Flashing Lights

10.19.13

Video Killed the Porn Star: The VHS and Fast Forwarding Revolution

As movies from the golden era of porn are remade, Aurora Snow reflects on how the introduction of VHS and fast forwarding turned adult actors into people who just had sex on camera.

Imagine walking down 42nd Street and seeing the bright lights of New York City illuminating a porn star’s name on the marquee above a posh theater. A theater you don’t have to be embarrassed to be seen in, a place where you can bring a date for a good time. Hard to imagine isn’t it?

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Exterior nighttime view of the Pussycat Theater, an X-rated movie theater on 42nd Street in Times Square, New York City. The marquee advertises porn actor Marilyn Chambers in director Stu Segall's film 'Insatiable.' (David Herman/Hulton Archive/Getty )

Before dirty movies could be viewed in the privacy of your home, they were screened at theaters. In the ‘70s, adult movies had a beginning, a middle, and an end. The actors were paid to act, not just have sex. Not just anybody could show up and make a name for themselves in the adult business hubs of New York or San Francisco. XXX-rated flicks were filmed on 8mm and treated more like real movies than the bulk of what’s available today. The films of those times would be all but lost to today’s generation if it weren’t for the remakes breathing life back into the “golden era.”

Vivid has resurrected four big movies from the ‘70s porn renaissance. While I’d heard of the classic Behind the Green Door and knew who Marilyn Chambers was, I’d never bothered to see it until the remake. I was floored by the general concept: Gloria (Chambers), is abducted on the streets of San Francisco, brought to a sex club, and forced to participate with the understanding that it’s only for one night. What makes it all okay is that she ends up liking it. I don’t think that would go over so well in 2013. These days most of the adult film companies I know would avoid showing a girl being kidnapped and turned into a sex slave.

I can see why Vivid’s reimaging of the film was done with a fantasy spin on a modern take with a few flashbacks to the original. As Vivid’s cofounder and CEO Steven Hirsch tells me, “Times have changed and we want to be sure these versions reflect what’s happening today.”

So much has changed in the world of adult filmmaking in the last 40 years—most because of technology. VHS killed the porn star. Kelly Nichols got her start in the adult business in the late ‘70s first as a makeup artist and nude model, and later as an adult actress on the big screens of New York’s Pussycat Theater. Hers was a blockbuster name with box office appeal not unlike Seka and Marilyn Chambers.  
 
“There weren’t that many porn stars at the time,” says Nichols. “We were getting closer to Hollywood. It probably all would have merged on a more eloquent level had not the whole VCR thing come along and made it dirty again.” Theaters began to shut down as more and more people bought videos. Guys could fast forward through the story line and get right to the action. The way it was consumed also had an effect on what was being created. “As soon as it went to video they stopped needing actresses, they didn’t need the acting anymore, they just needed people to have sex on camera,” says Nichols.

‘The last big star that you'll see come out of this business is Jenna Jameson.’

One of the living legends from the golden era of porn, Seka, echoes Nichols about the industry’s changes. “Nowadays anybody can be a porn star but nobody’s really a star anymore,” Seka tells me. Two decades ago that wasn’t the case. “The last big star that you’ll see come out of this business is Jenna Jameson. Nobody brands themselves, nobody markets themselves, and no one stays in for more than a year or two anymore. You can’t brand any kind of a product in a year whether it’s a person or shampoo.” It’s true that while the opportunity to brand one’s self exists through social media, few of the hundreds of girls in the industry are able to capitalize on that. Perhaps it’s because there are simply too many movies and too many girls, it’s harder to standout in a crowd these days.

Not everyone agrees. Wesley Emerson began producing adult movies in 1975 and only retired a few years ago. Back in the ‘70s, Southern California frowned upon the adult industry. Those who wanted to tempt fate were able to sneak around (much like those companies that avoid obtaining proper permits or heeding current regulations do today).

“If you don’t get a permit you gotta gun‘n’ run like they use to do in the ‘70s,” says Emerson. “In the ‘70s if you were shooting in L.A., you’d tell people to meet you in a supermarket parking lot. You’d load them into a windowless van and drive them to location. No one could tell you where you were going, there were no cell phones then.” Emerson’s says there’s nothing new about today’s adult entertainment. “I’m so tired of the XXX parodies. There’s nothing original about those. Back in the ‘70s John Holmes did half a dozen of those parodies.”

But the industry has changed. VHS and the revolutionary ability to fast forward to the scene you want to see birthed the gonzo shooting style. That is, a movie can be all action and no story. Five sex scenes with a common theme is still considered a movie—hence titles like Slutty and Sluttier numbers 1-10.