Updated on September 26, 2017
On Aug. 21, actor Ed Skrein announced that he had accepted a role in the upcoming “Hellboy” reboot. A week later, he dropped out — for a very good reason.
Skrein had been cast as Ben Daimio, an employee of the fictional Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense. Best known for his role as Ajax in 2016’s “Deadpool,” Skrein seems like he’d be a great fit for what will likely be a high-energy, action-packed “Hellboy.”
There was just one problem: The character, Daimio, is Japanese-American. Skrein is not. And Daimio’s heritage plays a pretty huge role in his story.
Hollywood has a decades-long pattern of whitewashing Asian characters. Opting not to contribute to it, Skrein dropped out of the role.
Whether it’s Matt Damon’s bland performance in “The Great Wall,” Emma Stone’s confusing portrayal of a half-Asian woman in “Aloha,” Scarlett Johansson’s starring role in the recent “Ghost in the Shell” film, or any number of other examples of white actors being cast to play Asian roles, this isn’t a new phenomenon.
It’s the ugly cousin of “yellowface,” the practice of casting white actors as Asian characters with prosthetics, makeup, and over-the-top bad accents.
Skrein announced via Twitter that after getting feedback from “Hellboy” fans, it would be best if he dropped out “so the role can be cast appropriately.”
“It is clear that representing this character in a culturally accurate way holds significance for people, and that to neglect this responsibility would continue a worrying tendency to obscure ethnic minority stories and voices in the Arts,” he wrote. “I feel it is important to honor and respect that.”
He added, “Representation of ethnic diversity is important, especially to me as I have a mixed heritage family.”
Turning down that role wasn’t an easy decision. Hopefully, however, it’ll inspire other actors and directors to do the same.
It would have probably been pretty easy for Skrein to shrug off the criticism as simple oversensitivity, but instead, he decided to listen, show some empathy, and break the cycle.
Small acts of compassion have the potential to make a big impact on the world. Thanks to fans, diversity advocates, outspoken Asian actors, and Skrein, Hollywood now has a great opportunity to vocally pivot away from its history of Asian caricature and erasure, putting whitewashing behind us. Whether that will happen is anybody’s guess, but sometimes it’s worth celebrating life’s little victories. Hopefully, the decision will pay dividends for Skrein, and he’ll land something even bigger.
Posted on September 19, 2017
(CNN)Jerry Lewis, the slapstick-loving comedian, innovative filmmaker and generous fundraiser for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, died Sunday after a brief illness, said his publicist, Candi Cazau. He was 91.
Loved and criticized
A lonely boy
Big life post-Martin
‘Mozart of humor’
He helped raise billions
Success as a ‘total idiot’
Updated on September 12, 2017
Ready to turn back the clock?
Seven minutes left in last period. The teacher’s talking, but your Tamagotchi is the only thing on your mind. Is it okay? Is it hungry? Is it happy? Back then, before 9/11, your life revolved around thoughts like these. They seemed important. They were important.
7. Socker Boppers
You were right on the cusp of adolescence when those towers went down. Too young then, perhaps, to feel the full ramifications of what you were seeing, but old enough to understand: “More fun than a pillow fight” didn’t mean anything anymore. Now you wonder if it ever did.
Posted on August 29, 2017
Last week, Disney rocked the media world when it officially and inevitably threw its mouse ears into the direct-to-consumer over the top video ring with separate forthcoming streaming video on demand (SVOD) services for Disney and ESPN television and movies.
At the same time, Disney announced that it would no longer license its prized content to global SVOD behemoth Netflix. With this 1-2 gut punch, Disney looked straight into Netflixs eyes and pronounced, Game On! So, how worried should Netflix and its investors be?
In a word, Very.
Here are a few reasons why.
Disney is supremely motivated to win.
In the past several months, Disney had wanted to buy not fight Netflix to become an instant global SVOD juggernaut (I wrote about that previously in TechCrunch). But Netflix apparently had too high of an opinion of itself (in the eyes of Disney, at least). Disney doesnt like to lose. So, now the gloves are off.
But, more fundamentally, Disney had no choice but to make a massive move to prioritize digital OTT platforms by either buying or competing with Netflix, given the cut-the-cord bleeding of traditional cable and satellite television packages that historically have been Disneys cash cow. ESPNs downward slide in traditional pay TV packages has been well publicized, but the Disney Channel is right there too.
SVOD is Disneys newly-minted plan to make up for this lost ground, and you can bet that CEO Bob Iger will ignite all of the his multiple businesses, platforms and channels to promote Disneys new cause celebre to consumers.
Disney knows that content is king like never before, and is now using its content might as a weapon to win.
Amidst the massive tectonic (tech-tonic?) entertainment shift to OTT video viewing and the global SVOD land grab,exclusive content is the great differentiator. Thats why each massive player is trying to capture our hearts and minds (and most importantly, our eyes) with high-priced, high-profile exclusive original television and movies (Originals). Well, guess what, Disney already owns the rights to the most valuable brand, franchises, content and characters in the world.
Due to massively astute strategic moves over the past decade plus, ESPN and Disney princesses now share the stage with the Marvel, Star Wars and Pixar holy trinity. So, why give industry-leading Netflix the keys to its content castle when Disney can deliver that magic kingdom directly to consumers itself?
Exactly and Disney isnt. Not anymore.
Make no mistake, that hurts Netflix. Disney-esque kids-focused programming is increasingly strategic to Netflix, sinceabout half of Netflixs subscribers regularly watch kids-focused programming(and that content is frequently and uniquely evergreen, which means it never gets old).
Disney is just the latest in a long and growing list of far better resourced industry behemoths hell-bent on taking Netflix down.
That list now includes AT&Ts DirecTV Now, Amazon Video, YouTube TV, Apple and soon will include upcoming services from Verizon and Comcast. None of these giants (including Disney) are Netflix Killers on their own. But, together, this cabal may result in death by 1,000 cuts. Netflix is too big to fail, of course.
But, that doesnt mean it can survive as an independent long-term. Disney, after all, has a market cap of about $160 billion compared to Netflixs relatively paltry $75 billion. So, Disney like all the other behemoths certainly has deeper coffers with which to compete.
Even more significantly, Disney and the others bask in the glow of a holistic, multi-faceted business model. In Disneys case, it can monetize multiple divisions with multiple product lines and revenue streams (movies, television, theme parks, merchandising, licensing), all on a global scale. Netflix cant. Its business model is one-dimensional. Netflixs very existence is justified by subscriptions alone.
Disneys SVOD services, on the other hand, just need to play their parts in an overall smooth-running Disney machine. That gives Disney (and the other mega-competitors like it) tremendous freedom that Netflix doesnt have, especially as budgets for Originals continue to skyrocket amidst this massive competition.
Netflix spent a whopping $6 billion this year alone on its Originals and just secured a $500 million line of credit to fund even more (after securing nearly $1.5 billion more in notes just a few months earlier).I have long been bearish on Netflix due to its singularly challenged business model, and Disneys call to arms certainly doesnt help.
Naysayers no doubt will challenge the notion that Netflix, with its global brand and massive head start, faces any real existential crisis from Mickey and his fellow cast of giant OTT characters. After all, all of us reading this article undoubtedly count ourselves as being part of the Netflix faithful. Would any of us ever really leave?
Well, chew on this. Each of these three meta-forces is a massive new threat, the likes of which Netflix has never seen before.
First, the onslaught by Disney and the burgeoning list of other major players all of which can afford to play the long game now offer real choice to consumers for the first time. Take Amazon for example.
Amazon Video is reported to be gaining ground on Netflix in Europe, out-performing Netflix in Germany only a few months after its launch. That study also found that average viewing of Netflix programs in Europe was down significantly year-over-year, whereas Amazons was way up.
So perhaps in increasingly critical international markets where the Netflix brand is not so deeply entrenched, neither is viewer uptick or loyalty in the face of compelling alternatives. Even in the U.S., consumers face no real switching costs in an OTT world. If they lose interest in Netflix Originals or simply prefer those of Amazon or others, all they need to do is cancel their monthly subscriptions.
Yes, many will pay for more than one. But, U.S. market penetration already exceeds 50% of U.S. households. Not much margin of error here.
That leads to the second disruptive factor of ever-escalating herculean budgets for Originals in order to both acquire and retain customers. Amazon, with its more ironclad checkbook, spent $4.5 billion on Originals this year, closing in on Netflixs $6 billion in that regard.
Ultimately, Netflixs foes can out-spend the reigning champ or undercut its pricing if they choose to do so. Can Netflix even afford to maintain, let alone drop, its pricing long-term?
Finally, Disneys internationally beloved franchises, characters, and overall brand all, if nothing less, marketing goldmines to attract new users are now apparently out of Netflixs reach forever.
Its not too much of a stretch to assume that Time Warners movies and television will follow suit if DirecTV Nows AT&T closes that $85 billion mega-deal.
Together, these amount to a perfect-storm that inevitably will stunt Netflxs growth and depress its shares. Maybe not overnight, or even next year. But, ultimately Netflix will not be able to go it alone.
Now, for Disney and its OTT ambitions, the pivotal questionbecomes whether it hires the right talent with the right digital-first DNA and gives them the freedom and flexibility to pull it off.
Updated on June 13, 2017
Remember the good old days when cartoon robot toys were all the rage? Maybe you were a Transformers kid or maybe you were into Microbots. And, if you were very lucky, you got to experience to joy of the mini transforming Sewbots.
If you were lucky you got the Sewbots Command Center and if you were really, really lucky you can now get the SoftWear Automation Sewbot, a fully functional sewing robot that can make pillows, pants, mattresses and towels. Five years ago the company received a grant for DARPA to product the first real sewing robots and they succeeded, ultimately raising $4.5 million to further advance the sewing state of the art.
Founded by a set of Georgia Tech science professors, the company was a response to the effects of offshoring textile and apparel manufacturing had on the US economy, said CEO Palinaswamy Raj Rajan. Theyve received a $2 million grant from the Walmart Foundation and a $3 million Series A from CTW Venture Partners. This latest round is a Series A1.
The companys Sewbots has produced 2 million home goods since 2015. The robots are designed to hold onto and sew cloth and other materials by mapping the surface as it sews. Sewing in general has been a thorny problem for decades and the Sewbots are some of the first robots to do it without resorting to heavily snatched materials.
Most automation in textiles and apparel is operation specific focused on automating a particular process and still require an operator to feed and manage the machine, said Rajan. Using our patented computer vision technology, SoftWears fully automated Sewbots are able to replace the operator without making any modifications to the material.
While a robot that can sew bathmats is not nearly as cool as Cy-Kill, Spay-C, or Leader-1 you can still be the first kid on your block to entirely change the face of a labor-intensive manufacturing process that has long been the bane of the industrialized world everywhere. The choice is yours.
Posted on June 6, 2017
LOS ANGELES – Actor Roger Smith, who brought glamour to the TV detective genre as a hip private eye on “77 Sunset Strip,” has died. He was 84.
Jack Gilardi, who is the agent of Smith’s widow, actress Ann-Margret, said the actor died Sunday morning at a Los Angeles hospital after battling a terminal illness. Smith had battled the nerve disease myasthenia gravis for many years.
The actor launched his career in the 1950s when James Cagney spotted him and recommended him for films. He survived two serious illnesses to have a second career after “77 Sunset Strip” as manager of his second wife, entertainer Ann-Margret.
From 1958 to 1963, he co-starred with Efrem Zimbalist Jr. on the glossy ABC series. It made stars of both men and a teen heartthrob out of Edd Byrnes, who played a colorful parking lot attendant named Kookie.
“77 Sunset Strip” had been created by producer-writer Roy Huggins, who also created “Maverick,” and it spawned a host of spinoffs and knockoffs, including “Hawaiian Eye,” ”Surfside 6″ and “Bourbon Street Beat.”
Smith told the Los Angeles Times that the series aimed to show that private investigators were well-trained, serious men, and not the movie and TV stereotype with “dangling cigarettes and large chips on their shoulders.” He was chosen for the part because “I don’t look like a detective.”
But the show had its glamorous side, too. In its Encyclopedia of Television, the Museum of Broadcast Communications said the show revived the crime drama and became “the epicenter of hipness on television, a sun-drenched world of cocktails, cool jazz and convertibles.”
Then Smith was hospitalized after falling down at home and losing consciousness. He was diagnosed two days later with a blood clot on the brain. In a March 1960 story on the incident, Look magazine blamed medical mistakes for the delay in diagnosis and quoted a doctor as saying, “This boy came too close to being buried needlessly.”
He rejoined “77 Sunset Strip” after recovering and continued in his role as Jeff Spencer until 1963 when the entire cast except Zimbalist was dropped in attempt to revitalize it. The show lingered for only one more year.
Meanwhile, Smith got the title role in the NBC series based on “Mister Roberts,” based on the 1955 comedy-drama about Navy life. It lasted from 1965-66.
When he first gained fame, he had been married to a glamorous Australian actress, Victoria Shaw, with whom he had three children. They divorced in 1965.
Meanwhile he was dating Ann-Margret, the dynamic singer, dancer and actress of “Bye Bye Birdie,” ”Viva Las Vegas” and other films. They were married quietly in Las Vegas in 1967. Smith later quit to manage her career.
“Now in Roger I’ve found all the men I need rolled into one a father, a friend, a lover, a manager, a businessman,” she told writer Rex Reed in 1972. “It’s perfect for me. I couldn’t exist without a strong man.”
For decades Smith guided Ann-Margret’s career with great care. She broke her sex kitten stereotype in dramatic fashion in 1971 when she appeared in Mike Nichols’ “Carnal Knowledge” as the abused mistress of Jack Nicholson. Critics praised her performance and she was nominated for an Oscar for supporting actress.
She was nominated again in 1975 for her portrayal of Roger Daltrey’s mother in the film version of the Who’s rock opera “Tommy.”
While appearing at the Sahara Hotel at Lake Tahoe in 1972, she fell 22 feet from a scaffold and suffered severe injuries.
“She could quit working tomorrow and we’d have enough money to live on for the rest of our lives,” Smith told Reed in late 1972 as she recovered from her injuries. “… But when the time comes, she gets interested in another act or a new film or something that delays it. The fact is, the girl just loves to work.”
In 1965, Smith was diagnosed with myasthenia gravis, a disorder that disrupts the transmission of nerve signals to the muscles, causing severe muscle weakness. Despite the disease, Smith continued working when he was able as the effects of the disease varied over time.
“I have this great dream that when Ann-Margret gets out of movies, she and I will co-star in a Broadway play,” he told New York magazine in 1976. “But right now I still think it’s impossible to be married to a successful actress and have your own career and have the marriage work.”
Roger LaVerne Smith was born in 1932, in South Gate, near Los Angeles. When he was 6, his parents enrolled him in a professional school in Hollywood where he learned singing and dancing. When he was 12 the family moved to Nogales, Ariz., where he excelled in the high school acting club and football team.
Smith served 2½ years in the Navy Reserve, and in Hawaii he sang at social events. Cagney, who was there making a film, suggested that Smith might try for a film career. When Smith’s Navy service ended, he signed a contract with Columbia Pictures.
Cagney recommended Smith for a role in “Man of a Thousand Faces,” the 1957 film biography of silent star Lon Chaney. Cagney was Chaney, while Smith played Chaney’s son as a young man. Smith then was cast in “Auntie Mame,” playing star Rosalind Russell’s nephew, Patrick, as a young man.
He and Ann-Margret had no children; in the 1980s, she told interviewers she had tried in vain to get pregnant for over a decade.
Updated on May 30, 2017
(CNN)Photographer and sculptor Jason Shulman doesn’t watch movies like the rest of us. Instead, he hits play and lets his camera take over.
Updated on May 23, 2017
Midway through the second season of Silicon Valley, the HBO series that so skillfully spoofs the Bay Area tech scene, the plot turns to porn.
Inside the offices of Pied Piper, the fictional startup at the heart of the show, a shaggy-haired coder hacks into a rival company. The rival, he discovers, has landed a $15 million contract with a porn outfit called Intersite, also fictional, agreeing to build software that will compress Intersite’s videos and send them across the ‘net. Pied Piper’s CEO, Richard Hendricks, is bemused. “I don’t understand,” he says. “How does Intersite have all this money?”
“It’s pornography,” says the guy with the highfalutin facial hair.
“Adult content has driven more important tech adoption than anything,” says another colleague. “The first fiction ever published on a printing press was an erotic tale. And from there: super 8 film, Polaroid, home video, digital, video on demand—”
“—credit card verification systems, Snapchat—” adds a third.
“Pornography accounts for 37 percent of all Internet traffic.”
“Thirty-eightwhen I’m on it,” says the guy with the highfalutin facial hair.
In many ways, the exchange is typical of the show. It’s good for multiple laughs, particularly if you’re wise to the shamelessly eccentric ways of the modern tech world. Punchline aside, the big laugh is that nod to Snapchat, a mainstream private-messaging-and-video-chat app whose status as a porn service is, shall we say, unofficial. But Pied Piper’s porn encounter is a rare case where Silicon Valley gets things wrong. Typically, the parody rings so very true. In this case, it doesn’t.
‘The thing about the adult industry today is that … it’s a very low-margin business.’Chris O’Connell, Mikandi
In the popular imagination, the eternaltrope is that the porn industry drives the adoption of new technology; that it accounts for some astronomically large portion of all Internet traffic; and, yes, that it generates equally enormous sums of money for all the faceless people who run its operations. We picture these people as sleazy Southern Californians wearing pinkie rings and polyester. Or, if we’ve come to realize that the pinkie-ring caricaturemakes absolutely no sense in the age of the Internet, we see them as ruthlessly clever businesspeople with a sixth sense for where the big money lies. That’s the stereotype Silicon Valleyembraces. Later in the episode, when Hendricks turns up at an adult industry conference, we encounter an army of porn execs dressed like bankers.
But it isn’t like that at all.
Some of it may have been true in years past. But no longer. A colleague of mine calls this a meso-idea, an idea that has ceased to be true but that people continue to repeat, ad infinitum, as if it still was. With the rise of mobile devices and platforms from the likes of Apple and Google, not to mention the proliferation of free videos on YouTube-like porn sites, the adult industryis in a bind. Money is hard to come by, and as the industry struggles to find new revenue streams,it’s facing extra competition from mainstream social media. Its very identity is being stolen as theworld evolves both technologically and culturally.
It’s a world where Playboy is going PG-13—in print and online—because it can’t compete with the Internet at large. Mobile and social media platforms have pulled us away from the openness of the worldwide web and into walled gardens, squeezing the avenues of distribution for porn, co-opting its audience (at least in part), and forcing outfits like Playboy to become more “mainstream.” The larger porn industry is headed in the same direction, careening away from the stereotypes held by journalists and pundits and pop culturelike Silicon Valley. “That’s obviously a fictional adult company—because I don’t know a single one that would pay $15 million for compression software,” quips Chris O’Connell, who helps run a real adult company called Mikandi. “The thing about the adult industry today is that … it’s a very low-margin business.”
Mikandi operates the world’s largest porn app store. When I talked to the publisher of XBIZ, the leading adult business news organization, he called it “the future of the porn industry.” And in some ways, it is. But that future isn’t what the popular imagination expects.
O’Connell, Mikandi’s 29-year-old chief architect, lives in Tucson, Arizona, and he runs the company with Jesse Adams and Jen McEwen, the young Seattle couple who launched the store back in 2009, providing an alternative to the Android and iPhone app stores that forbid adult content. Apple also bars Mikandi itself from iPhones, and the only way to use it on an Android phone is to download it manually through a web browser—the same browser that serves up a seemingly endless stream of free pornography.
That said, Mikandi aims to offer stuff you can’t get elsewhere. A smartphone app does video and animation much better than a browser, and the store serves up carefully crafted stuff like hand-drawn hentai—aka Japanese porn animation. Over the last three years, the word “hentai” accounted for more Mikandi searches than the word “free.” The premium apps carry a price tag, and the company takes a cut whenever anyone buys one.
But the audience is relatively small. About 2.5 million people are registered with the Mikandi store, with about 345,000 visiting every three months. All of which means: O’Connell, Adams, and McEwen pull in yearly salaries somewhere in the low six figures, after paying “competitive” wages to a handful of coders in Seattle and Eastern Europe. “None of us own a yacht,” O’Connell says. Or as McEwen puts it: “You can’t understand the obstacles that are in our way.”
‘The Perfect Storm’
She doesnt mean obstacles of morality or law. Yes, many people frown on porn, calling it exploitative and debasing. But many others just see it as a part of life—a big part of life. There’s an enormous audience for porn, and whatever it signifies, whatever emotions it stirs in critics, this audience isnt going away. McEwen means economic obstacles, business obstacles, technical obstacles.
It wasn’t always this way. In the early aughts, online porn was ridiculously lucrative. Colin Rowntree, a porn producer, director, distributor, and member of the Adult Video News Hall of Fame, was a just mid-level player, and in those days, he and his wife, Angie, earned millions each year. But at the end of the decade, just about everything changed. Apple introduced the iPhone, which moved so much of our digital lives onto mobile devices whileofficially banning pornography in its App Store. Google pushed porn to the fringes of its search engine. And as The Economist and Buzzfeed have described, an army of “Tube sites”—essentially Youtube knockoffswith names likeYouporn and Pornhub—began offering a smorgasbord of online porn for free, much of it pirated, making it far more difficult for pornographers and distributorsto make money. All this happened as the worldwide economy tanked.
“It was the perfect storm,” says Rowntree. “People no longer wanted to pull out their credit cards. But they said: ‘Oh, there’s this thing called YouPorn. It may be grained and shitty, but at least I can masturbate.’”
The adult industry sought new avenues, including porn app stores, porn search engines like Rowntree’s Boodigo, and other workarounds, as well as “live cams,” where people pay to watch and interact with an adult performer in real time. That’s pretty much what strippers and porn stars have offered over Snapchat. But this too has its limits. One of the kings of live cams, Kink.com, the company the operates out of a castle-like former armory in San Francisco’s Mission District, has also seen revenues decline in recent years. Snapchat now works to shut down accounts dedicated to pornography.
Certainly, some people will pay for a better experience than they can get on a Tube site. Todd Glider is the CEO of CMP Group, whose video service, Badoink, has found another loophole in the smartphone market—-it offers a video streaming tool that’s ostensibly content-neutral but can be used for porn—and he says the company pulls in $55 million a year in revenues. But the best content is often pirated and offered for free, much like Hollywood blockbusters and best-selling albums. The difference is that Hollywood has the political andeconomic power to suppress pirated content—and push official content through mainstream services. The porn biz can issue DMCA takedown notices and threaten legal action like anyone else, but it doesn’t have the clout to enforce the notices on a wide scale—or make anyone care that it’s being ripped off.
“The adult industry isn’t able to enforce its intellectual property protection,” says Kate Darling, a researcher at the MIT Media Lab who explored the economics of the adult industry in the 2013 study What Drives IP without IP? A Study of the Online Adult Entertainment Industry. “It’s not that much different from others industries—except that policy makers don’t really look at the adult industry and aren’t interested in helping the adult industry.”
Meanwhile, with the rise of Netflix and YouTube and so many other mainstream video services—including Facebook and Twitter—porn is no longer the dominant form of online video. It’s hard to tell how much porn streams across the ‘net—no reliable operation tracks this, including Sandvine, the primary source for internet traffic research—but it doesn’t account for 37 percent of all traffic. It’s not even close. Mikandi declines to discuss its traffic. But a better barometer is the Pornhub Network, which now spans several of the major Tube sites. Pornhub says its network receives about 100 million visits a day, and at least on part of the network, the average visit lasts about nine minutes. If you extrapolate, that’s somewhere in the range of 450 million hours of viewing a month. Meanwhile, Netflix serves 60 million subscribers, and these subscribers watch over 3.3 billion hours of programming a month (10 billion a quarter). Youtube claims hundreds of millions of hours of viewing daily.
“What happens is: someone comes up with a stat [about porn traffic] and everyone repeats it, but it’s not necessarily true,” Pornhub vice president Corey Price says. “If you just look at YouTube’s numbers, they’re astounding.”
The corollary is that, with the rising power of companies like Apple and Google and Facebook, the adult industry doesn’t drive new technology. In many respects, it doesn’t even have access to new technology. The big tech companies behind the big platforms control not only the gateway services (the iPhone app store, Google Search, the Facebook social network) but the gateway devices (the iPhone, Android phones, Google Chromecast, the Amazon Fire TV, the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset). And for the most part, they’ve shut porn out. Besides, these giants now drive new technology faster than services like Mikandi or Pornhub ever could.
Porn distributors have become the imitators, not the innovators. This summer, Pornhub introduced a for-pay service, an alternative to its ad-driven free porn sites. In a press release, the company called it “the Netflix of porn.” When I talk to Price, he compares it to Spotify. And remember: the Tubes sites have spent the last decade mimicking Youtube. “We’ve innovated in some areas,” Price says. “But the adult industry being the leader of technology? If it was ever true, it isn’t true today.”
Silicon Valley doesn’t even get the clothes right. The reality is that people from porn companies wear whatever they want at conferences—a lot like people from other tech companies. “People who work in the adult industry are like people who work for other startups,” says one industry veteran. “But they have an edge. They have a certain countercultural attitude.” They’re a lot like people from other tech companies in so many ways. They just deal in a different type of online content. And even the content isn’t as different as you might think.
This Is What the Porn Industry Looks Like
Back in 1998, in his preternaturally entertaining expos of the porn business, “Big Red Son,” which detailed his visit to an industry mega-conference, David Foster Wallace observed a world populated by people who wore bad toupees and pinkie rings and used the word class “as a noun to mean refinement.” “All the clichs,” he said, “are true.”
They wouldn’t stay true for long. The Internet would soon remake the industry. It became less about producers and directors in Southern California, and more about people who put stuff on the ‘net. Old-school producers and directors are still around, but they’ve been superseded by the people who deliver the porn, and these people have moved into production as well. Twenty years later, almost none of Wallace’s cliches are true. In fact, not even the clichs that replaced those clichs are true. Nowadays, the porn industry looks nothing like those guys in bad toupees—and nothing like the steely-eyed execs who show up in Silicon Valley. It looks like Chris O’Connell.
The big adult business-to-business conference is called Internext, and it’s held at the Hard Rock Hotel, just off the Las Vegas strip. On the first day of this year’s show, O’Connell turned up in a blue mohair and wool suit, with a red tie and matching handkerchief. As he walked down the hall that Saturday night, past the framed guitars, the signed Led Zeppelin photos, and the freestanding, poster-sized porn-tech ads, he carried a lit Dominican cigar in one hand, and two smartphones in the other. The second phone is unlocked and rooted, so he can test new software code.
This is pretty much what he always looks like—though, if it’s cold, he might add a waistcoat, an overcoat, and a black fur felt fedora-like hat fashioned by a haberdasher in Romania. And on a Sunday morning, he might relax in a rugby shirt. But whatever he wears, he doesn’t wear it with irony. “I’m not a hipster,” O’Connell says. And he’s not. He’s a registered Republican. He’s an engineer who quotes Adam Smith. He’s a shareholder in a porn company who carries a commercial pilot’s license. Hes neither a ruthless businessmen in a suit, nor a coder in a hoodie. Hes a coder in a suit with a bit more color to it. He’s a guy with his own tastes—in clothes, in politics, in technology, in sex.
He lives in Arizona because he likes the politics, including the gun laws. Like many others in the porn business, he sits at the libertarian end of the spectrum. Free speech and free guns. He also lives in Arizona because that’s where he went to grad school. After three years of liberal arts at Middlebury in Vermont and a few more years in the Silicon Valley startup world, he studied astronomy at the University of Arizona, working with the Large Binocular Telescope and contributing to academic papers in publications like The Astrophysical Journal and The Astronomical Society of the Pacific. At one point, to make some extra money, he helped build some websites, and some of them were adult sites. Mikandi was a next step. The world was going mobile, and the likes of Apple wouldn’t allow porn apps. He thought it should. But he also liked the idea of, in his own way, rebuilding what Apple had built. He still does. “It’s a very hard thing to do,” he says.
As a metaphor, O’Connell works on multiple levels. He talks not like some smarmy San Fernando Valley opportunist or one of the porn industry automatons in Silicon Valley, but like a software engineer enthralled with things like the HHVM virtual machine, the Cloudfare content distribution network, and other really geeky stuff. After all, that’s what he is. He doesn’t just use tech. He builds it. And he does this under the aegis of a company whose Seattle offices, on the first floor of a nondescript building with no doorman, sit in the shadow of the glass towers that house Amazon, one of the big companies squeezing the porn industry. Plus, he’s the guy who put porn on Google Glass.
The Steve Jobs Effect
Jesse Adams and Jen McEwen launched Mikandi in the fall of 2009 after spending two years in China bootstrapping a business that made vibrating condom rings and other sex toys. At first, the Mikandi app store wasn’t much of a store. “We launched the day after Thanksgiving,” Adams says, “with no apps.” But it caught O’Connell’s eye. He had spent the last six month building a similar store, just so he could get one of his own apps onto phones, and he asked Adams and McEwen if they could combine forces. “They had the marketing,” he says, “and I had the technology.”
Before long, the store also caught the eye of Steve Jobs. That spring, the Apple founder and tech world patron saint unveiled the latest incarnation of the world’s most influential smartphone—the iPhone 4—and afterwards, he took questions from the press. At one point, a reporter asked if Apple would ever let people install software on the iPhone without the company’s explicit approval, and in response, Jobs pointed to Android. Google let people install almost anything on Android phones—if they ventured outside the official Android app store.
“You know, there’s a porn store for Android,” Jobs said, referring to Mikandi, warning that this store delivered porn apps without discrimination. “Anyone can download them. You can. Your kids can. That’s just not a place we want to go.”
It was another reminder that the Internet had changed in the age of the smartphone, that many devices no longer offered unfettered access to whatever the world cared to send across the Internet. But that bit of Jobsian self-righteousness also carried some untended consequences. Though Jobs didn’t mention it by name, about 10,000 people downloaded Mikandi onto their Android phones over the next 12 hours—ten times more than the usual—and traffic to the store promptly tripled.
And yet, all these years later, Mikandi remains a small business. O’Connell loves what he does. So do Adams and McEwen. And their business is successful. But it’s small. That’s because a porn startup can’t raise large amounts of money like other startups. And because their store has been pushed to the edge of the Android world. And because so much porn is available for free from the tube sites and other sources. “The adult industry has a very large content library, with, to use one of the buzzwords of the Internet, a very long tail,” O’Connell says. “You have so few viewers for each piece of content.” But nowadays, those aren’t the only forces keeping the company from the enormous bucks.
Ironically, O’Connell says, a company like Mikandi is also in a bind because so much free porn—or porn-like stuff—is now available through social media, from people posting stuff that isn’t necessarily for financial gain. Facebook bans adult content. And other social sites have done much the same. But not all of them. Twitter puts pop-up warnings over porn, but you can still get to it. Tinder isn’t all that different from an adult dating app. Snapchat cracks down on accounts dedicated to porn, but it is, by definition, a service for trading private pictures and videos. If you can get private pictures and videos through Snapchat, you aren’t as interested in porn from porn companies.
In some respects, the porn industry has been replaced by millions of people with ready access to camera tech, posting stuff to the Internet. That’s just the way the modern Internet works. “Adult,” O’Connell says, “is getting rolled into everything else.”
‘It’s Chaos. It’s Fragmented. It’s Broken. It’s Blocked’
As he built Mikandi amidst this new world order, O’Connell didn’t pay $15 million for video software. He and his team built it themselves. That’s pretty much the way it works in the porn business. Part of it, O’Connell says, is that with all that free porn available across the `net, industry margins are much too thin for that kind of spending. But even if a company did pay $15 million for that kind of tech, it isn’t likely to pay a mainstream startup a la Pied Piper.
The Silicon Valley bit about the industry driving the adoption of credit card verification systems takes on a new meaning when you consider that many credit card services now refuse to work with adult operations (in the early years, fraud, inordinate chargebacks, and other abuses were rampant). Many mainstream technology vendors take much the same stance, including companies that build email services and, yes, video engines.
“For adult companies, it’s chaos. It’s fragmented. It’s broken. It’s blocked,” Adams says. “You have to build your own newsletter service. You have to build your own billing system. All the game tools for distribution and ads—none of that is available to adult companies. All the awesome stuff that everyone expects you to have is blocked.”
That means adult operations need people like Chris O’Connell. After building the Mikandi video engine, O’Connell helps run a side business, Sendfaster, that sells similar technology to other operations, including customers outside the adult industry. Video tech isn’t just a cost. It’s a source of revenue. “The realities of the adult industry have meant that companies have to be scrappy,” O’Connell says.
And yet, no matter how much technology people like O’Connell are willing and able to build, they will still reach enormous roadblocks—just because their tech handles adult content. In 2013, O’Connell landed a ticket to Google I/O, the company’s annual developer conference, and he was among the few who had the opportunity to purchase a pair of Google’s computerized eyewear. He did, and that meant he could build software for the device, which seems to project a tiny computer screen somewhere out in front of you when you slip it over your eyes. So, together with Adams and others, he built an app called “Tits and Glass.” He was in the vanguard of a new kind of porn. The app let you share “share, comment, and vote on your favorite sexy photos with Google Glasses.” Then Google shut it down.
Just after the app was released, the Internet giant changed its terms of service, banning content that contained nudity, graphic sex acts, or sexually explicit material. That was the end of Tits and Glass. Later, O’Connell and crew also built an app store for Google Chrome OS—the company’s laptop and desktop operating system—and that was blocked, too. They wanted to put one on Google Chromecast, a gadget that puts apps and video on your TV. Same result.
Nowadays, the prevailing narrative is that virtual reality will re-energize the porn industry. After I spoke to Alec Helmy, the publisher of XBIZ, whocalled Mikandi the future, he wrote back and mentioned VR. Buzzfeed, in its lengthy porn feature, paints VR as the great porn hope. You hear the same thing from, well, WIRED. But the future is more complicated than that. Think of Chris O’Connell and Google Glass. Think of Mikandi and Steve Jobs.
VR and its cousin, “augmented reality,” are controlled by the big corporations. Facebook owns the Oculus Rift. Microsoft built the Hololens. Google does Google Glass. These will treat porn at least like Android treats porn—or maybe even like Glass treated porn when O’Connell unveiled his app. In other words, they won’t allow it through official channels and maybe not at all.
Yes, the adult industry will build virtual reality porn. It has already started. Glider’s CMP Corp offers 180-degree and 360-degree videos through a site called BadoinkVR.com. But in more ways than one, porn VR will sit on the fringes of the Internet. And the mainstream services will offer VR that’s pretty porn-like. No, really. If we can communicate with each other via virtual reality, we will trade pornography—or stuff that’s close to it. Culturally, we’re moving towards a world where this kind of thing is more acceptable, where we’re more open about it. As much as the big corporations bar porn from their services, it still shows up, thanks in part to the people and companies who don’t call themselves porn vendors.
If all this true, then the stuff coming from the adult industry means less. As O’Connell explains, much the same thing is happening on today’s 2D Internet. If we have Snapchat and Twitter and Tumblr, we don’t need the porn companies—or at least, we don’t need them as much as we once did.
O’Connell and Adams and McEwen now kinda wish they had branded themselves as a mainstream operation—not as a porn business. If they called themselves something else, they would have more freedom to do what they want to do. Indeed, as Mikandi competes with all those mainstream services, it’s moving closer to mainstream content. Their store now offers games and comics and e-books. They’re embracing many of the same digital artists whose work shows up on Tumblr and other mainstream services. “In some ways, it’s about: how can we get less adult? Or rather: how do we serve our users more of the time? How do we provide them with the stuff they want all of the time?” O’Connell explains.
When it comes right down to it, he says, Mikandi isn’t all that different from your typical tech startup. It uses many of the same tools to build much the same tech. Yes, it still serves up stuff that’s more extreme than what you might find on even the most liberal of mainstream services. But that will slowly change too, as the mainstream moves closer and closer to porn. “You begin to wonder,” O’Connell says, “if the industry will cease to be its own thing.”