If It Was Just About The Money We'd All Be Making Porn

A movie studio exec once told me that if it were true that Hollywood was only interested in making money, the studios would have long ago ditched what they were doing and made porn. Huge money in porn, apparently. Who knew?


Much as it’s easy to dismiss the moguls for chasing money, there is an aesthetic at work. And much as it’s important to have an eye on the bottom line, to succeed over the long term, it’s rarely good business to stay focused only there.

This is especially true on the internet, where publishers can track exactly what people are reading. When Salon.com first launched 15 years ago it had a terrific culture section. Music and book and art reviews, essays, an amazing literary travel section. Salon had lots of money early on and it built a sophisticated tracking system that could tell exactly what readers were reading.

When Salon got into financial difficulty, it increasingly (and unsurprisingly) focused on stories that got more traffic. Editors discovered that any headline that had a sexual reference got a spike in readers, even if the story wasn’t about sex. Soon the headlines were a spicy bubbling brew of them. Eventually much of the culture coverage melted away.

It’s easy to fall into the stats/data trap. Most new bloggers I’ve known get enslaved by their stat counters. They’re reading me in Bangkok! In Peru! Pretty cool! It’s quickly apparent which kinds of stories “sell” and which don’t. As a publisher of blogs at ArtsJournal, it’s easy to see what blogs get traffic and which don’t. 

At some newspapers, if a story hits the home page and it doesn’t immediately get clicks it gets pulled from prominence, sometimes in as little as 10 minutes. At some newspapers, the ability to track readers through a site ends up driving the news product. So you have sections full of reader-submitted pet pictures and navigation architecture that values traffic over important stories.

Most arts organizations learned long ago that following the crowd doesn’t necessarily lead to sustained success. Surveying the audience you have gets answers from the audience you have, not those you’d like to have. Program only for the audience you have and you set up a feedback loop of diminishing returns, attrition ensuring erosion.

In the old production model, artists created and audiences consumed; newspapers reported and readers read. Interaction 1.0 was a conversation up/down in which the audience talked back to the artist or newspaper. Interaction 2.0 is the artist or news organization attracting an audience around content and making it possible for that audience not just to talk back to the artist but to interact with one another. Everyone’s there – initially at least – because of the content, but they’re loyal because of the community.

Which makes it even more important to be clear what kind of community you’re trying to build. Most newspaper comment sections are crap because editors don’t take care in curating them or developing the community who comments. They let traffic drive content rather than content drive traffic, and as a result they don’t have audience they wish they had. Arts organizations fall into the same trap if they plunge into social networking without being clear what kind of community they’re trying to build. The goal can’t just be numbers. Otherwise, just make porn.

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  1. Donna Spellings says

    If every movie was porn, a new black market would rise to meet the demand for Sound of Music (or so).

  2. Rebecca says

    ironic that you employed that same strategy by giving the article a porn title, which drew my attention, but disappointed because there’s no porn.

  3. Tyler Green says

    Er, at the risk of revealing certain knowledge, does Vivid Video really make more money than Sony Pictures or MGM?

  4. says

    Sure…the more expensive the product, the more money you can sell it for…Selling your soul will always bring in bucks…Good luck with that…

  5. says

    social media can be about growing the audience, though, as you point out, the emphasis often seems to be on numbers rat the expense of quality of engagement or even engagement at all.
    looking at the stats for my blog, five stories which have been in the top ten most read since I published them (some for more than two years now) are a profile of Irish American singer songwriter Cathie Ryan, a review of a live recording of Cape Breton music, an essay/review of Dual, a project which explores the connections between Irish and Scots Gaelic song, a story about songs of homecoming framed in reference to a concert at Celtic Connections, and a photo and prose essay about the connections between Irish music and Irish landscape. no word of sex in any of 'em. maybe I am building the sort of community I'd hoped for over there — small (2k-3k hits a month give or take) but growing. and with a few readers in Thailand, even. though rarely Bangkok.

  6. Rex Weil says

    that's funny, it's early and I was out last night. I thought the title was We'd all Be Making Pom — selling Pom – making a fortune with fuzzy health claims for pomegrante juice. That's who I'm jealous of as I waste away in the studio. Is it OK to make juice instead of culture?

  7. Paul says

    Tyler Green asked, "does Vivid Video really make more money than Sony Pictures or MGM?" To which the answer is, no not by a long shot; or to extend the question more broadly does the porn industry make more money than the non-porn film industry? Same answer.
    That a silly old cliche gets repeated by a movie studio executive doesn't magically make it something other than a silly old cliche.
    Also, as a recovered newspaper journalist myself and sibling to a newspaper lifer who just last week had her career ended by that sector's ongoing implosion, I'd be interested in seeing a citation for this claim: "At some newspapers, if a story hits the home page and it doesn't immediately get clicks it gets pulled from prominence, sometimes in as little as 10 minutes….So you have sections full of reader-submitted pet pictures and navigation architecture that values traffic over important stories." Where/when/by whom has that familiar bogeyman actually been implemented as described, please?

  8. says

    @Tyler: Not even close. But that’s not the way to look at it. Say a studio bets $100 million when it makes a major picture. A lot of forces have to come together to turn a profit, and it’s a big gamble. Studios have to go out and raise the money to pay for production in the hopes that box office and rentals make it back. Porn movies for the most are low budget affairs (under $100,000), and the returns are substantial. Plus, the supply is huge – more than 15,000 movies made last year, by some accounts. Major studios have had increasing problems getting financing for high-stakes releases. Earlier this year the porn industry made much of the downturn in its fortunes because of the economy and the proliferation of free porn video sites on the internet. But the fact is that the financial gambles are still easier in porn than in the mainstream movie business.

  9. says

    @Paul: See my response to Tyler about his question. As to your point about the size of the porn industry. As you may know, measuring the porn industry economically is a complicated thing, not least of all because of the various agendas of those who seek to report data. One set of stats widely disseminated around the internet can be found here which claims that in 2006, worldwide porn revenue was $97 billion, with $13 billion in the US alone. A list of sources at the end isn’t specific enough to verify the data. This statistic is widely touted in news stories. But Forbes, back in 2001 took on the stats to try to debunk them. Who knows.
    But as I wrote in my answer to Tyler, the point wasn’t about porn being a bigger industry. It was about porn being a less risky financial gamble than the high stakes one major studios play. My bad. I should have spelled it out.
    As for your question about newspapers and their traffic behavior: This isn’t really a controversial point at all. Indeed, it’s common practice, as many online news producers will tell you. If a story fails to get immediate traction, it gets moved. At the LA Times, producers are constantly adjusting the lineup to maximize traffic. A story that doesn’t get clicked on right away gets moved. I hear this from dozens of online news producers; it’s how things work.
    As for the pets reference: The Seattle PI had a huge success with traffic through its pets page and it’s now been widely copied.
    The navigation architecture comment: news site navigation in general is terrible. On many sites it’s difficult to find what you’re looking for, and much of the design of news sites is thought out from a traffic flow perspective rather than a news imperative. For better or worse, the much-touted Bakersfield Californian is a master of this trend.
    Bogeyman, Paul? Why bogeyman? The news sites that get it are out there, and you see them experimenting in interesting ways. Unfortunately, few other news organizations have made the investment to play in the new reality of the internet. Again, not really a controversial point at all.

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