The Sticky Economics of Porn Theaters

Their continued draw has much less to do with what’s happening on the screen than what’s happening in the seats

You can get porn on your laptop. You can get porn on your phone. You can get porn on your tablet. Hell, you can get porn pretty much anywhere. In fact, ever since the VHS videotape was invented, there’s been no ostensible reason to leave your home to view adult entertainment. And yet, porn theaters persist, even as we’re well into the 21st century. Why? Who goes to these places? How do they survive, economically? And, of course: What the hell is cleanup like? With the help of Illy, an employee at San Diego’s Adult Superstore (which has not one, but two screens!), we, uh, came up with some answers. 

Seriously — who goes to a porn theater nowadays?

Oh, all kinds of people. But it’s the kind of hobby that draws a regular crowd. “I have people I see every day,” Illy says. Which sounds more than a little like compulsive behavior. 

But why go to one? I can access porn in like five seconds if I want without even getting out of bed.

For one thing, there’s the aspect of doing something naughty in public — there’s no accounting for kinks, and some people’s kink is to be watched or being near somebody. There’s also a social component to it too, Illy says. Some guys will communicate with each other about when to go. “With the internet being so big and all the dating apps and the hookup apps, it’s like that whole face-to-face, human component is getting lost, and so these places are getting more popular, it seems, because people want that component back,” Illy says. 

So what goes on in there?

Well, guys are jacking off in the darkness, obviously (at the theater where Illy works, which I visited, there’s a thoughtfully placed toilet paper holder around the corner from the door, in a labyrinthine hallway that eventually leads to the seating area). But porn theaters’ biggest draw nowadays is often about random hookups. It’s an illicit but acceptable (or at least agreed-upon) place to go for anonymous sex with other guys, or for couples, or with couples, or in group orgies, or any number of hookup permutations you can think of. 

Huh. How’s the ticketing work?

It’s an interesting one — many theaters just play movies continuously on a loop and charge customers $10 for four hours. They can come and go — or rather, come, then go, then come again if they want.

I see what you did there.

Lots of people go out for a smoke occasionally, or take the opportunity to see some sunlight before going back into the naughty darkness, or even grab a snack at the counter.

Wait, they sell snacks? Is that their hidden main revenue source, like popcorn is to regular theaters?

No, not at all — and it’s more of the sodas and mini bags of chips variety. They don’t sell that much of it. “I feel like we buy them more than anything!” Illy says of herself and her co-workers.

Do they have any movie specials?

Yes! There are couples’ nights where they get in for free.

Why?

Because couples go there anyway for some adventure — and they’re a big draw. Couples help the theater rake in increased revenue from single guys. They’re the ones who still get charged! Maybe the couples are swinging, maybe they just enjoy being watched (and many single-guy customers enjoy watching). It goes again to what’s really the main event at porn theaters: Either voyeurism or participation, depending on your predilection. 

If a couple comes in on couples’ night, they get one ticket, free admission. They have to stay with each other at all times — i.e., if one goes out, they both go out. If one goes in, they both go in (pun not intended).

How much revenue does the theater bring to the sex shop?

Employees are hesitant to share specific numbers, but stress that it’s a big moneymaker. If it weren’t, they’d have long ago converted it into more retail space, as the Adult Superstore recently did with its peep-show booths, which weren’t making money anymore.

How many working porn theaters are still around?

Not many. There are very few standalone theaters anymore — two years ago, the L.A. Times reported that there are less than 35 left in the U.S. Most often you find them attached to sex shops.

Are theatergoers the same demographic as the sex shop customers, then?

There seems to be very little crossover — the “regular customers” will buy something in the store once in a while, says Illy, but it’s very infrequent. 

How many customers do they get?

It’s hard to say — at around noon on a weekday when I visited, there were probably five dudes inside. They play films 24 hours a day, and Illy says weekends get a lot busier: Illy’s theater has a capacity of 66 horny people.

How’s licensing work? Are there, like, distributors and rights fees and stuff?

No. The theater owns copies of movies and someone just pushes play. It’s not complicated. 

So are they just putting in a DVD?

They used to, but not anymore. Too much work, doing that 24 hours a day! Now it’s all digitally programmed: They load up 12 hours’ worth of movies at a time.

Do people know (or care) what they’re going to see?

No, it’s whatever the manager chooses to upload. “But they try to choose a good mix of everything,” Illy says.

Okay, tell me about the jizz moppers.

Employees here don’t do any cleanup — the store contracts with a janitorial service. And according to Illy, it’s like OCD-level thorough (spare a thought for that janitor crew). The janitors do eight-hour shifts, during which the theater will get cleaned two to three times. They mop. They wipe everything down. They disinfect. They change the trash can liners. This may be a bit of an outlier, though: Regular customers tell Illy this theater is by far the cleanest in town.

There are off-periods though. The night shift ends at 3 a.m., and between then and the day shift, it can get nasty. In that case, store employees may take care of any paper on the floor, but that’s it. They leave the deep cleaning to the pros, who truly work hard for the money.

So overall it’s… not a bad business?

It still rakes in the cash, apparently! And obviously, frequent customers are the best kinds of customers to have. “I know that it’s a consistent, steady money maker for us, so that’s why they haven’t gotten rid of it yet,” Illy says. “I’ll be standing here [at the counter] and won’t sell a thing for a couple hours, but I’ll still be consistently selling theater tickets that whole time. Even if they stay for two minutes or four hours, we’re still getting $10 from every single person.”

The customers, then, aren’t just suckers paying money to watch porn — they’re paying to indulge their particular kink. They’re paying $10 for a shared, illicit, discreet experience that goes on in dark, questionably clean theaters on the sketchy blocks of many cities, at all hours of the day or night, with the actual movie often secondary to the whole experience. Just remember, though, you’ll need to bring your own popcorn if you want to do the popcorn trick.