attend a day-long workshop on how to move into filmmaking – how to negotiate with agents and book the stars, how to comply with the law, and with health requirements and so on.

The oddest thing about the business plan, however, is that if the customers provide a health certificate proving they are free from Hepatitis B and C, HIV (I and II), syphilis, gonorrhoea and chlamydia, and they successfully perform with a consenting model for two 15-minute scenes… they are actually paid for their efforts; £200 for the men, £400 for the women.

“I’ve been inundated with requests from men, women and couples – straight and lesbian – enquiring about taking part in a scene,” says Steel. “The couples usually want to try a threesome with a girl, and so did the one lesbian couple who enquired. Very few actually take that line of enquiry further. Most feel being on-site and directing the models is interactive enough.

“It is overwhelmingly men who want to see if they have what it takes to be a porn star. The reality is that they probably haven’t. It is generally accepted in the industry that only one in 300 men can actually perform for the length of time required, with all the stopping and starting, under the lights and in view of other people.”

Steve has had dozens of enquiries from men wanting to take part in a film during the six months that Porn Weekender has been up and running; only three have turned up to the set – and none was able to perform.

“We are prepared to pay them for two reasons – first, having them pay us or the models for sex would be prostitution, and we don’t do that. Second, finding a man who can do this is so rare that it would actually be an event. I’m not kidding, the guys that can do this, get ‘wood’ on demand and for hours on end, they’re freaks of nature.”

This weekend, all the scenes are girl-girl – which is what the paying customers have requested in advance. Steve has booked five actresses, all receiving £600 for two scenes each, which is slightly more than the going rate. They are semi-naked in the kitchen with a make-up artist and there is much laughter from their quarter, while in the living room the one female and five male customers shuffle around nervously.

The woman is Veronica Stuchlikova, a 26-year-old housewife from Budapest in Hungary and she is sitting demurely on her own while the men hide their embarrassment in coffee and guffaws (no alcohol is allowed on the set).

“I have always liked girls and I have told my husband this and he is happy for me to try with a girl,” she tells me. “But I’m not sure what kind of girl I would like. I thought I might learn something from coming here, but I don’t think I will take part in a scene. I was a bit worried at first about the people here, but everyone is very nice and very relaxed and that is a surprise.”

Four of the men are from the UK. Tom Wright, 25, a massage therapist and keen photographer from Nottingham, has been given the trip as a Christmas present by his father, Mark, a 50-year-old retired businessman. Mark is here, too.

“Until we arrived at the airport, I thought I was just going for a weekend in Prague,” says Tom. “I wasn’t expecting this. It’s a fantastic idea – my dad and I go on holiday a lot and we have a very relaxed relationship so it isn’t embarrassing for me. I’m looking forward to directing the porn and taking some photographs, but I’m also a bit nervous.”

The two other Brits are from Cardiff. Matt Green, 26, works in the security industry and is married with two children. Simon Jones, a 25-year-old fireman, has a girlfriend but no children. Neither of their partners knows they are here.

The final participant is Anders Svensson, a 30-year-old IT consultant from Malmo, Sweden. His wife doesn’t know he is here either. He has been in Prague a day already on the workshop. “It was amazing, learning how to book models, all the technical and legal stuff,” he says. “I’m fascinated by this world and wouldn’t mind getting more involved as a hobby. Problem is, it’s a pretty expensive hobby.”

Only Simon begins to wish he had been for the necessary health checks so he could take part. “I know I could do it,” he says. “One hundred percent. No trouble at all.”

Steel smiles, picks up his camera and asks for hush.

This is when you discover that if you don’t like ice cream or coffee, then being on the set of a porn movie is a bit like having ice cream or coffee poured over your head. If you can take or leave ice cream or coffee, then it simply becomes incredibly boring.

There is a cycle of responses that goes: anticipation, embarrassment, shock, amazement, desire, loss of desire, acute senses of time and hunger, before moving on to boredom. A typical scene might involve a girl finding a toy under a pillow and playing with it; another girl catches her at it, joins in… cue hunger, boredom etc.

The reason for this is that it all appears so clinical; the focused and specific nature of the acting is so surprisingly professional that it leaves no room for thoughts of the erotic. And, of course, the question constantly hangs in the air: are these people being exploited?

After a hundred thousand years have passed, Bianca wipes her hand on the back of her knickers and holds it out for me to shake. She is tall with piercing eyes and an air of extreme self-confidence. When she talks, she sounds thoughtful and intelligent. She is 25 and has been in the business for five years.

“I answered an advertisement to be a hair model, but when I turned up there was a woman who said that casting was over and instead gave me a form that asked me to tick boxes on whether I was prepared to do girl-girl, boy-girl, anal and so on,” she says. “It was probably a trick, but it made me think and I thought, okay, I’ll try it. But I only do solo or girl-girl scenes.”

When I ask if she feels exploited or victimised, Bianca is adamant: “Absolutely not. I love this work and I’m proud of my body. Why shouldn’t I show it to people? I’m well paid, I choose the hours I work and I only do what I want to do. I always make a point of telling my boyfriends what I do and they have no problem. They might feel different if I were working with male actors, but I’m not.”

So does she enjoy it? “I enjoy the lifestyle and the travel and meeting people, but you don’t enjoy the sex. At least 90 percent of the orgasms you have are faked; there is too much to concentrate on – the director, the camera angles and so on – that you just can’t concentrate on enjoying yourself.”

All the actresses are so convincing in their expressions of coital bliss that when Bianca says this, the eyes of every man in the room become glazed as they re-evaluate their sexual experiences one by one and become increasingly glum.

I interview two more of the models in the apartment and later the Porn Weekenders are taken on the town in a stretch limousine with Carla Cox, one of the biggest stars in Europe, whose presence the customers have specifically requested.

All the girls echo Bianca’s sentiments and I have no ammunition with which to challenge them (even if I wanted to). There must surely be coercion in some sections of the porn industry but they insist it is not here; they are in control of their own destinies.

For example, two said they would have no problem performing with amateurs so long as they had certificates to prove they were clean and healthy. Two said they would prefer to work only with professionals. It was their choice.

When I raise the subject of exploitation with Cox, she is indignant and forceful: “Don’t portray me as a victim. I love what I do.” Psychologically, of course, only time will tell how any actor in the business will feel.

“I’ve seen the way other directors work and they don’t respect the models,” says Steel. “They will be aggressive or ask the actors to do things they’re not comfortable with, or just address them as ‘bitch’. I always try to treat everyone with respect.”

As darkness falls, he explains the last of the economic realities that convince him that the future of porn is interactive. He tells me he is paid between £400 and £1 000 per scene by the surviving private independent websites; it used to be much more.

So after the rental of the flat and models’ fees, he would barely break even from the six scenes he has shot. But by inviting guests along at £999 a time, he believes filmmakers like him can get back into the black, and he plans to prove it by relocating to the UK this year.

“I can use interesting locations, hire professional models, pay them a decent wage and hopefully still turn a profit,” he says. “That’s why interactive is the future.”

I’m not so sure. I think it might be part of a multi-faceted future – it might even make Steve Steel rich if he can franchise Porn Weekender around the world. But the only real winners in town will be Manwin and the other big boys, and they will leave a lot of debris, both financial and emotional, in their wake.

It’s time to leave and the customers are saying goodbye to the girls. They all seem to have built up the most unlikely platonic friendships. “Best weekend of my life,” says one.

They have hours of footage and hundreds of photographs and are posing for farewell snaps. Mark takes one of his son with two models in transparent lingerie. “That one’s for your mom,” he says.

The coldness of the Prague night air is sharp as a stiletto and brittle as ice. As I step into it, all I can think of is the aversion therapy in A Clockwork Orange and I come to the conclusion that it probably doesn’t work. If it did, then I would be feeling repulsed by the experience – but I don’t feel that way at all. And that comes as something of a surprise. – The Independent

* All names and details of Porn Weekender customers have been changed

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