Why Pornhub’s Original Movies Like ‘Shakedown’ Could Win Oscars in the Future

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Why Pornhub’s Original Movies Like ‘Shakedown’ Could Win Oscars in the Future

Pornhub Vice President Corey Price would like to thank the Academy, or so he jokes, when I ask him if his popular purveyor of adult entertainment could ever win the most prestigious award in film. Academy Award-winning production company Pornhub has a strange ring to it, but it’s not completely asinine. Last week Pornhub, the crown jewel in MindGeek’s portfolio of pornographic websites, announced it would distribute its first non-adult film. It’s a documentary called Shakedown from filmmaker and artist Leilah Weinraub that follows the world of “black lesbian stripper culture.” After it streams for the month of March on Pornhub, the film will move to the well-respected Criterion Channel, where it will be available on demand.

The specialized subject matter and Weinraub’s high-end artistic approach to the documentary have all the qualities film critics like to associate with prestige. Adding to that sense of cinematic cache is the Criterion stamp of approval. The Criterion Collection has emerged in the past 40 years or so as a litmus test of legitimacy. Criterion is a film licensing company, but it also curates a collection of premiere films: titles like Citizen Kane, Singin in the Rain, and Ghostbusters. To be included in the company’s slate of films indicates a certain level of esteem, and Shakedown is going to be shown on the Criterion Channel. Combine Criterion’s inclusion of Weinraub’s documentary with its artistic approach and niche subject matter, and Shakedown sounds like the type of film poised to pique the interest of cinemaphiles, but that p-word—Pornhub—sure seems like an anomaly in that list of ingredients.

Sure, Pornhub has featured titles like Step Sis ‘Why Are You Always Trying To Fuck My Friends?’ Bet Winning, Morning Wood, and Finally I Fucked My Best Friend on its homepage. But the site also makes a strong case for how it could morph into a streaming giant. That’s not just a comparison of numbers—film industry experts told me that Pornhub’s current position is similar to where Netflix and HBO were just before they became purveyors of prestige content. HBO, the premium cable channel with naughty nighttime content in the early ’90s, was nominated for 137 Emmys in 2019 alone. Netflix, initially a glorified Blockbuster, is now an Academy Award-winning distributor and regular award season contender. In 2013, Netflix announced that it had passed HBO in reach, with 44 million subscribers. In 2019, Pornhub had 115 million visitors… per day. Pornhub has the statistics on its side to be a streaming giant. Now it faces a revenue and brand hurdle, if it wants to move into the echelons of streaming greats to someday be an actual award contender.

In some ways, Pornhub and Netflix have a lot in common. Long before each company got into the market of curating original material, both Netflix and Pornhub focused in on a specific type of content distribution. For Netflix, it was a collection of films, digitally or physically at your disposal. For Pornhub, it’s, well, porn. Netflix in its younger days, used its massive platform to debut prestige television and original content. Pornhub’s distribution of Shakedown, seemingly mirrors this strategy. However, because it has a steeper hill to climb toward legitimacy, Pornhub is smart in leveraging a partnership with the well-respected Criterion Channel.

Though appearing on Criterion Channel and having an artistic angle certainly doesn’t hurt, film experts don’t particularly think that Pornhub has to aim for prestige. There are niche gaps the porn site could fill as well. University of Southern California professor, J.D. Connor, who focuses much of his work on the industry of Hollywood, told me that if Pornhub managed to get into the space of curated adult content, it could thrive. HBO and Cinemax helped bring adult content to the mainstream in the ’80s with late night, curated features too risqué for primetime audiences. Connor believes Pornhub could potentially emulate that model. “Cinemax became a distributor of what was, in the U.S., usually just called soft-core,” he says. “There was a kind of sense that it was both sexually explicit and somehow vetted: the sort of thing you would expect to find on Cinemax. If Pornhub can offer a kind of vetted version of that then there’s no reason why they couldn’t be part of [the film industry].”

Shakedown isn’t an adult film, though, which shows where Pornhub’s headspace is at. “While we will always be known as an adult entertainment company, our collaborations with artists and visionaries like Leilah Weinraub help us penetrate verticals beyond the adult entertainment content we’re known for,” Price says. In that way, Pornhub faces a 21st century-version of HBO’s branding hurdle in the early ’90s. With an established racy reputation, could a company literally called Pornhub make its way into the fray? Pornhub’s viewers in 2019 eclipse HBO’s numbers, even today. Even with HBO’s 54 million subscribers, Pornhub shadows HBO’s numbers with double that number in daily viewers. The distinction should be made though: a viewer is not a subscriber, and that’s part of the problem with gauging Pornhub’s legitimacy as a potential film streamer. While numbers around viewership are public, subscription numbers to Pornhub premium are private.

Laura Dern and Netflix Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos attend the 2020 Netflix Oscar After Party at San Vicente Bugalows on February 09, 2020 in West Hollywood, California.

Charley Gallay

If the site were to house films under its premium membership, which currently goes for $9.99 a month, it might be to its advantage to keep those numbers secret. Connor suggests that consumers are less likely to cancel subscriptions to services like Netflix or HBO, while premium subscriptions to Pornhub might be a bit more of a “shame flag” for consumers. Whether it’s warranted or not, that “PORNHUB” charge on a credit card statement is a bit more glaring than HBO, even in HBO’s racier days. A one-time charge might be explainable, but as Connor says, “There are teenagers with first credit cards that do this. I would imagine, there are people who are out of town who say, I’ll just do it once and then apologize when the record shows up.” No matter the content, Pornhub’s namesake comes with its own perspective hurdle.

Ultimately, that hypothetically means that Pornhub could come up with a new business model—one rooted less in monthly subscriptions and more on individual titles. While the conversations about what “is and isn’t cinema” continues on, for a company to stay afloat, it just needs revenue. The “churn rate,” or metric on how regularly a subscriber/visitor leaves a site, isn’t great for Pornhub. But that doesn’t particularly mean its revenue is bad. Netflix made $20.16 billion in revenue last year, but in 2013, it was closer to $4.375 billion. The last revenue number that MindGeek, Pornhub’s parent company, reported publicly was about $460 million in 2015, and from Connor’s knowledge, most media companies he’s aware of have doubled that number in the past five years. That puts Pornhub on track to be in the ballpark with other streaming juggernauts.

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A scene from Shakedown, Pornhub’s first non-adult original film.

Pornhub

Pornhub also has the benefit of owning so much of its supply chain: the company not only distributes a huge fraction of online adult videos, but it creates them as well through production arms like Brazzers. That is an advantage that HBO and Netflix didn’t have in its early years. There’s really no reason that those studios couldn’t also create non-adult centric films. But the insular nature of MindGeek, a Canadian company that conducts much of its business internationally, makes it even more mysterious when it comes to assessing how well it would fare in the film space. Without regular reporting from MindGeek, it’s unclear just how similar MindGeek and Pornhub’s situation is to that of its streaming contemporaries.

So for now, maybe Pornhub’s focus is best geared toward moving public perception of its brand and less about what a monthly movie subscription service might look like. A good start is tackling the types of films that still may be too big of a risk for other distributors. While the term “black lesbian stripper culture” might have made more conservative production companies twitch a bit, Price knew it belonged on Pornhub, noting, “There’s nothing to shy away from with Shakedown–while it is a work of art, Leilah’s work documents real stories and essential queer history.”

The company is unbothered when it comes to how its reputation is being perceived. “We are already active in the film curation space,” Price states. “Through our Visionaries Director’s Club, which features debut films by unexpected guest directors to increase the diversity in porn production and content types, and collaborations like with Shakedown, we can really amplify the great work of boundary-breaking artists and directors.” Those woke-adjacent initiatives make a good name for Pornhub, whose perception battles range from small-porn ownership to, potentially, cinematic legitimacy.

But Connor contends that Pornhub is already making the right moves, “The move into direct distribution is backstopped by a substantial claim that this is not just spank material. In this case, the fact that it’s going to go from PornHub to Criterion in a month, just is like the savviest play, right?” As Pornhub continues looking at collaborations that make sense, don’t be stunned if Pornhub emerges as a distributor of smart, albeit niche cinema. Maybe that doesn’t set up Pornhub for an Academy Award soon, but Price likes the prospect of it. “It would be incredible to hold our annual Pornhub Awards one month, and be nominated at a mainstream award show the next.”

Justin Kirkland is a writer for Esquire, where he focuses on entertainment, television, and pop culture.

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