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December 16, 2017

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Porn Wars: Is Las Vegas the new Silicone Valley?

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Patrice Sabourin of France poses for a photo with Jules Jordan Video stars at the 2012 AVN Adult Entertainment Expo in the Hard Rock Hotel on Thursday, Jan. 19, 2012.

Inside Mission Control

Tucked among a cluster of concrete warehouses behind the Circus Circus parking lot, Mission Control Studio offers a new sign of life on an industrial parkway long marred by “For Lease” signs and defunct adult novelty stores.

Veteran adult film producer and director Lee Roy Myers opened the adult film studio and production facility in January.

The 10,000 square foot space includes an 18-foot green screen, custom sets fashioned to look like a schoolroom, doctor’s office and strip club, wardrobe and makeup rooms and a fully equipped production office. It’s difficult to tell the studio is home to productions with titles such as “Game of Bones.”

Myers said California’s condom mandate wasn’t a factor in his decision to uproot to Las Vegas. Most of the actors he uses already wear condoms.

Rather, it was the chance to run an independent operation and expand beyond adult films that drew him to the Silver State. Myers said he has as many, if not more, mainstream clients. His studio markets itself for use in commercials, music videos and web series.

Is porn legal here?

Clark County and Nevada have no laws directly addressing adult film production. California and New Hampshire are the only states with explicit legal protections for porn; both have state Supreme Court rulings that declare the production of pornography to be free speech.

The AIDS Healthcare Foundation, which promotes condom use in adult films, claims porn isn’t legal in Nevada because it falls under the category of prostitution, which requires condom use.

But legal experts dismiss the claim, saying adult film is protected by the First Amendment. “Is there legal language one way or another that we can have a Little League team?” asked Marc Randazza, a Las Vegas attorney who represents adult film companies. “No, but that doesn’t make it illegal. The lack of a case (questioning porn’s legality) in Nevada shows, simply, the lack of a problem. Wherever there is an American flag planted, you can shoot porn. If you try to say otherwise, then you are implicitly banning an entire category of speech.”

Moreover, the state Supreme Court’s rulings in California and New Hampshire imply a distinction between the performance of sex for money in pornography and that of prostitution. The bottom line is pornography is too widely accepted, too powerful an industry and too lucrative a trade for its legal status to be widely questioned. Even AHF admits its argument is tangential to its goals.

“The reason we drew the parallel is because regulation of the sex trade has been so successful in Nevada,” said Whitney Engeran-Cordova, senior director of AHF’s public health division. “(Pornography) is a legal business, but they’re not treating workers in manner that is considered a legal business.”

Where can you shoot porn in Las Vegas?

Adult films follow largely the same guidelines for shooting in Southern Nevada as their mainstream counterparts.

• Film studios are restricted to specific industrial zones.

• No permit is needed to shoot on private property — be it your neighbor’s house or a Strip casino — but the owner’s permission is required.

• Adult content cannot include live viewing by the general public, public seating areas or the consumption of alcohol. These measures are designed to distinguish film productions from adult businesses such as strip clubs.

Our competition

As the adult film industry’s business model shifts toward the Internet and streaming porn sites, it’s easy for companies to take their pick of where to set up shop. ¶ Nevada isn’t alone in its appeal. ¶ Among our chief competitors: Oregon, which boasts strong free speech laws; Southern Florida, which has an established adult film community; and Europe, particularly the Czech Republic, Hungary and Romania, which have open-minded cultures and strong social services.

Las Vegas has a new vice. You might not notice it, but it’s happening all around, in industrial warehouses, luxury high-rises and the bedrooms of suburban homes.

Porn is here, and more could be coming. With an estimated 90 percent drop in adult film permits issued in Los Angeles County after the 2012 passage of a controversial law requiring adult film performers to wear condoms on set, California’s $6 billion porn juggernaut is looking elsewhere, and its gaze has landed on Las Vegas.

Inexpensive and just an hour’s plane ride away, Nevada offers a vice-friendly attitude and lax film regulations that make the valley an attractive destination for adult filmmakers.

Still, porn’s ties to Southern California run deep, and its escape over state lines remains as much a political play as a quest for opportunity. There’s no promise the industry will stay, let alone grow, once the dust of heated political battles settles.

As California policymakers push to apply condom requirements statewide and the adult industry threatens to take its revenue stream elsewhere, Nevada finds itself pitched in the middle, eyed as both a pawn and a backup plan among two warring sides. Whether porn’s courtship with Las Vegas will be just a fling or the first steps into a new economic driver for the state remains to be seen.

•••

It’s tough to pin down just how much of California’s adult film industry is decamping to Las Vegas. The Clark County Department of Business Licenses doesn’t classify adult film companies specifically; rather, they fall into a number of categories, such as film studios and advertising businesses. Unlike Los Angeles County, which closely tracks and regulates film shoots, Nevada requires permits only for specific locations and conditions. Shooting on private property, frequently the choice of porn producers, requires no permit or notification, and the state has no explicit regulations about condom use.

“Vegas is looking more and more attractive as time goes by,” Kink.com founder Peter Acworth said. The San Francisco-based company, valued at $30 million, opened a Las Vegas office in July, filming a slate of highly-publicized exploratory shoots and launching web operations here. “I think that a lot of companies are doing what we’re doing. They’re setting up satellite offices and getting their feet wet with Vegas as a potential place to shoot.”

As many as a dozen companies are thought to have set up camp in the region, and many others shoot here but aren’t based here. Most prefer to keep a low profile, as one of the industry’s chief antagonizers, Los Angeles-based AIDS Healthcare Foundation, is close on their tails. The foundation in August filed a complaint against Kink.com with Nevada’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the first of its kind for the state.

“The move is happening, but quietly,” Acworth said. “Nobody wants to be Nevada’s test case. They don’t want a target on their back.”

The outcome of the ongoing feud remains uncertain, but if Nevada can position itself correctly, it stands to gain a slice of what’s estimated to be an $11 billion industry nationwide with the potential to bring new jobs and resources to the state, particularly to its fledgling mainstream film program.

“A lot of people I know in the mainstream industry started out in the adult industry in California,” said Jim “JR” Reid, president of JR Lighting, Nevada’s largest production rental company. “It’s a very good training ground. It provides opportunities for people to learn a craft. As a businessman, I think it’s a valuable asset to the community.”

In Los Angeles County alone, porn has created more than 10,000 jobs.

“Some big part of it will stay (in LA) and production companies will continue to be based there, so it’s not accurate to say that all of that $6 billion translates to Southern Nevada,” said Robert Lang, director of Brookings Mountain West. “But what it also gives to Las Vegas is that it’s building technical capacity that undergirds non-pornographic production and media. It adds some competitive advantage in scale to Los Angeles.”

•••

Porn and Los Angeles always have been easy bedfellows. Hollywood’s resources made Southern California a natural fit for adult cinema.

Las Vegas’ own history with porn dates at least three decades to the first Adult Video News Awards, the “Oscars of porn,” in 1984 at the Sands Convention Center. The valley’s low cost of living and vice-friendly atmosphere made Las Vegas attractive enough to maintain a modest but steady local adult film industry, which gained traction as LA’s film market grew more crowded and expensive. Nonetheless, the porn community here remained small and transient, with the bulk of workers dependent on LA’s resources.

That changed about five years ago, when an unidentified female performer in LA tested positive for HIV. Though the infection was believed to be contracted off set, the news, along with the 21 other reported cases of HIV in performers since 2004, prompted government health officials and lawmakers to re-evaluate safety measures. Years of acrimonious debate ensued as policymakers pushed to make condoms and protective barriers mandatory on adult film sets and adult industry advocates cited civil rights violations. They argue the condom regulation violates free speech and is a hamfisted solution to an exaggerated problem. HIV has not been contracted on set in the United States since 2004.

Still, in late 2012, Los Angeles County voters approved Measure B, which requires producers to obtain county public health permits for porn shoots and mandates that performers wear condoms during vaginal and anal sex scenes. California politicians and AIDS Healthcare Foundation now are seeking to expand the law statewide.

Their latest effort was defeated last month in the California Legislature, but the AIDS Healthcare Foundation vows to reintroduce the bill next year. Such threats continue to make producers uneasy, and they’re growing weary from the time and money invested in fighting back.

“Honestly, I’m just tired,” Acworth said. “I just want to get back to focusing on productions. It has taken up so much of my time in the past three years. That alone is reason enough to look elsewhere.”

And Las Vegas is getting more attractive as a result.

•••

Las Vegas’ appeal to porn extends beyond a quick plane ride and the ability to film condom-free. The adult industry as a whole has been forced to downsize in recent years amid dwindling DVD sales, a rise in piracy and the prevalence of free streaming porn sites.

Our growing tech sector offers resources for production and web operations, and it’s cheaper to hire talented workers here than in California. Acworth said he would’ve launched Kink’s web office in Las Vegas regardless of the condom mandate for just those reasons. Southern Nevada’s abundance of available housing means plenty of options for sets, and many homeowners are willing to open their doors to cameras since fees earned for a few days of shooting can cover months of mortgage payments.

While permits in L.A. can cost $800 to $1,000 a day, in addition to location fees that range from $1,200 to $2,000 a day, Clark County charges up to $45 for a permit, with no location fees.

“The extra hoops you have to jump through in L.A. versus a town (like Las Vegas) that’s open for new business and willing to essentially help you move forward, the stress difference alone is unbelievable,” said Lee Roy Myers, a veteran adult film producer and director who relocated from L.A. to Las Vegas last year.

•••

Just how long porn stays unregulated in Nevada remains unknown.

For now, elected officials have yet to pay much attention to the industry. But with no surefire way to keep tabs on its size, knowing when it hits critical mass will be difficult.

Clark County Commissioner Steve Sisolak said local elected officials likely wouldn’t hear about the industry unless concerns trickled down from the state level. Even the Attorney General’s Office, which is pursuing a ban on revenge porn (vindictively posting intimate photos or videos of an ex-partner) maintains distance from the industry.

“Regulation of the adult film industry is not a topic on our legislative agenda at this time,” spokeswoman Jennifer Lopez said. “Our efforts to ban revenge porn are on the agenda as it pertains to consumer protection issues, especially for minors.”

What eventually could turn lawmakers’ heads is the potential to lose out on an economic opportunity, or, perhaps more pressingly, the possibility of California’s political battle crossing state lines. The latter depends on the AIDS Healthcare Foundation. Though its OSHA complaint remains under investigation, foundation officials admit the move was symbolic, intended to call out Kink.com and provoke dialogue among policymakers.

“Our point really was that we could easily prove our case,” said Whitney Engeran-Cordova, senior director of the foundation’s public health division.

Engeran-Cordova called reports of a porn exodus to Las Vegas exaggerated.

“The film industry is embedded in L.A., and it’s going to stay there,” he said. “I think it’s a bunch of baloney. What they have done is stop getting permits. They decided that they don’t care to follow the law.

“If they do make an exodus and come to Las Vegas, at some point they’ll have to get a permit to do something. This may be the ‘Wild West,’ but it’s not that wild. Gambling, prostitution — Nevada regulates things, especially when dealing with vice. That’s how Nevada has been very successful. We would hope it doesn’t want to walk away from regulation.”

For all its appeal, Nevada isn't a given as the industry's potential new home. States like Oregon, which boasts strong free speech laws, and Florida, which has an established adult film community, offer their own competitive advantages. If Nevada does want to add porn, and the global revenue stream that comes with it, to its stable of vices, the playing field is primed for action.

“What happens this legislative session is going to say a lot,” said Marc Randazza, a Las Vegas attorney who represents adult film companies. “If a bill gets put forward (to require condoms or similar regulations), and it gets shut down, I think that will scream to the industry that it’s welcome here. If nothing gets introduced, that would be even better.”

But industry players say they’ll need more than a shrug from politicians and a “live-and-let-live” attitude from the business community to really put down roots here. And as the adult film business looks beyond California, Nevada isn't alone in its appeal; states like Oregon, which boasts strong free speech laws, and Florida, which has an established adult film community, offer their own competitive advantages. Porn producers say they want to know their industry will be embraced, and if necessary, defended before they can be comfortable making their presence known and moving permanently to Las Vegas.

“When people speak about porn here, everything is still said a little hush-hush,” Myers said. “It has been made clear that new business is welcome, but making clear that the adult film business is welcome would go a long way with the industry and its dollars.”

What’s it like to be an extra on a porn set?

“The first shoot I did was 10 hours. It was supposed to be much shorter, but there were technical difficulties. I got $100 for the day. That's usually what they give for just a few hours, too.

It was a parody of 'The Wolf of Wall Street' called 'The Whore of Wall Street.' It had a big budget, lots of production value, lots of crew. There were 10 extras total, and we were all hired to stand around in the background and cheer them on while they were doing a hardcore scene. We had actual lines of dialogue; there was like a 10-page script!

I was told to wear office clothes. I was playing a secretary, so I was told to dress like one. I dressed a little bit like a sexy secretary, but you’re just background, so they don’t really care.

The whole time, I could barely keep a straight face. I went to the bathroom, and the cabinet was fully stocked with enemas, condoms, vibrators, baby wipes, drinking straws. Weird stuff, right? They had a full-size cutout of the queen of England, as well as a framed photograph of Eleanor Roosevelt on the wall, which I thought was really odd.

But it was an incredibly professional environment. They run it just like any other production. I’ve also been an extra in mainstream, big-budget movies. Same thing.

They cover their legal bases so thoroughly. When you go in, you have to sign a release on camera, hold your ID up next to your face, state your name, information and consent. They ask if you were made to do anything that made you feel uncomfortable or that you didn’t expect to be asked to do. Lots of questions like that.

And then only after that, do they pay you. They really make sure they won’t get any accusations. And that was for both the extras and the featured talent.

I was really impressed not only with their professionalism but with their camaraderie. It was kind of like one big family. They were all joking with each other, it was a very 'let’s go out for beers after this' environment.

I think porn coming to Vegas is great. I think it’s a natural fit.” — Sarah Jane Woodall, local artist and writer

Follow Andrea Domanick on Twitter at @AndreaDomanick and fan her on Facebook at Facebook.com/AndreaDomanick.

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