The Fall of San Fernando Valley PART II: The Rise of Custom Porn

“Thanks to the internet, porn stars don’t need to look like Angelina Jolie anymore. Everyone can get into the business, and every woman can be her own producer.”

Ben Van Alboom
Jan 22 · 16 min read
// Casey Calvert & Ella Nova on the set of an Anatomik Media custom video © Emily Berl

“A businesswoman/foot slave visits her dom for her weekly tribute.”

Scene 1: The hair of the businesswoman must be pulled back, her white shirt needs to be neatly tucked in her skirt, and her red tie should end near her hips. The dominatrix dresses just as uninspired: black, leather dress; ditto shoes. But in the second scene, she is allowed to wear a white shirt as well, while the businesswoman (or foot slave, if you like) exchanges her red tie for a black one.

Oh, and also extremely important: NO NUDITY. On the other hand, “Any verbal humiliation is absolutely welcome.”

A good screenwriter always leaves room for a bit of improvisation.

// The script of a custom video © Emily Berl

Of course, the screenwriter is not a professional in this case—not remotely— even though it’s not the first time one of his scripts has gotten filmed by Anatomik Media, the custom porn company of Dan and his wife Rhiannon Humes.

Rhiannon used to work on big-budget animation in Hollywood, and Dan was a webmaster with a number of porn sites as clients. “But I actually studied photography,” says Dan, “so when I heard some of my clients were looking for cameramen, I started shooting for them. Soon after, Rhiannon and I set up our own little production company.”

Business was good until budgets started to dry up around 2009. Mostly because of free porn sites like Pornhub, Dan thinks.

“Taboos always do well in porn. And by adding ‘step’ to it, you avoid obscenity laws. Better be safe than sorry.”

“Though porn had also become quite boring by then,” adds Rhiannon.
“We were shooting the same kind of stuff over and over again.” Cookie-cutter porn, she calls it — monotonous mass-production.

“Sure, there are always trends,” Rhiannon admits. “The MILF (Mother I Like to Fuck, ed) did well for a while, then the babysitter popped up, and nowadays stepbrothers and stepfathers are, basically, the new plumbers and pizza delivery guys.” She laughs.

// Dan and Rhiannon © Emily Berl

But, adds Rhiannon, after a couple of months, even those trends go back to being same old, same old.

Then one day, a guy asked Dan and Rhiannon to shoot a fetish video. Not a porn producer or distributor, just ‘a guy.’

He would send them a script, and they would simply have to find the actors and shoot the film — for the guy’s private collection.

“It was something super simple,” Dan recalls. “Two soaped-up girls wrestling with each other on a large air mattress. Oh, no wait, they each also had a warm-up routine,” he laughs.

“It was all very straightforward, but it was fun to shoot, and it paid well too. So then I started thinking: why not do this full-time? Have people sent us scripts, for which we make up a budget? If the client puts up the money, we will shoot his movie and send him a copy. But we will also sell it on our website and through other online platforms. Unless, of course, the client wants exclusivity, in which case he pays extra.”

If people are already spending all that money on their own porn flicks, you would think most opt for the exclusive deal. But according to Dan, many don’t care that others get to enjoy it as well. “Plus, that way, it’s significantly cheaper.”

Since 2011, Dan and Rhiannon have produced hundreds of custom videos — on average, about eight per month — and they’re shooting two more on the day we meet up. Two films, for two different clients, but with the same actors and using the same location. “Nice and efficient,” says Rhiannon. And significantly cheaper.

// Rhiannon taking Casey Calvert through the script © Emily Berl

Shooting takes place in a large warehouse in East LA, where 29-year-old porn star Casey Calvert lives with her husband. Like many porn actors, Calvert has started producing customs herself, but today she is renting out her studio to Dan and Rhiannon. Also, she stars in one of the two films.

“I guess you have to call us competitors,” Calvert says, “but we still help each other out. In the adult entertainment industry, everyone helps each other out.”

Not only do they share studio space and expertise, but they also share stories. Like the one about the craziest custom video that Calvert has ever made.

“The one with Freddy Krueger! I had to dress up like a sexy Freddy and perform a striptease act with those knives as my hands. Then I had to masturbate wearing the knives and eventually put one of them — a plastic one, of course — in my ass and pull it back out. With a little help of tomato sauce, so it looked like I was bleeding.”

She bursts out laughing, while I wonder — both fascinated and completely in shock — who would come up with a thing like that.

“I obviously know who it was,” Calvert says. “I always communicate with the clients myself, and my husband takes care of all the camera work and editing. But I never ask why, if that’s what you want to know. As long as our conversations remain respectful and professional, you can ask me anything. By now, most of my custom video clients have a clear picture of what they want, and a realistic idea of ​​what it will cost. Although, occasionally, someone still comes along with a megalomaniac idea. And then when you tell him what the price will be, they never get back.”

“Three out of four custom videos are void of sex: they feature flies being beaten to death and carpets being cleaned” — Rhiannon

Occasionally, however, someone does put up a lot of money to see his crazy idea come to life.

“We have already made customs with a budget of several ten thousand dollars,” says Rhiannon. “If someone likes to have stunts in it, or he wants us to blow up a car, we rent a stuntman and provide the necessary permits. That’s one of the advantages of working in LA — everything is available and there is nothing that can’t be done. But we also produce a lot of inexpensive stuff. Like that fly swatter video. That only cost five hundred dollars to make.”

Dan and Rhiannon’s notorious fly swatter video is The Rocky Horror Picture Show of custom videos — a cult classic if ever there was one! In it, a properly dressed woman stresses out about a fly in her house. She frantically looks for a fly swatter and then starts using it like crazy. The End.

(It’s available for $9,99 here.)

Kymberly Jane in Anatomik Media’s famous fly swatter video © Anatomik Media

When I, somewhat jokingly, remark that they most likely only sold that video to the one customer who ordered it, Rhiannon starts laughing out loud.

“You have no idea how big the fetish market is! Three out of four movies we shoot are void of sex. They feature flies being beaten to death, carpets being cleaned with ‘70s vacuum cleaners and chocolate pudding with whipped cream being spread out over female bodies — often naked, though not necessarily.” It turns out the latter is a genre in itself, Rhiannon assures us. It’s called ‘wet & messy,’ and it’s supposedly quite big in Europe.

“Oh, and did I already tell you the story of the man who sent us his stamp collection to have it set on fire by four porn stars?”

MAD SCIENTIST

// Casey Calvert & Ella Nova getting ready for a custom video © Emily Berl

Dan erects a gigantic crucifix, and it doesn’t take long for Calvert’s three dogs to come sniffing at it. It also quickly becomes apparent how important every other detail will be: Rhiannon elaborately explains to Casey and Ella how to wear their ties and even which glances to exchange.

“We’ve all made at least one custom video that enraged the client because we got this one little thing wrong. And that one little thing completely ruined the guy’s sexual fantasy. So that is why we go over each script with our customers in great detail, and we only work with porn stars who can act. To be honest, when we started, it wasn’t always easy getting hold of them. Try to imagine how you would react to a custom video script when you’re used to shooting straight-up porn. But by now, most have gotten used to them.”

Casey Calvert nods. Half of what she earns today comes from customs.

“And yet, there are still people in the industry who would rather keep quiet about what we do,” says Dan. “Especially people who have been around for a long time and who have still not accepted that the old business model is dead and custom porn has become mainstream. Recently, for the very first time, we were even nominated for four AVN Awards (the Oscars of the porn industry, ed). So you really can not ignore us anymore.”

// Dan shooting the video with Ella Nova & Casey Calvert © Emily Berl

What’s more, custom pornography is reviving those deliciously idiotic stories from vintage porn movies — since no one has put much time or effort into them these past decades.

“Right now, we are working on a series of full-length films about a surly scientist who has developed a tool that turns women into sex slaves,” Dan says. “We have already shot two — the first film took place in the scientist’s laboratory, the second one in a police station — and five more have been written. Though I suspect we could end up making even more than that because the guy writing those scripts is full of crazy ideas. In the third episode, the scientist goes into a church and corrupts two nuns and mother superior.”

Dan’s laughter echoes through the warehouse.

‘The guy’ apparently dreamt of becoming a screenwriter but he ended up making a small fortune some other way. And now he’s living out his dream — with the support of his wife. “He is truly enjoying himself,” says Dan, “and he gets a real kick out of the positive comments his movies are receiving online.”

What’s even more endearing: he’s clearly not the only one getting a kick out of it. Genuine pride and enthusiasm are gleaming in Dan’s eyes. The filmmaker is noticeably committed to his clients. Just like Rhiannon, who still starts to cry when she recounts the story of a man who wanted them to make a video in which a girl looks straight into the camera and talks him up.

In the end, he wanted her to say “suicide is not the answer” — word for word. But when Rhiannon replied to his request, she never got an answer. The couple decided to record the video anyway, and send it to him. “We never heard back from him though. I really hope he’s okay.”

It takes about an hour and a half to shoot the foot and tie fetish video that day, after which Casey goes off shopping. Ella sticks around to tape the second custom: another film in which a woman looks into the camera and addresses a man. Only this time, the guy wants to be merely teased and humiliated.

// Rhiannon & Dan shooting the second custom of the day with Ella Nova © Emily Berl

Dan is still bustling with energy, though he admits he is already thinking about a next project — for an Oregon customer who likes lo-fi technology and builds his own contraptions.

“We’ve already done a video for him with women wearing self-made VR goggles through which they saw themselves walking from above. To this day, I have no idea what that was about. But the guy was happy with the result, and now he has developed buttplugs and vaginal eggs that vibrate in response to a theremin (a bizarre electronic instrument that’s operated by moving hands towards antennas, ed). We are shooting that one next week with three actors — two men and a woman — and a theremin player. It’ll be wild!”

His eyes sparkle yet again, and it’s easy to imagine why — who doesn’t want to see that?! But Dan tells me not to get my hopes up. “There is little chance that you will ever get to see that one. The client paid extra to keep it for himself. Sorry, dude.”

WHOREARCHY

“Though I probably won’t ever look at the result,” she confides in me. “I rarely do. At most, I’ll check out the trailer. I’m extremely self-critical, so it’s very unpleasant to watch a movie in which the camera is pointed at you almost every single second. One unflattering shot and I might be too self-conscious on my next shoot. As a porn actor, that is something you want to avoid. You want it to look real and authentic — even if it is all make-believe. And sex doesn’t look real or authentic when you are clearly showing more interest in your abs than in the person you are doing it with.”

// Ella Nova © Emily Berl

Ella Nova is one of many porn stars who, in recent years, has rolled in the industry through webcamming — besides customs, by far the biggest revolution in pornography.

It’s a pretty simple concept: all you need is a computer, a decent webcam, and a good internet provider. If you’ve got all that, sign up to websites like Chaturbate or LiveJasmin — both are in the top fifty of most popular sites in the US — and start earning tokens right away. Tips, basically. The more people enjoy your channel, the more tips you’re bound to receive, and the more visitors will be inclined to come back or even request a private session — where the real money is.

“When I started about ten years ago,” says Nova’s colleague Ela Darling, “most of those sites already existed, but no one gave them much thought. The technology was not all there, and most people didn’t have enough broadband to stream that much video. Back then, porn producers and DVD distributors occupied almost every square foot at big adult entertainment conventions. At the last AVN Adult Entertainment Expo in Las Vegas, though, they had almost completely been replaced by cam sites.”

The porn industry has never been forthcoming with numbers. Still, according to professor and author Kassia Wassick, porn is a 97-billion-dollar industry globally, and by next year, webcam companies alone should make a hefty ten billion dollars annually.

Half of that sum will go to the companies behind those cam sites, while banks will also pick up at least ten percent — many financial institutions do not want to be associated with porn, and those who do tend to overcharge. What remains is for the performers.

That sounds like a really bad deal, though four billion dollars is, of course, still an impressive number.

“A popular webcam star recently showed me what she makes a month,” says Don Parret, the former editor-in-chief of porn trade journal XBIZ. “Fifty thousand dollars!” Parret did add that she was working fifteen hours a day and that she was featured on the homepage of a well-known cam site.

“It is a competitive system,” explains Parret. “The most popular stars are on the homepage, where the rest is trying to make their way to. The hopeless cases can be found on the last page of those sites. What do they make? No idea.”

// Casey Calvert & Ella Nova working on their lines © Emily Berl

Ella Nova says she knows, however. Those girls make nothing.

“I started camming from my bedroom when I was nineteen,” she recalls. “I was living with my mom, who was out to work during the day. And since I always imagined being in front of an audience, I got myself a webcam, and I registered. I looked at it as a fun, somewhat exhibitionistic way of acting.”

Only things did not go as smoothly as she expected. “You have to be willing to invest time in it — a lot of time! The internet is not like a strip club where people walk in and throw money at you. Those are the rules of a strip joint, but the internet has no rules. You have to REALLY make an effort to build a loyal following, and that can take a frustratingly long time. Especially when you are all alone in your bedroom for most of the day — naked.”

“If you stick to a schedule so that people can see that they can count on you, you will eventually have enough fans to support you. I mean, with seven billion people on earth, how could you not?”

60-year-old porn icon Nina Hartley doesn’t see a future in it for herself anymore, but she does see a lot of advantages for younger colleagues.

“It used to be: if company A, B or C did not hire you to be in porn, you had no other option but to go work in a strip club. As a performer, you had zero control over your future. But today, as a cam girl, all you need is a hundred men who give you fifty dollars a month — a hundred men in the whole world! And trust me, there are definitely a hundred men in the world who love the fact that your left breast is a bit bigger than your right one, or that you’ve dyed your hair green.

// Nina Hartley © Emily Berl

Thanks to the internet, we don’t need to all look like Angelina Jolie anymore. Finally! Today, literally everyone can get into the business, and every woman can be her own producer.”

The irony is that free porn sites such as Pornhub, which some people blame for the decline of the industry, can help porn stars in that respect.

“The more popular you are on those free sites, the more popular you will be on the cam sites,” says Parret. “And also, the more content you will sell through other platforms, and the more you will be asked to play in customs.”

So Pornhub and associates have basically (and inadvertently) created a platform for performers to promote themselves, all the while cutting out the middlemen.

Unless maybe your porn name is Kristy May and you place 20,528th on the Pornhub ranking with about 2,600 views. You would, of course, much rather be Lana Rhoades, currently in the top spot with a total of 600 million views.

If there was such a thing as a platinum dildo, Rhoades would have a dozen. At least.

// Dan shooting Casey Calvert & Ella Nova for a custom video © Emily Berl

EElla Nova’s webcam career also really took flight after she encountered a bunch of industry people at a porn convention, and moved from Texas to Los Angeles to be in movies. “Though that wasn’t a conscious career move,” she recalls. “I know a cam girl who was already a superstar long before she had ever been outside of Tennessee .”

Bottom line: fewer and fewer people want to pay for a slick porn movie if they can watch people having sex “live” and even talk to the performers while they’re doing it.

“And that is something no one in the industry saw coming ten years ago,” according to actress and VR porn founder Ela Darling. “Back then, people looked down on cam girls.” (Or cam boys, because there are also a lot of men and couples on these cam sites.)

“People believed that, as a porn actor, you came with a stamp of approval from a director or a producer,” Darling explains. “And being on the cover of a DVD was a lot more prestigious than being featured on the homepage of a cam site. Until, of course, everybody stopped buying DVDs.”

// Ela Darling © Emily Berl

“Do you know what’s so stupid about all of that?” Darling asks, not waiting for an answer.

“People in the industry constantly complain about how the rest of the world looks down on us, but we are no better ourselves. For a while, I was working as a cam girl in the back of a strip club, and the strippers thought that what the cam girls were doing was horrible because we were doing it in front of the world. While we thought we were better than the strippers because we were by ourselves in a room, and they were flashing their tits and asses in someone’s face.

Everyone believes that what he is doing is more respectable than what somebody else does. There’s even a word for it: whorearchy. But that kind of respectability politics is bad for everyone, because to the outside world, we’re all the same. So we have to support each other.”

PULPMAG

PULP is a multimedia sex, sexuality, and reproductive rights publication celebrating this human coil hurtling through time and space.

Ben Van Alboom

Written by

Belgian journalist. Inspirational quote: “My favorite sport is cheerleading.” (Miley Cyrus) Twitter & Instagram: fakerholic Email: benvanalboom@me.com

PULPMAG

PULPMAG

PULP is a multimedia sex, sexuality, and reproductive rights publication celebrating this human coil hurtling through time and space.

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