In 2006, worldwide revenues from porn totalled at least $97 billion, figures Hollywood and the video gaming industry can only dream about. The adult retail market is worth about $500m a year in Australia, but the agenda-heavy voices in the debate and labyrinthine and often contradictory laws make it hard to find reliable figures, but where does all the money go?
It might surprise you to learn a home-grown porn industry once showed great promise. The Howard age bought on more conservative times, an interesting step backwards compared to attitudes about porn and sexuality. In the 80s an enterprising businessman named John Lark saw a niche because of the Overseas Export Development Grant, a scheme where the government paid any money spent promoting an Australian film overseas back in full.
The result was the Mature Media Group, a well known name among porn fans in the late 80s and early 90s, and Lark made over 20 films in Canberra with cheesy Australian themes, launching local starlets like Alice Springs and Kelly Blue.
Conservative Senator Brian Harradine — the same who’d later hardball Howard into restricting the adult industry in return for his vote on the sale of Telstra – got wind of Lark’s patronage and set about exempting adult films from the scheme.
Without the numbers in the Senate to support them, Lark’s opponents decided to try to tax him out of existence, introducing a levy that would cripple him. Lark took the ACT government to the High Court in 1991, bankrupting himself despite winning the case. It was the first and last time a legitimate adult film studio operated in Australia.
21st century porn
Today, Australians spend amounts on porn Lark and his political enemies could only dream about, but little to none of it is produced in Australia. A handful of US and European studios like Vivid and Private own the market with the biggest stars, studios, distributor agreements and legal systems under their belts.
But Australians have learnt to circumnavigate one of the strangest legal frameworks in the world to buy adult movies. Even prior to its late 2007 election Labor’s platform supported adults seeing and hearing what they like subject to adequate protections.
But it’s a very different story at the state level. It’s legal to buy X rated films anywhere in Australia but illegal to sell it in the states, which explains the ACT and NT-based mail order system. Making porn films is restricted or illegal in most states and territories, but the laws are enforceable under different legal acts and the penalties different from one to the next.
With a hostile political landscape, the only Australian porn is coming from a few low-key players. Aussie-owned and operated Abbywinters.com’s biggest market is the US, and the company wants to stay out of the local media spotlight to the extent they declined to be interviewed for this article.
The others are technically empowered but struggling DIY directors such as Anna Brownfield, a feminist filmmaker who set out to make porn primarily for women and couples. After completing a few films Brownfield has found it too difficult, telling Penthouse she’s ‘moving away’ from the genre.
“To do anything with [new film The Band] we decided we probably had to go outside of Australia,” she says, explaining why her current project might not even be seen here because of the political climate. “The censorship laws are even more restricted than they were 30 years ago and lots of things that would traditionally go through the censors are being stopped. We started making films at a time when arthouse films with hard core content [such as Romance and Intimacy] were becoming mainstream, but there’s been a stop to that. It does make me sad that I’m living in such a conservative country.”
Sex for money
So the demand and distribution infrastructure are there. If the political scene was on its side, could we have a porn industry to rival the greats?
When Adultshop.com bought Australia’s biggest porn movie distributor — the Axis Group — in 2000 — the latter was spending $60-80,000 producing adult films that adultshop.com CEO Malcolm Day describes as ‘E grade’ in quality. By contrast, it costs adultshop.com around $5,000 for the rights to an A grade US or European production. The Axis studio was quickly disbanded.
But Day says the situation could be different if the law was on the producers’ side. The machinery of supply and demand, of distribution and licensing is there. But the operative world is ‘could’. “You’re competing with a very crowded market,” Day tells Penthouse. “You’d have to come up with something different and you’d have to devote a hell of a lot of money — I’m talking millions — to marketing it.”
But DVD isn’t just where it’s at. Despite adulsthop.com reporting their online video on demand service hasn’t rocked the world yet, everyone knows online porn will (and is) changing everything over again.
The pro-porn camp doesn’t just want a strictly regulated market to ensure the products are ‘clean’ – free of the violence and degradation the anti-porn camp always holds up as proof of porn’s evil.
Malcolm Day says the unregulated corner shop, petrol station and weekend market porn economy is doing the most damage to reputation and revenues. “95 to 97 percent of adult films [sold in Australia] are either pirated or illegally imported and haven’t been classified,” he says, pointing out the huge amount of films distributed by organised crime where porn’s nastier aspects can rear their heads.
But as bandwidth increases and we consume more porn from sources not beholden to Australia’s laws or retail channels, all the political hand wringing might be for nothing. Enter PM Rudd and broadband minister Conroy’s Internet filtering adventure, which has set off another round of furious debate and will ensure porn in Australia remains a contentious issue for a long time to come…