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Playgirl TV

Porn Valley- WHEN Mark Graff, a longtime veteran of adult entertainment, founded Playgirl TV in 2003, he wasn’t necessarily interested in liberating women to enjoy the pleasures of erotic entertainment; he was more interested in exploiting them, as an underserved market.

Mr. Graff, who had created Spice Entertainment, a raunchier alternative to Playboy TV, had always believed that women were among Spice’s loyal viewers, although the content, like most pornography, was made with men in mind. “When we moved Spice from 10 o’clock at night to the middle of the day, the buy rates went nuts,” Mr. Graff says, sitting in his office the in the East 40’s. “It couldn’t all be out-of-work truckers. It had to be a lot of housewives.” Never mind that these days, the name Playgirl is most widely associated with a magazine of mild gay pornography; Mr. Graff thought the brand was familiar enough that he’d be able to sell cable distributors a video-on-demand service under that title. In the meantime, he would revive its initial intent, providing sexually provocative material that women – and perhaps some gay men – would enjoy.

Mr. Graff, now 53, thought he had retired back in 1999 when he sold Spice to Playboy TV for a neat $100 million, moved to a small town near the Berkshires and took over an old country store. “I sliced bologna, sold mice traps, penny candy,” he says. “It was my Norman Rockwell moment.” And then? “I got utzy,” he says. “I got bored.” And he got to thinking. If women were watching Spice, then he could only imagine how many more would be interested in a product tailored specifically for them. Especially if the format, too, was tailored specifically for them: video on demand, which is less public than buying videos in a store, less depressing than visiting an adult Web site. He approached the publishers of Playgirl magazine about a licensing deal, and they agreed. “So then we had to figure out, `O.K., what does this look like?’ ” he says. “I had no idea what adult films for women would even be.”

And with good reason: there aren’t a lot out there. Femme Productions, a company started in 1984 by the adult film actress and San Francisco-bred feminist Candida Royalle, has answered that question with movies featuring more plot and emotion than traditional pornography. (Characters have been known to announce that they’re in love midway through the story). But though Femme has been a success, it has not put a dent in the mainstream pornography market.

In any case, Mr. Graff, a bearish man in jeans, a gray suit jacket and black Adidas, would seem an unlikely successor to Royalle. (A copy of “My Secret Garden,” Nancy Friday’s 1973 collection of women’s racy sexual fantasies, that he keeps in his thoroughly unremarkable office looks more than anything else like an unconvincing prop. “It’s my bible,” he swears.) But his profit motive and her political motives are not so far apart as they once would have been. Today, though some feminists still decry the dehumanizing products of this male-dominated industry, others unabashedly declare their love of the stuff and call for the production of more material that women might enjoy.

After licensing the Playgirl name, Mr. Graff started raising funds from a collection of private investors. It took a year to get enough to start production. “Everybody loves the money from adult entertainment,” he says, “but no one wants to tell their wife.” From his home office overlooking the hills of the Berkshires, Mr. Graff started calling women off the Playgirl subscriber list to sound them out about the kind of videos they thought they wanted to watch.

“Porn for women,” he says. “It’s a blank page. So you ask questions: What is it that you like? Are you orally oriented? Do you want to see good-looking guys close up?” Hetta Eisenberg, the marketing director of the new venture, and Kelly Holland, a film director who also came on board, were making the same calls, and eventually the three hit on some basic themes. “We’d hear, `I want to see better-looking guys, more loving, more communication between the couples,’ ” Mr. Graff says. “They had to have some involvement with the characters in advance of sex, with a believable set-up, for it to work. `I want to see a better set-up than the pizza man coming to the door.’ For guys, wall to wall sex is fine. In fact, the pizza man is too much plot.” He laughs. “Lose the pizza!”

Ms. Holland started working with writers in Los Angeles to conceptualize the company’s films. She used a lot of the phone survey results – but not all. “Women say they want more plot, but there’s plenty of plot out there,” she says. In fact, she believes that plot is the downfall of many supposedly couple-friendly films: the more plot, the more pressure on the actors to make it work. “You know, what’s embarrassing to women about porn isn’t just the sex,” says Ms. Holland, a tall, professionally dressed woman with long red hair who worked in documentary film before turning to editing, then directing, adult films to make money. “What makes people blush is also the bad community theater acting, the tripping-over-the-stairs amateur thing that goes on. These actors aren’t Strasberg-trained – they’re sex performers. Rather than try to get them to do something they don’t do with these elaborate scenes, we thought we’d just add a little more context instead.” Ms. Holland, who says she’s “passionate about women’s right to erotic imagery,” has started using her real name, for the first time since she started working in adult film, on the Playgirl projects. She oversees production and script, with Mr. Graff signing off on the basic plots and premises.

Rather than add too much plot, Ms. Holland wanted to make the sex scenes more natural. “All the sex scenes you see in Hollywood films are artificial, in the sense that you have all this buildup, and then for the most intimate, truthful moments, when people are sexual, we sort of contrive the sheets in this artificial way to hide the body, to hide that reality,” she says. “With porn, it’s the opposite contrivance – she has to lie with her legs spread like this” – she splays her arms open – “and he has to lean back like that so the camera can get there. I just want to shoot sex as I see it, as it is.”

Neither Ms. Holland nor Mr. Graff was happy with their early results, however. “It’s really hard to get people to move away from what I call P.O.P., plain old porn,” Mr. Graff says. “You know, everybody’s been doing it in a certain way for so long, from the lighting to the actors, it’s kind of like a factory, like watching people in a bakery. It’s very blasé. And it’s very hard to get them to do new things.” An early segment, featuring a man and a woman who start out playing strip poker on a porch, reveals, in Ms. Holland’s opinion, too many “gynecological shots” to be of interest to women.

Mr. Graff and Ms. Holland began gathering their friends for informal focus groups and learned that they had been overlooking some very big concerns. “It turned out art direction was incredibly important,” Mr. Graff says. “From the headboards to shoes to his haircut, her haircut, everything that was in the room was being closely examined – whether or not her nails were done, whether or not the bedspread was pretty. `Why is she wearing those shoes?’ was a big thing. Not why was she wearing shoes or not wearing shoes, but why is she wearing those shoes? Shoes were like – a big deal.”

For the next round of films they produced, Mr. Graff and Ms. Holland passed over stylists who worked exclusively in adult films and instead hired an art director who also works in theater, a wardrobe person who also designs hats and handbags. “Women were telling us they were really into lingerie, and it has to be at least Victoria’s Secret, but better you have Prada. And they complained a lot about over-the-top jewelry, so we paid attention to that,” Ms. Holland says. The results are “closer to where we’re going, if not there yet,” she adds.

Like most pornographic movies, they feature pat scenarios: a woman alone with the man behind the counter in a diner after hours; a woman making moves on the guy at the grocery store. But some differences are striking: the female actresses look a lot more like real people, with normal, natural bodies, than like porn stars. There are fewer close-ups on actual genital contact (in one, there’s almost none). To eliminate awkward, off-putting dialogue, the characters interact very little before they make physical contact. The attention to detail shows up in the short but manicured nails, the hand-stitched lingerie and the specificity of the wardrobe: for a scene set in a 50’s diner, a vintage dress was brought in from a Los Angeles wardrobe shop. Although Mr. Graff would not give specifics on budget, he says the cost of the average Playgirl film is higher than the cost of his old Spice productions. “Those shoes are expensive,” he explains.

In mid-July, the Playgirl service made its debut. For $8.95, subscribers to Cablevision, which serves parts of the New York metropolitan area, have the choice of several 90-minute combinations of five to seven different short films. (For now, those segments are either sexual scenarios or profiles of male stars, featured mostly naked and in the act of self-stimulation; Mr. Graff intends to add sex advice and shopping features in the future). He also struck a deal with two companies that distribute adult entertainment to hotel chains. He says he’s optimistic about signing deals with other major cable service providers within the year.

Dennis McAlpine, the media and entertainment analyst for McAlpine Associates, agrees that women are an underserved market. “But it’s hard to sell the cable service providers on more adult entertainment,” he says. “It’s too controversial. My guess is the major players will wait and see how he does with Cablevision before signing on.” Mr. Graff will also be facing competition from the upstart producer Inpulse TV, another new video-on-demand service hoping to corner the market on erotic entertainment for women.

Asked their reaction to the films, Emma Taylor and Lorelei Sharkey, sex advice authors who publish under the name Em and Lo, responded right on cue. “I was noticing how cool her hair was,” Ms. Sharkey started out, referring to the film shot in the diner. “There was a 50’s element to her look that I really liked. And she had this cool outfit on, and cool undergarments – and the kissing seemed to last a full five minutes, which is an eternity for porn.”

Ms. Taylor immediately commented on the brevity of the conversational build-up. “At first I was thinking, I wish there’d been a little more conversation to make it seem like something that actually happened in real life,” she said. “But then the dialogue would have been forced and the acting would have been bad. Improving the sex is probably a much more attainable goal than trying to get the actors to turn in Oscar-winning performances.”

The filmmakers still say they have a few aesthetic choices to work out, including the display of male genitals. In those initial phone surveys, Playgirl readers said they wanted to see as many as possible. But as Ms. Holland herself admits, the preferences of the female Playgirl reader may not represent the average American woman’s tastes. “I have to take women at face value when they say they want to see more penises,” she says. “But I factor in, how much of that is just because they want their MTV, so to speak – their right to media and their right to those sexual images? It’s sort of an expression of their process of sexual liberation. It’s like those rowdy women you see at a male strip club – it’s almost like they’re acting out some male construct of what sexual desire is supposed to look like. You have to balance what they really want with what they feel socially compelled to say.”

SHE adds a personal comment that’s practically revolutionary for directors in her line of work, like hearing Quentin Tarantino say there’s too much on-screen violence: “As for me, I could probably not see male or female genitals at all. To me it’s not a priority.” She suspects that if and when adult films for women become more widely accepted, and they have a broader sample of consumer feedback, the films may get less explicit.

Mr. Graff admits that early on they created the “male body worship segments,” the male model profiles, in the hopes of capturing a gay male audience, a relatively high-income, high-buying demographic. “It’s the mothership for advertisers,” he said. “But now I think that most gay men will tune in once and then not come back. It’s really not for them.” And trying to split the programming down the middle, he says, “would be cheating, so to speak.” The material hasn’t been on the air long enough to yield reliable impressions of women’s response to those segments.

Mr. Graff says the most difficult thing has been finding a way to wrap up the sex scenes without getting quite so explicit as male-oriented pornography. “You know, this is all part of the process, to create a set of characters and circumstances that are intriguing and make you want to come back and that also deliver the goods,” he said. “After all, this ain’t the Oprah Show.”



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