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Steve Hirsch: Cleveland’s X-rated connection

Porn Valley- The Cleveland Plain Dealer runs an article on former hometown product Steve Hirsch, calling Hirsch’s company, Vivid Entertainment Group, the top producer of adult films in the country. Hirsch is credited for bringing mainstream marketing techniques to the industry in which “Vivid rivals major movie studios for output and profit margins.”

“But for all of his California dream- machine sales savvy, Hirsch’s expertise reaches back to Cleveland’s East Side and his family’s ties to America’s most notorious pornographer, Reuben Sturman,” writes The Plain Dealer, noting, with caustic mob reference, that Hirsch’s father, Fred, was a “top Sturman lieutenant” and that Sturman was convicted of tax evasion and other crimes and died, disgraced, in prison in 1997.

Fred Hirsch was a stockbroker who took a job with the Sovereign News Co., selling 8mm stag films for Sturman, who, according to The Plain Dealer, controlled the majority of pornography in the country from his Cleveland office and was eventually slapped with multiple indictments in several states for obscenity, beating most of the raps.

“But in the great tradition of Al Capone, Sturman’s trouble with the IRS landed him in jail (he was charged with owing $40 million in back taxes), and he was later convicted of extortion, witness-tampering, and juror-tampering.”

In a federal case that came to trial in Cleveland in 1978, Sturman and six associates (all later acquitted) were hit with several smut charges for shipping obscene material over state lines. Among those indicted and acquitted was Fred Hirsch. By then, Hirsch had moved his family to Woodland Hills in the San Fernando Valley outside Los Angeles, where his son Steve was a star high school wrestler.

Fred Hirsch went on to open one of the first porn video companies, Adult Video Corp., and Steve worked part time for his father while he attended Cal-State Northridge and UCLA, then got a sales job with CalVista Video. But he insists his father has nothing to do with Vivid, saying, “This is not a family business.” Fred Hirsch, now retired, declined to be interviewed.

It was in 1984 when Steve Hirsch and David James had a better, more glamorized notion of porn: They borrowed $20,000 from a printer and formed Vivid Video. But they needed a star. Hirsch went after Ginger Lynn and signed her to an exclusive contract. Lynn got script and casting approval and was paid royalties, in addition to a guaranteed salary.

Their first collaboration, “Ginger,” shot on video, became the No. 1 adult film of the year, pulling in $700,000. Vivid followed with a succession of Ginger sequels, then turned to a new star, Jamie Summers, for whom they created a character: The Brat.

“The Brat series caught the attention of Playboy Enterprises, which wanted to show Vivid movies on its cable channels. But Playboy only aired movies shot on film. It was a major turning point for Vivid, which suddenly had national exposure and the added cachet of shooting on film, just like the real studios. (Vivid eventually purchased the Hot Network from Playboy, added the Hot Zone and Vivid TV, and recently sold the channels back to Playboy for $73 million.)”

Vivid movies are carried on premium channels by most major cable systems with corporate owners that include General Motors and AT&T. They are on DirecTV satellite. They are available in major hotel chains such as Hilton and Marriott, and Hirsch’s company has been hailed in the Wall Street Journal and the Economist.

As a result of all these deal, The Plain Dealer calls Hirsch “stinking rich” with an 8,300 square-foot mansion in a gated community in Chatsworth. “It screams money, privacy and go away – a network of security cameras and alarm systems guard the house inside and out.

“The giant script H on the ominous front gate,” writes the paper, “bespeaks the media-mogul status of a Hearst, Hughes or Hefner. But you won’t see Hirsch at red-carpet premieres or shaking it with a babe-brigade at late-night clubs ala Hef. He used to party with his stars. Not anymore. Hirsch’s wife Laurie whom he married last May after dating six years asked not to be interviewed for the piece. They have two children: a 2-year-old daughter, Alexa, and 2-week-old son, Jack.

Hirsch, who 15 years ago went into rehab brought on by booze, broads, partying and drugs, doesn’t watch his own films. Hirsch says he’s sick of porn by the time he gets home at night. Many millions of people do watch his films, however, which explains the opulent mountain-view mansion, the professional workout room, and the fountain-adorned, super-sized pool that looks transplanted from a Las Vegas hotel.

Hirsch selects Vivid Girls based on three criteria: unique look, marketability, sexual magnetism. Several of the Vivid Girls including Savanna Samson and Sunrise Adams are also interviewed during the shooting of “Last Girl Standing,” whose location is a secluded house in the mountains once owned by the pop duo Captain and Tennille.

“I love my work – love it,” says Samson. “I just got porn fever. I wanted to do it as a fantasy. I didn’t know there was any money in porn.”

Samson’s co-stars in the project include Sunrise Adams, Briana Banks, Mercedez, and Jenna Jameson. Jameson’s “How to Make Love Like a Porn Star” will be published by HarperCollins ReganBooks in May.

“I love working with Vivid,” adds Sunrise Adams, star of “Debbie Does Dallas: The Revenge,” who just signed a five-year deal. “Steven has really worked with me and allowed me to blossom.”

Adams, 23, says The Plain Dealer, ” exudes the kind of sweet-girl innocence that sells a lot of videos, and drives the vehicle of choice for porn stars – a monster SUV.”

For her part, Mercedez signed a three-year contract after she met Hirsch with her husband. “Steven said, If this will hurt your relationship, don’t do it. Your marriage is more important than doing films for my company.’ ”

When she had run-ins with producers a few weeks ago, Hirsch put out the fires. “You’re always at risk in this business,” says Mercedez, who has two young sons. “But Steven has helped me with my approach. I don’t have to take drugs or alcohol to do a scene. Vivid has a condoms-only policy, and every 30 days we’re tested for HIV and STDs. So it’s clean sex. They’re not gross, gonzo movies. I don’t have to worry about coming in for a big bondage scene.”

“Although it has flirted with going public several times, Vivid remains private, and there are few public records revealing porn’s total dollar figures. Hirsch refused to disclose his company’s earnings, but it’s safe to say Vivid racked up $100 million in profits last year.”

Vivid’s headquarters is in Van Nuys, in the Valley, but later this year, Vivid moves up to Hollywood, across the street from Universal Studios. Vivid is, likewise, streamlining to focus more on film production. In addition to selling its cable channels, it turned over operation of its Web sites to Webquest and recently shifted its distribution wing to another porn king with an Ohio past – Larry Flynt.

Vivid releases about 55 new films each year and dozens more compilations. No footage is wasted at Vivid. An extra camera chronicles every shoot for DVD extras and Web promos. Twenty-one editors are currently working two shifts to pare down 12 features and 48 compilations (greatest hits packages tailored for specific tastes – only redheads, only on tables, only in nurses outfits, and so on).

They make four versions of each film: A hard-core XXX version for video release, and varying degrees of toned down versions that they call X, XX and XX.5 for cable channels.

The spotlight on Vivid is also about to brighten. Its operations are currently being filmed by crews from World of Wonder Productions for a new reality TV show that goes behind the scenes with the Vivid Girls. (They buy groceries! They pick up their dry cleaning!)

“Hollywood looks down on the Valley as this demon spawn doing their filthy business,” says Fenton Bailey, founder of World of Wonder, which has created several shows for HBO. “In my experience, the adult business has been more professional than the so-called legitimate movie industry.”

The 13-part series will air in Britain on SkyTV and Channel 4 this winter, and probably be on in the United States in the fall.
 

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