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At AEE: Adult Entertainment Expo flashes skin, but technology is the real deal

Las Vegas- For 10 years now, more than 30,000 visitors have wandered through an instant, temporary city devoted to flesh and flash and above all, cash.

Showcasing more than 400 exhibitors at the Sands Expo Center, the five-day AVN Adult Entertainment Expo winds up Saturday night with a glitzy awards show (tickets are $107, but the best show is arguably just watching the red carpet arrivals for free) at the Mandalay Bay Events Center.

It is one of the most unconventional conventions in a city that attracts about 5.7 million people to 24,000 professional gatherings each year.

But the dirty secret about this porn megamall is that it’s all business, at least during the day. All the usual convention priorities prevail: commerce, technology, networking, seminars, market segments, meet-and-greets. And oh yes, sex.

The business may be pleasure, but it’s still big-bucks business AVN, named for Adult Video News, is the flagship event of an industry driven by figuring out how consumers get what they want, exactly what they want (even what they never knew they wanted). And they want it now.

Exhibitors at this year’s AVN pondered a paradigm shift about how content is delivered, offering seminars on the latest in digital and high-definition delivery, building and improving Web sites and combating piracy.

Even more than the adjacent Consumer Electronics Show (it’s hardly coincidence that both annual events are held mere yards apart in the same convention center in the same city on the same week in January) the AVN expo is explicitly a guy thing.

As the doors of the two-level, 1.85 million-square-foot venue open at 10 a.m. Wednesday, hundreds of eager men make a beeline to meet and greet (or just gape at) their particular favorites, who sport vivid names (and little else).

At enormous, glaringly expensive booths representing adult industry studios including Vivid and Wicked, the equivalent of the mainstream’s Warner Bros. and Paramount, the most popular women make eye contact and pose and undulate for cameras. Competing DJ beats blare, punctuated by an occasional recorded moan. The fragrances of rubber, leather and perfume pervade the air. Sensory overkill makes the whole scene somehow unsexy, sterile, even anesthetic.

One of the first in line as the expo opens is Jay Valdez, 25, who came from New Mexico and has eyes only for his moviemaking idols Jules Jordan and John Stagliano.

“The directors make a lot of difference,” says Valdez, who is not just a fan but an aspiring videographer, and can eloquently explain the distinctive oeuvres of a litany of porn auteurs. “These guys are like my mentors. I look up to these gentlemen because they really do what I want to do.”

Valdez gets a handshake and a few minutes with Stagliano, a good-looking smoothie who has appeared as talent in many of his own movies. The owner of Evil Empire, credited with inventing the “gonzo” niche of pornography, he boasts about the 17 nominations his high-budget ($400,000) DVD sequel “Fashionistas Safado: Berlin” is up for at Saturday’s awards show.

Evil Empire makes most of its money on the Internet, with pay-per-minute streaming of home movies and a group of membership-only niche sites.

“That’s what I’ve been putting my money into, aside from losing a ton of money on my dance show here in Vegas,” says Stagliano, who is also the creator and director of the 3-year-old “Fashionistas” revue at the Harmon Theater at Planet Hollywood.

“We’re creating a special production number for the awards show,” says Stagliano, who promises an eye-popper: “Celine Dion meets porn with political content that is much, much edgier.”

Several companies that started off manufacturing relatively inexpensive content for the Web have moved into remastering and distributing it on DVD, which Stagliano says is diluting the market. He glares across the aisle where 5-year-old Miami-based Bang Productions, one of his biggest competitors, has set up an elaborate carnival setting, with unprintable variations on traditional fairground games such as ring toss and beanbag throw, in addition to the standard starlet photo ops and autograph signings.

“The fans love what we put on for them every year,” says Bang owner Penn Davis, 35, a classic T-shirted nerd with thinning reddish hair and braces. “The main purpose of this kind of interactive, themed setup is that all the retail store owners, distribution company owners get this one opportunity each year to see how strong a brand is with their own eyes. You can advertise all you want to, but only here can you watch what the fans line up for.”

Also catching Stagliano’s eye is the centrally situated booth promoting, a members-based Australian site with 30,000 subscribers.

While makeup-encrusted starlets at comparatively claustrophobic nearby booths teeter on towering heels in Band-Aid-size skirts, a dozen representative samples of the Abby Winters’ 800 amateur models some skinny, some chubby play at being the girl next door in jeans and white bras, romping on AstroTurf under artificial sunlight and posing with fans across a chessboard.

“We feel as though their appeal and their sexiness come from being natural, no makeup, no body modifications, no costumes or high heels,” says Sarah Flynn, an effusive model turned model manager who is a ringer for comedian Sarah Silverman. “The idea behind our site is to subvert the dominant paradigms of the adult industry the artifice, the male-dominated stuff.”

Flynn says the female-owned and -operated Internet-only company is also moving into DVD distribution, having just signed an exclusive deal with the Southern California studio Wicked Pictures.

Freely displayed flesh is the bait, but the real meat of AVN is technology. It’s long been acknowledged that delivery and consumption of erotica have driven innovation and commerce in most new media since the time of cave paintings and hand-illustrated scrolls.

On the outskirts of the showroom floor, the expo’s loudest buzz gathers around FyreTV, a Miami startup that is taking video on demand to a new level. A low-cost, subscription-based service for streaming adult movies over a broadband connection, FyreTV is the brainchild of clean-cut 30-year-old Estafano Isaias, who was meeting with Stagliano and other studio moguls eager to get their product carried into thousands of homes via his hot new home delivery service.

Currently in beta and shipping next week, FyreTV’s tiny set-top box uses a digital broadband-streaming technology referred to as Internet Protocol Television to let pornophiles skip the potential embarrassment of checking out flicks at the neighborhood video store, the wait for pricey videos in the mail, or the downloading of low-quality movies from the Internet.

A few aisles away, Bob Rudy is convinced that he’s got the Next Big Thing in porn-tech. In what seems like the setup to an inevitable punch line, the Philadelphia inventor and director passionately describes how he is pioneering 3-D porn. The startling, somewhat comical effect is delivered in two ways, via a bulky lenticular overlay affixed to a TV screen or with encoded video watched through those retro red and blue cellophane 3-D glasses.

Representing a more directly applied technology, Marques Lyons, a promoter for Zeus Electrosex, is luring passers-by with a demo of his somewhat frightening battery-operated products. “What we’ve done is take stimulation which can be very complex for people and simplify it.”

Although it claims a sizable share of the adult entertainment market, the GayVN section offering gay-oriented content shrank at the 2008 AVN. Only about a dozen companies showed up less than half of last year’s crop according to director/producer Chi Chi LaRue, representing Channel 1 Releasing, one of the largest distributors of male-male movies.

In a rare appearance in drag, LaRue, 48, was unfazed by the low turnout in the gay arena. “I wanted to come here and do business. The industry is making great strides in video on demand, but there’s still money to be made in DVD sales I’d say they have a good five years in them,” LaRue says. “I’m old-school. I have a DVD player. I don’t want that to go away … I don’t think everybody is ready yet to give over to watching everything on their computer.”

“My focus is a little different; I’m not really here looking for new technology,” says Chris Steele, the actor turned screenwriter and director who was on hand to promote his firefighting-themed DVD “On Fire!” “Other gay distributors I talked to said, ‘It’s too straight and there’s not enough gay people there why do we want to go?’ I said, ‘Yeah, but who owns the video stores? Straight people own the video stores; all the buyers are straight.”

One of the more tangential but popular technological offerings at AVN was a booth offering on-site teeth whitening at a discount. A small crowd gawked at the eerie blue glow emanating from the mouths of several men reclining in dental chairs.

“It’s a trade secret, like breast augmentation,” says Kevin, an assistant manager for DaVinci Bright, clad in a white medical smock and wearing rubber gloves (which is not a bad idea at this or any convention). We know at some point the cameramen have to pan up. And that’s the idea: (porn actors) want to look their best, so physical fitness is part of it and having a bright, white smile is part of it, too.”

Also smiling this morning is Maurice, a Sands custodian, who is taking his sweet time changing trash bags on the expo floor. “This is a job,” he says. “But it’s the one I look forward to.”


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