Adult Film Awards: Are They "Fixed?" And Does it Matter?
For those of us who work in the adult industry, the chaos and excitement of the holiday season doesn't mercifully end on New Years Day. Nor does it bring to close a season of spending money to look our best, booking travel arrangements, and battling emotional anxiety at the thought of those upcoming, requisite social events. The forced smiles, obligatory hugs and air-kisses don't stop, either - in fact, they'll soon be raised to new levels of intensity. Because for the adult film industry, "awards season" is about to begin.
They may alternate in sequence from year to year, but January is the month that both Xbiz.com and Adult Video News ("AVN") Awards commence (with AVN arguably the more highly-anticipated of the two, although it continues to downsize each year.) The Xbiz Awards are held in Los Angeles (this year at the Century Plaza Hotel in Century City) and the AVN's, famously, in "what-happens-there-stays-there" Las Vegas. For fans at home watching press footage of the "red carpet" arrivals (or even the entire awards show) it appears to be a night of glamour, sex and celebration of the creme de la creme of adult films. But for those who live and work in Porn Valley, the significance of the awards is a bit darker and a lot less celebratory than the starlets' glittering gowns and toothy smiles suggest.
It's a running joke among adult filmmakers that almost everyone in the industry will be nominated for something at awards time, and for one reason: so that we'll all show up. After all, what good is an awards show if no one bothers coming? But it's also understood that when the winners are announced it will almost certainly be the same, small group of studios that take home the big awards. It makes little difference who innovates, originates, does it first or does it best.
It's just, as they say, "the way it is."
It's widely assumed by industry-watchers that adult trade magazines (i.e., Xbiz and AVN) have a long-standing practice of "awarding" their biggest advertisers and long-time colleagues. It's also commonly suspected the awards are designed to keep those "chosen" studios' movies front and center on retailer's shelves (including titles that failed to sell the first time around, but now boast the new status of "Best [Insert Genre] Film of 2013!" thus breathing fresh life into lagging sales.)
While I've yet to meet anyone in the industry who doesn't believe the awards are to some degree "fixed," the human spirit is fueled by hope - and validation. So every year, often against their better judgment, producers, directors and performers spend time and money to attend the awards. They arrive with expectant smiles and nervous stomachs, hoping for peer recognition for a film they were especially proud of or worked unusually hard on. Maybe it was a title that drove sales through the roof, earned massive critical acclaim or created instant buzz in its respective genre. Maybe it was a performer who gave such a soulful and nuanced acting performance that it was the talk of the fan forums. "I'm sure I'll at least have a shot at this one," they might dare to believe, staring at their name on the "nominees" list. But unless they happened to work for the "right" studio, these hopefuls invariably find they were wrong.
Let me admit that I have no first-hand knowledge of the judging systems and "back-room negotiations" rumored to take place between award shows and studio heads, nor precisely how the winners are decided. But along with most industry professionals, I've heard the persistent rumors and seen evidence to suggest those rumors are at least partially true. Or maybe more than partially. And it's time to start some dialogue about it, because I think it's doing damage - real damage - to the industry and to those who come here hoping to create something artful, and worthy of recognition. To predictably reward only a few studios, with seemingly little regard to quality, innovation, artistry and relevance, is ruining our credibility with fans and with each other. It's straining business relationships and enervating creative spirits instead of encouraging them.
It's challenging (if not impossible) to write a blog like this without offending "the winners" and, by definition, implying they didn't earn or deserve their awards. It's tricky to criticize a club of which you are not a member and not have it chalked up to "sour grapes." But I've won industry awards, including some this year. That's not the point. The point of this blog is that every year a majority of richly deserving, gifted and hardworking people are overlooked for exceptional contributions and artistic excellence, while those who work for the "right studios" bring home the trophies - even when the win is shockingly, outrageously, undeserved. (This includes the categories of Best Actor and Best Actress, which often default to whomever starred in the "preferred studio's" feature offering that year.)
"Who cares who wins these awards?" a fan asked me when I raised this issue recently on a social media site. "The fans know the truth so let them have their little show. It doesn't matter."
But I've come to realize it does matter. Especially at this point in the industry, when we're struggling to stay afloat and prove our significance as a culture and an art form; to gain federal protection from our work being pirated, and in general rise above society's stigmas, finger-pointing and giggles. It matters because people who care about their work stop caring and stop trying when they feel their efforts are futile and that work will never be recognized. They don't want to emotionally subject themselves to false hopes and disappointment again and again, so they eventually give up. They resign themselves to the fact that "it doesn't matter." It looks like bitterness, but it's actually just self-preservation and common sense -- and who can blame them?
As our Industry continues its dramatic, financial free-fall, AEE and AVN awards' attendance has dropped considerably. At this year's Xbiz Awards I didn't recognize most of the people filling the seats and walking the red carpet, and on social media sites fans watching from home reported the same. "I only recognized three people on the red carpet and I watched for seven whole minutes!" one puzzled female fan tweeted.
So, where is everyone? Are more industry folk saying "why bother?" because they know they won't be included when the winners are called - no matter how great their artistic contributions that year?
When I recently asked a colleague who runs several top-selling studios if he'd be attending the awards, he told me he's "boycotting" them because he can no longer stomach the outrageous nepotism. "I'm flying in to meet some clients who are going to the convention," he said, "but I'm not doing a (exhibitor) booth or going to the awards show, and I didn't submit any movies for consideration." Only two years ago, he had one of the biggest and most expensive booths on the convention floor.
That kind of "dropping out" goes beyond what can easily be dismissed as sour grapes. The fact is, in our current economy most of us don't have money to burn - and nights out can be expensive. Trips to attend out-of-town conventions and award shows even more so. Why spend money traveling long distances for something that doesn't matter; something that is, for lack of a better term, a "charade?" And one designed to keep the same studio's releases lining store shelves, creating the illusion that they're still (and always will be) the best we have to offer?
One response to this seemingly tyrannical system has been the emergence of fan-based awards. AEBN's VOD Awards were one of the first, and based entirely on sales data. Categories such as Best Performer, Best Feature, Best Gonzo and Best All-Girl Release were calculated from the number of minutes fans watched each film on VOD. More recently, Adult website XCritic.com (for whom I am blogging here) created online "voting booths" where fans could choose a winner from a list of nominees (with the raw data made available for review after the winners were announced.) Not surprisingly, the results of fan-decided awards can be, well, surprising. This is almost always the case when data is real - the results are suddenly much harder to predict. Fans vote for what they truly like, because it's in their best interests to do so. They want us to know what they'd like to see more of.
But though a welcome addition to a famously-skewed rating system, fan-based awards are not enough. We need to acknowledge not only sales and fan popularity, but innovation and artistry, if we hope to keep such virtues alive and well here. If we want adult filmmakers and performers to believe their work matters and they as individual artists matter (e.g., that performers can't be replaced with "just anyone" at the last minute, because they are uniquely qualified for the role) then we must elevate our industry as a whole. Our failure to ascend to our rightful place in the entertainment world is the result of not just one thing, but of an entire debilitating syndrome. There are a million little beliefs and behaviors, many of them internal and self-sabotaging, that keep us at the bottom, both financially and artistically. And at the heart of those behaviors is the all-too-familiar refrain: "It doesn't matter. No one cares."
We've created a belief system that says hard work, innovation and artistry will never be rewarded for their own sake - so why bother? And with that sense of futility, creativity, work-ethic and good faith die of neglect. Our industry continues its dull, predictable practice of calling the same faces to the podium year after year, to grasp the same award they grasped the year before - and the year before that. Pretending to be surprised, hugging their cohorts, and raising fists of victory. But when the majority of adult film artists are denied the recognition they deserve so a handful of studios can remain at the top, it's a hollow victory indeed. And it does nothing to benefit a struggling industry whose artistic and cultural evolution is dangerously overdue.