Toronto the naughty
January 22, 2000
By Constance Drouganes
There's easy money to be made filming a porn video or operating an adult web site, which explains why otherwise respectable Torontonians are getting in on the action.
A woman walks into a popular fast-food restaurant in Toronto. The clean-cut, "girl-next-door" waitress serves her a Coke, then unexpectedly asks, "Have you ever thought about being in a porn movie?"
If anyone thinks that's the plot line to another cheesy pornographic video, they should think again. The seemingly far-fetched scenario happened recently to a reporter in this city. If anything, it's more evidence of a boom in Toronto's adult entertainment business -- one characterized not only by huge industry growth, particularly on the Internet, but by the surprising, unlikely new porn producers jumping on the bandwagon.
"People would be surprised by the growth of porn in Toronto, which I would put at tenfold," says Detective Joanna Beaven of Toronto Police's Special Investigation Services.
In a market where the lines between the adult industry and mainstream entertainment are blurring, it is the lure of big money and a quick return on investment that is driving Toronto's flourishing porn trade. Everyone from articulate, well-educated, white-collar male and female entrepreneurs to the "average Joe" with a camcorder and at-home computer system can cash in on this lucrative, albeit questionable, profession.
This boom is reflected by strippers diversifying their assets and morphing into business-savvy Internet artists, porn actors transforming into full-time film producers/distributors, women (both in Toronto and abroad) directing major market trends, and "respectable" companies and professionals (doctors, lawyers, bankers, etc.), who, with the help of insider high-tech specialists, are discreetly establishing their own Web sites both for profit and pleasure.
"Today anyone can get on the Internet and go underground to do live sex shows," says Det. Beaven. "In the past, having people come over to watch live sex shows would constitute a bawdy house. But the Internet is now allowing people to view all sorts of sexual events right from their living-room chair."
Gene Frank (an alias he uses on his Web site) is one of those who hopes to join Toronto's new power brokers of porn.
Mr. Frank runs a home-grown Web site -- Canadian Amateur Video, or canamvideo.com -- out of a modest, east-end building. It's a venture he believes will one day make him rich.
"The internet is the key to everything, particularly in Toronto right now, and Canamvideo is my lottery ticket," says Mr. Frank, who still makes his living as a freelance graphic artist, video editor and 3D animation consultant.
His site showcases humorous, "soft & fuzzy" amateur porn performed by himself and his friends, including videos taken at foot level looking up the skirts of women passing by. (The word used in the industry is "upskirt"; punch it into a search engine on the Web and it brings up 780,000 hits.)
"In this industry you could hit the right buttons and make a fortune in no time," says Mr. Frank. "Numerous people on the Net have made $800,000 or more in less than a year. That's not unheard of. It happens every day."
Mr. Frank's site received 100,000 hits the first week. After slowing down other sites serviced by his Web host, he shut operations, regrouped and re-emerged to receive one million hits in just 10 days.
"I understand how to market on the Web. People want to get in, get out and not be harassed by a lot of banners and advertisements. Yet I never realized things would get so busy so fast," says Mr. Frank.
"Without a doubt, amateur video is today's biggest trend because anybody with a video camera and a computer can produce material and try to sell it on the Net. Some people even believe it's taken over and exceeded what the professional porn industry is doing."
"That's true," says Randy Jorgensen, president of Adults Only Video, Canada's largest adult video chain. "The Internet is eliminating a lot of the short, wall-to-wall sex-video clips people used to get when they rented videos in the '80s and early part of the '90s. Instead, it's giving consumers interested in content, lots of it."
Paul, a computer graphics designer, agrees. "There's something about watching the girl next door in her bedroom doing all sorts of things that turns people on," he says.
Paul and his partner Selena (both withheld their surnames) now make internet porn the biggest part of their Toronto-based multimedia company.
"In the past, 90% of our business was geared towards regular accounts," says Paul, who has created web sites for some of Toronto's major financial institutions and amusement parks. "Today our breakdown is 30% regular work and 70% porn. Ninety percent of our adult clients are U.S.-based."
With such potential for financial profit, it is not surprising that many white-collar Torontonians, including high-profile professionals, are setting up their own, home-made sites. They're doing it strictly for the money, Paul says -- most of the time. He wouldn't, however, divulge any names.
"People would be amazed to see who is into this: doctors, lawyers -- people who have the money to invest. Some people running these sites are even doing live sex shows just for the thrill of it," says Paul.
Many of those same clients also turn to Anthony Korculanic, vice-president of Web Dreams Inc., when they want to launch a pornographic site.
One of the biggest and most profitable Canadian companies of its kind, Web Dreams Inc. makes anywhere from $500 to hundreds of thousands of dollars a month per client by wholesaling movies, pictures, Truman Show-style live voyeur feeds, stories and games to other Web sites. It also operates webdreams.com and sinteens.com, a site that taps in to what Mr. Korculanic calls two of today's biggest buzzwords: "teens" (aged 18-19, since any younger would be illegal), and "amateur video".
But unlike many multi-media adult entertainment companies that guard their privacy with layers of corporate disguise, Mr. Korculanic operates his 5,000-square-foot office on Bay Street right in the heart of Toronto's financial district.
"If I'm at the golf club and start talking about my business, people don't slam me," says Mr. Korculanic, a laid-off architect. "They're intrigued. They start pumping me for information about what I do and how I can help them get in on the action."
In the last 18 months, Mr. Korculanic has gone from having one employee to a staff of 60 with full benefits. With an office in Amsterdam and others to follow around the globe, the company he started four years ago with no money is now one of the top three adult Internet businesses in Canada and among the top 10 in the world.
And the company has plans to go public.
"Where else can you sit at home, turn on your computer, tell people to take their clothes off and do what you want for an hour?" asks Mr. Korculanic. "You can't compete with the uninhibited, real-life drama you get on the Internet. It brings everything that's going on closer to you. Anonymity is definitely driving this huge interest in online sex."
There is indeed a big appetite for pornography in this province, and not just on the Internet. Video is big, too. Last year, the Ontario Film Review Board processed 2,450 adult films for a classification rating, as opposed to 926 mainstream films.
"People would be surprised by the sheer volume of adult films we see," says Robert Warren, the chair of the Ontario Film Review Board. "They'd also be surprised at how we view these movies. Our review teams fast-forward through the stuff most people rent them for and listen to the dialogue for signs of degradation, as well as sexual acts associated with pain or violence."
Canadians like the stuff, but do we have what it takes to produce it?
"It's hard for me to think why the hell people would want to shoot porn in Toronto. All the talent and action is still in L.A.," says Canadian filmmaker Gough Lewis, who spent years in Los Angeles documenting the world of pornography.
Mr. Lewis' feel for porn and its inherent shock value underscores his documentary, "Sex: The Annabel Chong Story", which will be released across Canada in February. Its exploration into the life of a Gen-X porn star stunned the 1999 Sundance Film Festival, where it was nominated for the grand jury prize.
"The idea of 'Canadian' pornography is an oxymoron," says Mr. Lewis. "It is ridiculous. Especially in Toronto the Good. That is laughable to me."
As Mr. Lewis explains, Canada's heavily legislated culture and innate conservatism means this country will never be able to produce the disturbingly hard-core pornography that dominates the market.
Los Angeles' porn-film industry is worth $12 billion a year, according to one estimate -- more than the U.S. music industry. And the movies coming out of there hold nothing back.
"One-third of (one L.A. porn-film producers') co-stars end up getting hurt by him," says Mr. Lewis. "He's really rough, but that is L.A. porn."
"Today, you don't even get into the business unless you're ready to get your colon pulverized. But that's the kind of L.A. stuff we have to edit when it comes in to Canada, and that's tame by comparison to what comes out of Europe."
Also, the celebrity of porn that makes L.A. click is nowhere to be found in Toronto, says Mr. Lewis. "In L.A., actresses come in fresh off the bus and they don't want to be extras on Ally McBeal. They want to be big porn stars with stars on either side of their name. I don't see that kind of celebrity culture in Toronto."
But there are those who think that Canada's tame tastes will work in favour of Toronto becoming a world-class porn-film producer.
"In the '80s everything in the adult industry revolved around what men wanted, so having sex was enough. That's not so anymore," says Gord Ross, president of Toronto-based Foxxx Distribution. "Today it is women who are driving the adult market."
Seduction -- not hard-core, degrading sex -- is what female consumers want, says Mr. Ross. "Women are looking for more couples-oriented movies with an engaging storyline and higher production quality. That's why I believe what we're trying to do will revolutionize the adult industry and give major porn video producers like L.A.'s Vivid and Wicked a run for their money.
"Toronto's video business is booming, even more than five years ago," says Mr. Ross.
He fits well with the image of the new Toronto porn entrepreneur. Among other things, Mr. Ross is by no means reluctant to tell people what he does for a living.
"Guys on my hockey team know what I do. It's no big deal. They're making a living just like I am," he says. He also has no qualms about bringing his young daughter to the office as many fathers do. "I certainly make sure she never enters a set. But I honestly don't feel bad about bringing her to work.
"People are discovering that this business isn't 'bad'. It's a job. It's professional. The attitude today is, 'I don't care if my next-door neighbour knows I watch porn movies,' and more people are coming out of the closet.
"That's why I got into distribution. I want a piece of the action," says Mr. Ross, who recently teamed up with a new adult division of a large, yet unnamed, mainstream studio to produce and distribute adult feature films.
A strong U.S. dollar translates into cheap production costs, making Toronto equally attractive today as a location for adult movie makers and mainstream Hollywood producers. "A good porn movie takes one week to make and costs $25,000," explains Mr. Ross. "A feature film takes months to produce and costs millions. It's possible to make a million dollars on that $25,000 investment in as little as six months.
"While they'd never admit it, I'd estimate that about 5% of the mainstream film companies shooting in Toronto are also into adult movies," adds Mr. Ross. "The line between mainstream and porn is definitely blurring and because of that, I predict the budgets of adult films will jump in the future to $60,000, perhaps even $100,000 per film.
"I don't know about film companies specifically shooting porn movies in Toronto," says Brad Brough, producer of Citytv's Sex TV. "But it does appear that mainstream studios are dealing with the porn side of the business in the second person. For example, Ron Howard's company, Imagine Entertainment, would never make a porn flick. But they'll do a documentary on Ron Jeremy, one of the porn industry's biggest stars."
"Men are like purses and I like to control their strings," says Rebecca Love, a featured entertainer at The Brass Rail strip club.
The tall, large-breasted English graduate from the University of Toronto is one of the city's newest businesswomen to hit the Web. Describing her site, rebecca-lovesworld.com, as "classy and never degrading to women," this former hard-core film star turned aspiring mainstream actor differentiates herself by showcasing women of various ethnic origins online, and makes a tidy profit selling fetish items: worn bras, used shoes, and, for $99, Rebecca Love underwear laced with her own scent.
"What many people still don't understand is that a lot of women do this work because they want to, not because they have to," says Ms. Love. "The money is great. The lifestyle is amazing. It would be hard to give it up to work at a minimum-wage job.
"According to my programmer, I'll be able to retire in two years."