The relationship between home video and hardcore films has always been an uneasy one in the eyes of many accounts of the history of the VCR. While there’s no doubt that the ability to see actual sex in the privacy of your own home was a huge reason behind bringing tape players into the living rooms (and bedrooms) of the world, this tends to be downplayed by many histories of the subject. Just see the Wikipedia entry for “Home Video,” which states that “Until the mid-1980s feature film theatrical releases such as THE WIZARD OF OZ, CITIZEN KANE or CASABLANCA were the mainstay of video marketing.” Marketing, sure, but porn was arguably just as responsible for the video boom as it was for the proliferation of internet usage a decade later.
Dr. Peter Alilunas, currently teaching in the Screen Arts and Cultures Department at the University of Michigan, has been studying the history of pornography’s relationship to home video, and he’s uncovered an even deeper correlation between the sex flick and the video boom, one that predates even the “Mom and Pop” video stores that sprung up in the early ‘80s. In fact, it was hardcore films that became one of the earliest catalysts for home video distribution, as an underground network that distributed porn via cassette to motels as early as 1971.
As this spring’s Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference in Chicago at a panel with “Bold! Daring! Shocking! True!” author Eric Schaefer as respondent, Dr. Alilunas offered a presentation on this hidden history of home video distribution, as part of his dissertation. Dr. Alilunas was kind enough to talk to us a bit about his findings via e-mail.
Not too surprisingly, the idea of being able to view adult movies in your motel room began in Japan, specifically Osaka, in early 1971, as a way for couples to get some privacy in a country where large families lived in small spaces. “These ‘love motels’ first started in 1968,” Alilunas explained, “and began offering more and more incentives to get customers — and eventually some enterprising owner added adult films on closed-circuit. Time magazine did a story on this phenomenon, and a lawyer in Los Angeles figured, hey, that might work here, too. He and his partners opened the first adult motel with video, shortly after that. It wasn’t long before others entered the field, too.”
While Los Angeles may have started the trend in the United States, it soon spread all across the country, with establishments sometimes being opened by the same people. “One guy who opened a handful of them in L.A. went on to start a business where he supplied other motels around the country with the closed-circuit systems (and presumably the films, too), and had a hand in places as far afield as Long Island, New York.”
It was the closed-circuit systems that allowed the motel owners to give the customers the sexual voyeurism they craved, operating much in the same way many booth-based adult establishments still work today. “In the front [motel] office, a bank of video players (usually between five and ten Sony U-Matics) played the tapes, which were sent out on a closed signal to all the rooms. Customers picked an option by choosing a channel, and joined the film in progress. No rewinding or fast forwarding — and when the movie was over, it was rewound and restarted in the office.”
Of course, with a closed-circuit system, the techniques were not without flaws, as occasionally the signal would reach beyond the safe boundaries of the motel walls. “An antenna fell over on the roof of a motel once in Colorado in 1977, and sent the signal for a hardcore film into an adjoining apartment complex, where a young boy was happened upon by his mother as he sat transfixed in front of an adult film. Police described her as being in a ‘dither’ over the incident.”
Dr. Alilunas suspected that George Atkinson, regarded as the “Father of the Video Store” for opening Video Station, regarded as the first such establishment, in 1977, may have been involved with the distribution. “I had a very strong suspicion early on that [Atkinson] MUST have had experience with pornography before he got into home video, even though there was no existing evidence for that, and all the interviews and stories on the first store don’t mention it. Atkinson died in 2005, so I couldn’t interview him. My suspicions were based on a simple idea: the only people willing to gamble on the new (and very expensive) format in 1977 were the people who saw the potential profit in the material. Well, the only material that was available prior to 1977 (when Andre Blay signed the deal with Fox to put out the first 100 mainstream films on tape) was pornography and pirated, bootlegged stuff.”
“I knew from James Lardner’s book Fast Forward (1987) that Atkinson was no stranger to renting movies to people before 1977 — since at least 1968 he had been renting a Technicolor projector to people for ‘parties,’ and he also rented the Sony U-Matic to motels, pizza parlors, bars, and other places, with public domain films, and that got my research instincts tingling. ‘Parties’ sure sounded like a code for ‘stag films’ to me, but I couldn’t prove it. Lardner’s book, and every other account of Atkinson’s activities, made it sound like he was offering mainstream, public domain stuff, not at all related to pornography. I knew this wasn’t the whole story.”
The key was to stop looking at Atkinson’s biography and instead research the location he used as a business address. “I knew from my research that Atkinson had operated out of the same Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles. Starting in 1975, Atkinson began advertising an earlier business called ‘Home Theater Systems’ to rent the Technicolor projector to private parties — and there was no doubt about what he was doing: the ads clearly state that he was offering X-rated films in the ‘privacy of your own home.’ Later, he also offered U-Matic adult tapes in addition to the Technicolor films. That was really the first time that someone advertised pornography on tape for rent in the home.”
Uncovering Atkinson’s connection was just the beginning, however. “I started to realize that Atkinson was part of a much bigger underground film network in Los Angeles that was offering adult films in some unusual business models, and that made me recall what Lardner had said about bars and motels. If I now knew that Atkinson was renting adult films for private parties — was he also offering them to bars and motels? That really initiated my research into what became a deep, vast, and ongoing set of research into the adult motels in Los Angeles in the 1970s, which I eventually discovered were offering adult films on video to their customers as early as 1971 — well before home video was available to the public. This is really the ‘missing link’ of the history of adult video: people could have the privacy model of home video by renting a motel room and not have to go to the adult theater or bookstore. The motels were a key part of this underground film network.”
The films that received this sort of distribution, however, could hardly be called legitimate releases, and the video transfers were often made from illegally-obtained prints. “The underground adult film network had three main components: A) pirates paid off adult film theater managers to borrow the prints for a few hours and have it transferred to tape, B) people took old, stag films and transferred them, and C) there were a handful of people shooting directly onto video and making their own adult films. They then sold these to adult motel owners for around $200. In some cases, adult motels were running the same movies that were playing down the street at a theater! Nearly all the motels offered Deep Throat, of course, since that was a big draw.”
Unfortunately, there was legally little that could be done at the time, due to the lack of regulation and the fact that nobody was particularly interested in protecting such a “seedy” subculture, and bootlegging ran rampant. “At the time, the question of whether or not adult films had copyright protection was still open. Adult film producers had no legal recourse — and police weren’t exactly in a hurry to help on that front. This is one of the main reasons why, by 1976, a bunch of adult film industry people began transferring their inventories to tape and began selling them. The motels proved there was a market.”
“These film pirates were, in some instances, huge operations. Police busted some of these guys, and they had hundreds of films they were bootlegging for sale around the world — not just adult, but also mainstream titles. Oddly, oil rigs were a big market for pirated films. Their main customers, though, were the adult motels.”
If procuring transfers from prints was an issue, the motel owners could always create the product on their own. “In one case, in 1973, a motel owner was convinced by a well-known adult filmmaker to cut out the middleman by shooting the tapes himself — which is a jaw-dropping moment in adult video history. He eventually made more than 50 tapes, none of which exist anymore. There’s evidence from around this time in New York that some Times Square theaters were also showing ‘homemade’ video tapes, so, again, long before adult video became ‘official’ there was evidence of people making tapes.”
I know what you’re thinking. While the idea of motels using hidden cameras to secretly shoot their own porn would make for a great erotic thriller, it’s not the case, as far as anyone can tell. “Police would spread stories that adult motels were installing two-way mirrors and videotaping their customers having sex — and then show the tapes later in the rooms! While I wouldn’t rule this out entirely, I do think this was probably a scare tactic used by police to smear the motels.”
The motels had to be cagey about advertising their wares, and few mentioned their adult-oriented programming in the same neon-lit terms as air conditioning and color television, choosing instead to promote themselves in the back pages of classified ads. “The motels frequently advertised on the same pages as adult theaters, and they were definitely after the same audience. For the most part, [they] actually didn’t advertise on their buildings. A few had small signs, but most operated on word-of-mouth. They did use code words in telephone books, and their newspaper ads were pretty clear. But mostly they played it pretty low-key on the buildings themselves. Newspapers picked up the stores in the mid-70s, and they made clear what was happening.”
Despite many common perceptions, these motels were not associated with prostitution, and often had impressively puritan rules. “Women, in fact, were not, as a general rule, allowed to check in to the adult motels alone, and some motels all but required proof of marriage before couples could rent a room. Some motels even offered on-site wedding chapels! In virtually all cases, the motels advertised to middle-class couples looking for some romantic fun — and made strong efforts to appeal, oddly, to a ‘family’ crowd. There was a very strong push to be associated with respectability, and the motels typically hired slightly older couples to run the places.”
This type of atmosphere made it very distinct from the bookstores and porno theaters that suited the raincoat crowd, but the attitudes towards women ended up the same, even if addressed in different ways. “So there’s this sad irony: the privacy offered by the motels was a direct contrast to the public space of the bookstore and theater, which were not exactly friendly to female customers, but they also feared unbridled women’s sexuality. There was this enormous potential for the motels to offer safe, private spaces (especially for women), but they nevertheless played out the same narrative very familiar to a culture in which women’s sexual behavior is always suspect and dangerous. It really wasn’t until adult video became widespread that women were able to escape at least some of that containment.”
When the proliferation of video accessibility in motel rooms became obvious, studios began to notice. “An amazing and unanticipated side effect of the mainstream hotel movies phenomenon was that Hollywood, after some initial strong resistance suddenly realized that there was an audience in hotels that wasn’t going to movie theaters. Older people with money were willing to pay to watch movies in hotels but not willing to go to theaters, with all those pesky teenagers ruining everything. Once Hollywood realized that, they began experimenting with releasing contemporary releases — sometimes at the same time as in theaters — to hotels. This was part of recovering what has been called the ‘Lost Audience.’”
The motels offering this type of content proliferated into the ‘80s and some still remain today, but home video put an end to much of this type of distribution, replacing it with the standard pay-per-view model we have today. “Adult movies in hotels really exploded in the 1990s when a handful of small corporation consolidated the business and began quietly offering it in big hotel chains. It’s a multi-billion dollar business today, and companies like AT&T, Time Warner, General Motors, and News Corporation have a piece of that pie.”
“That’s funny to think about, because video in hotels really began in the mid-1950s, and took off in the early 1970s. Big chains like Holiday Inn and Howard Johnson experimented with it, and then Hyatt took off with it. But, aside from a couple experiments with Russ Meyer’s softcore films, pornography was out of the question. That’s why the motels filled the gap — the bigger, established chains wouldn’t touch it.”
This relatively-undiscovered form of distribution (and, in some cases, production) has been largely ignored by most video historians thus far, presumably due to its association with pornogrpaphy. “Pornography in general has been mostly avoided in Film Studies as a field, for a wide variety of reasons. It’s a hot-button topic, and one that comes with a host of problems for scholars. Home Video history has started to become a growing field of interest in the last five years or so, and there’s a bunch of excellent scholars working in earnest on it now — but I think the tendency has been to avoid pornography in that medium since it’s been avoided elsewhere for so long. Most studies tend to take the approach of, ‘Well, porn was a big deal at first, and then it faded away, so let’s move on.’ [But] we barely know anything about it. It’s going to take a lot of research, by a lot of different people, before we know this story more completely.”
Alilunas’s journeys into the crevices of home video history are ongoing, despite the often-dismissive nature of some in the film studies field. “It’s one thing for scholars to look at the history of how THE GODFATHER played at a swank hotel in Manhattan, but to dig into how a forgotten movie like TEENAGE LOVE GODDESSES played at a place like the President Motel in Atlantic City? That’s not something scholars are scrambling to dig into, even though it’s critical to the history of home video.”
Dr. Alilunas has recently completed his dissertation, which has some lengthy portions of this history. It will be available soon from the University of Michigan library. A short piece on this history and the importance of looking into it can also be seen at the Media Fields Journal site. You can follow his work on his blog, THE PORNOLOGIST, here.
Very special thanks to Dr. Alilunas for this piece.
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