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The Man Who Founded the Oscars of Porn Is Now Trying to Make Good in Hollywood

Paul Fishbein is a historic figure in a sector of entertainment where history is seldom valued. Fishbein, 58, was born and bred in Philadelphia before moving to L.A. in 1991 to grow his business, Adult Video News, the trade magazine David Foster Wallace once referred to as “the Variety of the U.S. porn industry” in his 1998 essay “Big Red Son.” The first issue of AVN was published in February 1983, and the now infamous AVN Fan Expo and AVN Awards (with categories like Best All-Girl Feature, Best Tease Performance and Best New Starlet) began shortly thereafter. These days, entering the AVNs is like stepping into someone’s raunchy browser history, but during its heyday in the 1990s and early aughts, it was more like being on set of your favorite adult film.

Despite having pioneered the Oscars of Porn, though, Fishbein sold his company to a non-adult European company in February 2010. From there, he pursued his lifelong film and TV aspirations by becoming partner at a mainstream production company, Plausible Films. So far, most of his work is still all about sex—e.g., the six-part scripted BDSM erotica Submission as well as the X-rated educational documentary series Sex with Sunny Megatron, both for Showtime. But Fishbein is happy to explore the topic in new ways—and to be out of an ever-evolving industry he’d already seen through a few different transformations.

I recently talked to Fishbein about those transformations; how the adult industry has made far more progress than Hollywood in terms of empowering women in the #metoo era; and the reasons why Bill Clinton was the best thing to ever happen to porn.

How exactly did you get into the porn business?
I was a journalism student at Temple University in Philadelphia and had been publishing magazines since I was a teenager. I was a movie buff who was hoping to somehow combine my writing skills and my love of film, preferably in L.A. I was working at Movies Unlimited, the largest video retailer in the country at the time. This was 1982, I’d been there a few years, but I was stressing about being a college graduate working retail and looking for something to do with my publishing skills.

This was in 1982, so people were getting VCRs for the first time and spending $1,000 on them. Movies Unlimited customers wanted to see adult films, because at that point, most people hadn’t ever seen one. Only a small part of the population had gone to theaters to watch them or ever saw a peep show. They kept asking for recommendations, and even though I’d only seen a few in my life, it dawned on me that this burgeoning video market might be the opportunity to do something. So my partners and I created Adult Video News as a consumer’s guide to the new movies coming out on video cassette.

I really thought we were making a movie magazine. We wrote our stories as if they were film reviews for regular movies. We covered it like it was the regular movie business. Then, after about six or seven monthly issues, we started to get subscriptions from video stores. All the new little video stores opening up all over the country were subscribing. That’s when a light switch went on, and we decided to make it a trade publication, recommending what to stock.

What did you make of that early success?
The success of AVN was about being in the right place at the right time and being smart enough to seize the opportunity. But I was naïve in a lot of ways. I thought it was Hollywood, but it really wasn’t Hollywood. It was the flip side of Hollywood, and I found that out over the years. We were like the bastard stepchildren. People liked it, but they didn’t wanna admit that they liked it or how much they liked it. There was always something naughty about it, and society deemed us wrong. Even today, as a mainstream TV producer, my credits do me no service. People still look down on me because they consider me a “porn guy.” They pigeonhole you. I’m not complaining, by the way, because I own what I did and I’m proud of it.

On the other side of things, I’m pretty much forgotten in the adult business already. It really does spit people out. You know, it’s like, “Okay, he’s gone. Next up.” That’s just how they treat most people in the business. And that’s fine. It’s a disposable business. There’s not a lot of sense of history or togetherness, even though that’s changing a bit. It’s because adult entertainment is such an outlaw business. Back then, people had to fight for their lives. Performers fought the government and fought mainstream America looking down on them. And because they fought so hard for their freedom, they just wanted to take care of themselves.

How have you seen the country’s perception of porn change over the years?
I watched the perception of the adult industry shift from an underground business to legitimate pop culture to the government trying to outlaw it in the late 1980s and into the early 1990s.

They really tried to outlaw speech during the Reagan and Bush years. Reagan hired Edwin Meese to form the Meese Commission. It was a slanted panel, with priests and all kinds of right-wing, Christian, anti-porn zealots who were doing a “study” on the effects of pornography. They included hardly any testimony from anybody in the adult business. I went to some of the hearings in L.A.; it was frightening. Then they started an Obscenity Unit in the Justice Department with hundreds of attorneys. Their goal was to entrap all of the adult distributors and producers and try them in multiple jurisdictions.

I remember two raids where like 65 adult companies were hit by FBI agents all in the same day, where they seized all their materials. They started indicting people, too, and I had friends go to jail. It was a frightening time.

In 1992, though, Clinton dismantled the Obscenity Unit and ignored us. It opened up and became the Wild West. Everybody with a video camera was making movies. That’s when the material, in the mid-1990s, started to get stronger and more extreme and nastier. This was before the internet. Everybody gives the internet the credit for that, but the truth of the matter is, the movies on VHS and DVD were featuring extreme, circus sex acts long before the web. That was because there were few, if any, federal obscenity indictments during the Clinton era.

What do you think about political groups interested in limiting or censoring the pornography we can access online today?
The genie’s way out of the bottle there. There’s just no chance. It’s there; it’s one click away. I mean, I have an issue with it because I don’t think kids should have easy access to it, and I have a problem with the free porn. But that’s just me. My daughter will be 12 next month, and this just means you have to be a better parent.

Some people learned about AVN from David Foster Wallace and “Big Red Son.” He’s such a literary legend—do you feel proud of being cemented in his work in this way?
No, it was a hatchet job. With no research done, no questions asked, it was an underhanded hatchet job. I thought it was an awful article that was littered with untruths. Fuck him. He’s a great writer and all that, but that didn’t give him the right to make shit up. And it was made up—it was lies. It was based on hearsay, and if you’re gonna do that, at least give somebody a chance to defend it.

It didn’t affect my business, but I worked hard to cement a reputation of honorable fairness. He basically said our results were fake. The AVN Awards were always honestly done, which was to my detriment because people would get pissed and I’d lose tons of customers and advertising dollars because people were pissed off that certain people didn’t win. He could’ve come in and checked all the ballots at any time after the show.

But anyway… How many years later is this? 20? And I’m still pissed off about it? So you can tell it was an unhappy moment.

As you prepared to sell AVN in 2010, where did you think the industry was going? Especially with today’s shift in ownership and agency in terms of performers with their own IPs, VIP Snapchat and Patreon accounts.
You know, all of that was already happening. It was right in front of me. There was a sense that it was going to become less corporate and more about female performers. For both men and women, but especially in terms of women owning their own businesses and their own content and creating their own fan bases through social media. It was clear that was the next phase. AVN was a traditional magazine, and most of my customers were video producers. When content started becoming available for free, their DVD sales started to go south, and the first thing they cut was advertising. I saw a huge dip in ad dollars from the video business. I blamed it on people not paying for porn. I could see the shift of personal clips and social media, and I wasn't excited about being there for the next phase of the industry. Plus, I was just tired.

Of course, I still pay attention to what’s happening in the industry. What I think is interesting is that in today’s entertainment environment—where Hollywood is trying to correct for its lack of female directors, female producers and female-owned companies—the adult business, which was always maligned for supposedly being exploitative of women, has gone further than Hollywood in terms of women who produce their own content and control their own businesses. Porn is now ahead of Hollywood on that front, while Hollywood’s scrambling to catch up and correct what’s been a mistake for 100 years.

What do you think constitutes an actual “porn star” versus a “porn performer”? “Porn star” seems like a term that’s become ubiquitous in an unfair way.
The actual stars are the 32 performers in my Greatest Adult Stars documentary. You gotta be substantial. But you’re right, it’s the default term. If you read AVN now, they’ll use the term porn star as the default. That said, I’m not interested in changing the lexicon of the adult business. Although AVN did create the term “gonzo” for that kind of porn material. We never got credit for that, but one of our old editors, Gene Ross, created the term in homage to Hunter S. Thompson and now it’s commonly used.

What’s your post-AVN life like?
Well, I got a taste of production doing the AVN Awards, and airing it, first on the Playboy Channel and then Showtime. It was close to what I’ve always wanted to do. So when I left, I partnered with Darren Roberts, someone I had once been partners with at AVN and someone who now had his own television production company. I pitched Showtime on a doc, something I always wanted to do at AVN, a countdown show on the greatest adult movies of all time. They bought it and I produced what’s now called X-Rated: The Greatest Adult Movies of All Time. It’s a history of the adult movie business through the lens of 32 films, from Deep Throat to present day.

It did extraordinarily well, so then we did The Greatest Adult Stars of All Time as a sequel. Basically, it’s about the greatest adult stars in the history of the business, sort of their entrée into pop culture. It not only describes why they're a great adult star but also what have they done to make them notable in pop culture.

As a media buff, are there any books or movies about the adult business you would recommend to people?
The HBO series Real Sex did a six-part series called Pornucopia: Down in the Valley that’s great.

Frank Rich’s definitive piece on the adult business in New York Times Magazine was very good in the early 2000s. Girl Next Door, about Stacy Valentine, was very good and very honest. Legs McNeil and Jennifer Osborne’s book is really fun; it’s an oral history of the adult business called The Other Hollywood. And The Deuce. I really liked The Deuce, and it captured the spirit of the Times Square porn business really well.