Bel Ami star Jean-Daniel Chagall
Do you like porn? If you're a gay man, probably. But while the product is meant to be a mindless escape, its production is a rich and controversial subject, even in a community legendarily open about sexuality.
When the phrase "Bel Ami" is uttered, very few gay men think first of Guy de Maupassant's second novel. Instead, images of countless "beautiful friends"—pornstars—from Eastern Europe come to mind, young men like Lukas Ridgeston and Johan Paulik, with eye-popping endowments and legit movie-star looks and a performance style worlds away (Bratislava, to be exact) from the moves that characterize American porn films. There's almost a wholesome quality to Bel Ami's smut, even if the action is as dirty as the business.
Speaking of which, the porn industry has undergone a slew of changes in recent years. Beaten down by easy access to free porn online, crowded out by amateur exhibitionists and in some cases ill-equipped to adapt to the market's declining interest in DVDs as opposed to downloads, video companies have come and gone and publishers have mostly just gone.
Then there is the hot-button issue of bareback porn, which for many years during the onset of the AIDS crisis was absolutely taboo—Can actors be assured of the status of their co-stars? Does marketing it encourage unsafe sex among viewers? Does anyone care if the money is there?—but which has quickly become a major aspect of the industry in spite of some companies' seemingly principled refusals to succumb to it.
With the news that the venerable COLT has filed for bankruptcy, I wondered how other companies were faring and wanted to bring up some of the issues that surround the porn industry. What better company to focus on than one of the largest still standing? What follows is my interview with George Duroy, the founder and president of Bel Ami. He, more than anyone, has an interest in figuring out if gay men will automatically think of his product when the phrase "Bel Ami" is uttered in the future.
Since this was an e-mail interview, the follow-up questions to some of his most provocative answers will have to come in the form of your comments at the end.
Towleroad: When did Bel Ami come into existence?
George Duroy: I first used the Bel Ami name in May 1991, but I started the company only in the fall of 1993 after shooting my first film, Tender Strangers.
T: What were the early years like compared to now?
GD: Less hectic, more fun.
GD: Fifty percent of our customers are American and another twenty percent use English as their first language. Bel Ami was originally created as an American company and moved to Central Europe only after George W. Bush declared eradicating pornography to be one of his priorities. The whole company is still run according to the American regulations, and all the systems are in English. All the important employees are required to speak English; our COO is Australian and we have five American employees (another thirty are Czech, Slovak or Hungarian). I write most of my notes in English automatically.
T: Bel Ami is famous for its models; how do you find them?
GD: Nowadays, mostly through scouts. We have four full-time scouts working exclusively for us and there are others who work with us on a non-exclusive basis. Of course, some boys contact us directly or through our business partners. Occasionally, I meet somebody socially and he ends up as a model.
T: Are all your models exclusive? What qualities does a model have to have to be considered for Bel Ami?
GD: I'd say eighty percent of them are exclusive. Being an exclusive is not only about looks anymore. A certain "look" is automatic. But personality, reliability and a reasonable level of wholesomeness are equally important. Quite often, we take them for long trips. So the question is—can I have him around for three weeks? Is he able to get along with other people? Does he have a drug problem? Is he loyal? Would he resist escort offers while working for us? If any of these questions are answered unsatisfactorily, I wouldn't take that boy as an exclusive.
Models Florian Nemec, Ariel Vanean & Dario Dolce
Models Florian Nemec, Ariel Vanean & Dario Dolce
T: I've heard lots of models are "straight". Is that true? Is this a cultural difference, because I think it's hard for some Americans to see them enjoying enthusiastic sex with men, then identifying as straight.
GD: "Gay" porn was never dominated by gay models, and in the case of Bel Ami, not even half of the employees are gay. (In the last three years, we had seven babies born to our employees.) Gay porn should be more accurately called "all-male porn". I don't see this necessarily as a cultural difference—most of the models working for Corbin Fisher or Sean Cody are straight as well. I know some gay models in the U.S. who claimed to be straight to get a job with some of the American Studios.
On the other hand, I can't imagine that a really STRAIGHT man would be able to perform the way our models perform, no matter what they think they are. I, for one, certainly wouldn't be able to be "straight for pay". We live in a world where traditional labels don't apply anymore, partly as a result of gay emancipation. Being gay is not taboo anymore, and I'd say at least thirty percent of city boys in the Central European region happily experiment with their sexuality. Many enjoy it, but they wouldn't think of themselves as being gay. They simply mingle freely, going with their girlfriends to gay bars and fondling other boys in front of girls. And now tell me—what is their orientation?
Sometimes I joke, saying that very few gay men are so enthusiastic during sex with other boys as these "straight" boys. I suspect that gay men lost their monopoly on gay sex as a part of their social acceptance. Or that experimenting with all-male sex is simply "in".
GD: Lukas is still a part of the company. About thirty percent of our employees are models. In a production unit, most of them are either active models (like Luke Hamill or Todd Rosset) or ex-models (Lukas, Johan, Marty). Many of our boys are university students and come from regular, middle-class families. And quite a few are bright. For example, Mark Aubrey is our lawyer while Claude Cocteau built and runs our Web site. Dolph Lambert will get his I.T. degree soon, and Luke has one more year to go to get his degree in management. In September, we will send a number of models for intense language courses to Cape Town so we can start to shoot with them in English. Our initial selection usually pays off. On average, our models stay with the company at least five years.
Are they ever harassed? Yes, they are. Sometimes really badly. Recently, Kris Evans lost his job with the police force and the tabloids got involved. It is never pleasant, often stressful, yet always good for their integrity and their ability to defend their position.
T: Who are your favorite models of all time?
GD: Some of them are better performers, others better companions, but I like them all. (Smile) I have to be careful. They can be pretty jealous.
T: Bel Ami started doing bareback films a while ago. Some would call this irresponsible for encouraging viewers to do it, others would point out it takes risks with the health of the models and others don't care—they just like it. What do you think about the various reactions to barebacking in porn, and what precautions does Bel Ami take on bareback sets?
GD: I guess we've released no more than twelve to fourteen condom-free episodes in all these years. But this question requires a more elaborate answer, even though I have tried to explain my position many times with negligible effect. But let's try it again:
Bel Ami is the only company in this business which (in seventeen years) hasn't had a single case of ANY STD on the set. I have the good luck to work in a country where, in the first twenty-five years of the AIDS epidemic, only eight people died of HIV infection as compared to 400,000 in the U.S. [Note: Some stats here.] If I lived in California, I certainly wouldn't shoot without condoms, but I see no special reason to stick to the same rules here. Eight deaths in twenty-five years doesn't constitute an epidemic—many more people die of ordinary flu here. Therefore, I think that while in the U.S. bareback equals Russian roulette, it is here merely condom-free.
To put it another way, we also don't keep a hurricane watch here, just because the Gulf of Mexico has that problem. I also don't think that not using condoms is a single reason for the AIDS epidemic, otherwise everybody in Slovakia would be dead already. I know very few people in this country who use condoms, and all the rest are perfectly healthy. I suspect that it has something to do also with alcohol, drug abuse, promiscuity and the whole gay party/club culture—that's what creates a really deadly mix.
I'd also like to say that I carefully followed the situation for twenty years before coming to this conclusion. It doesn't mean, of course, that something can't happen tomorrow on my set. But the chance a model would die in a car accident is about a thousand times higher.
As for encouraging the viewer: I don't encourage and I don't promote. If I did, I'd be much richer now. I promoted condoms and healthy sex for seventeen years in my films. In exchange for my goodwill, I lost about thirty percent of my customers at one point. I am unaware of a single case of somebody paying for my films simply because I was promoting safe sex. But I got a lot of hate mail for being "vanilla" and "boring".
Not a single gay lifestyle magazine—all of them owned by our major business partners—would ever do an interview with me or promote my business in appreciation of our work. Most of them didn't even acknowledge in these magazines that we (or any other porn studio) exists. Mainstream gay media treats porn like dirt, but keep using porn profits to finance their operations. If they want to promote safe sex, they should start promoting my safe-sex porn in their flagship glossy magazines. That is if they really believe we influence public sexual behavior that much. And if it is not so, then it would seem we simply create "dirty" fantasies, and condoms don't come into play.
The day The Advocate will publish its first ad for BelAmiOnline or some other porn company, I'll stop my occasional condom-free adventures. For the time being, I'll settle for compromise and try to stay afloat. Quite a monologue for somebody who still shoots ninety percent of his production using condoms!
T: Your use of real twin brothers (pictured) has also been controversial. How did you find them? Was this something they'd been doing together already? Do you have concerns about obscenity charges, especially in the U.S.?
GD: Controversy is the way to attract new customers. Nobody would write about you simply because you are a nice guy shooting good stuff. Michael Lucas could tell you something about this. It took me some time to digest this lesson. So I suspect obscenity charges would be good for sales. In the end, it was not Bel Ami who produced this film—I wonder who would be charged? It was shot in a country where it is perfectly legal…and as far as I know, it is legal in the U.S., too.
Bel Ami is not the first who shot twins, but I admit that the Peters Brothers don't leave anything to the imagination. They do it with rare energy. They were bugging me half a year that they wanted to shoot it, and believe me I was not in a hurry to agree. Legal counseling cost us more than both their salaries combined.
Are they doing it together in private? I've never been in their bedroom, but they stated that if one of them dies the other one would commit suicide—and I don't think they were joking.
T: What's your favorite film you've put out?
GD: I shot or produced quite a few films, but the only one I shot the way I planned is An American in Prague. So I like it. But my personal favorite is Summer Camp. It simply has all the elements I like in erotica.
T: Have you ever shot a film that you had to scrap or do you have any other disaster stories?
GD: I keep scrapping all the time. I daresay I am the biggest porn scrapper in history. We have a whole line of films based on scrapped material, the Out at Last series. In the beginning of each episode, I explain where it was supposed to be and why it wasn't. Disaster stories…I could write a whole book about that.
GD: Although I have certainly read of COLT's filing for bankruptcy, I have been assured by people intimate with the California porn scene that the owners themselves remain fully financially secure. As you can imagine, this is a great relief to me, as if a giant burden has been lifted from my gay shoulders. Somewhere—I think at a party—I overheard someone say that Bernie Madoff himself could take lessons from the studio's owners. But of course I have no personal knowledge of their teaching credentials. Besides, I've only been in the business for 17 years…I could hardly be expected to comment on the veracity of any such allegations. They owe Bel Ami only $80,000, and I am glad I had the opportunity to contribute to their business experiment.
T: Is there a commercial future for gay porn?
GD: In the winter of 2008, my feelings about the future and quality of gay porn were quite pessimistic. The problem was, I didn't pay any attention to our Web property. I didn't even have a computer at home. When I got our 2008 financial report, it was clear to me that I either had to start paying attention or I'd face forced retirement along the lines of COLT—even though BelAmiOnline's numbers were still better than any other in the industry. But to be better than COLT or Falcon can't be considered a victory. It's like thinking that being aboard the Lusitania is safer than the Titanic.
So I spent half a year making drastic changes and reading all the unflattering comments on forums without getting resentful. In June 2009, we released a new site. In June 2010, our membership was seventy percent up and traffic had more than doubled—to one million individual visitors a month. So, of course, I am less gloomy now. Even our DVD numbers are up, and that came as a real surprise to me. I guess that the fact that a lot of our competitors are out of the picture helped.
So, to answer your question, what's happening in the business now is a real massacre, no doubt about it. But not all the pigs are being slaughtered. The biggest swine are dying, but many sucklings are doing just fine. Commercial porn won't disappear, but after this is over, the whole porn business will be a VERY different place.
Bel Ami star Kris Evans
T: Will you stop making DVDs and go all-download?
Bel Ami: DVDs keep surprising me. For example, Taboo, we expect to sell over eight thousand units. Regular sales for new films are still around four to five thousand units for us even though I know not everybody is so fortunate. At this moment, we are still making more than a million dollars a year on DVDs and another $500,000 in our store and from VOD. So I am not in a hurry to close it down. Next year, we are preparing twenty-four releases as compared to eighteen this year. I'd prefer to be out of the DVD business because to run both online and film operations is simply too much work. So I hope that within the next two years we would become an exclusively online business. This fall, we are starting another Web site and we are working on a number of other Internet projects. So in case Mr. Bernanke wouldn't start his helicopter scheme, we might succeed.
T: Does the loss of most gay-porn print magazines hurt Bel Ami?
GD: I miss them personally because I like printed material, but for our sales it doesn't make any difference.
T: You like printed material—are you a porn consumer yourself? Whose work, aside from your own, do you admire?
GD: I used to be a big consumer, but not anymore. When I watch films, I need not only erotic stimulation. I need also aesthetical quality, ideally some really potent filmmaking…or at least a hint of it. (Oh, my—now I really sound Victorian.) On this level, porn degenerated a lot. Not only porn, I guess. So all the "potent" porn makers are either dead or out of business! But from the "impotent" ones—I have to say that the most consistent ones are Sean Cody and Corbin Fisher. (Here, I am testing their sense of humor, of course. I mean it as a flattery.)
T: What keeps Bel Ami successful?
GD: I am not aware of having any business model, but I keep following a few simple rules: 1. I am trying to shoot porn which I'd like to watch. 2. I am careful about selecting people I work with and try to handle them with respect. It mostly pays off. 3. I understand that times are changing and I am an old fart. Therefore, I give a lot of creative freedom to my younger colleagues. I run the company, but don't insist on shooting everything myself. The company must be a comfortable home to many people—we have thirty-five full-time employees and forty models. 4. Customers sometimes piss me off, but I don't underestimate them. On the other hand, I wouldn't let them run the show. 5. And finally, I am trying not to take setbacks and losses too seriously. In the end, life (and business, too) is only a temporary situation. Take it as a game; it'll be much more fun.
I wasn't so relaxed and blasé originally. I even went to a shrink at a certain point. He was so amused by my life story that he offered to treat me for free. When I walked out of his office and saw all the really desperate people, I told myself, "If it is fun for the shrink, it can't be so bad." And started to take it easy again.