11 November 2013
Tony de Sergio
In the spring of last year, as the twin titans of Gangnam Style and Kony 2012 proved beyond the shadow of a doubt that mainstream culture is now defined exclusively by those with a half-decent understanding of online cultural mores, one of the world’s largest porn studios had its servers compromised by a small hacker collective known as The Consortium. That studio’s name — Digital Playground — took on a cruelly ironic new significance as hackers romped freely through their files, gaining access to the usernames, passwords and credit card details of 72,000 DP customers, as well as the internal e-mails and conference calls of the company’s employees. The Consortium even replaced Digital Playground’s landing page with a lengthy screed detailing their triumph over the studio’s antiquated security system in playful but unrepentant terms: after reproducing an e-mail from DP’s I.T. guy, suggesting that the company upgrade its servers to a new Adobe interface, the hackers furnished the studio with a list of 21 bootleg license keys.
And then came the porn. The Consortium leaked more than fifty files, some of them trailers for forthcoming Digital Playground releases, some of them the movies themselves. In many ways, this was the greatest insult. In an age of globally dominant Porn 2.0 sites like RedTube and PornHub, the studio has positioned itself, somewhat uniquely, against the tide. DP releases are uniformly upmarket, defined by high-end production values and more importantly, total exclusivity. Access is limited to online subscribers (who pay a hefty £29.99/month subscription fee) and a dwindling crowd of physical media porn consumers, who can expect to pay roughly the same amount for a single disc. So for The Consortium to throw even a handful of Digital Playground titles online for free was more than embarrassing — it was a dilution of the company’s primary selling point.
Like all great artists, Digital Playground have channeled this misfortune into their work, and will this week release Hacked, a feature-length cautionary tale on the perils of lackluster internet security, starring Kayden Kross and the Village Voice’s ‘Prettiest Girl in New York’, Stoya. In the film, Kross plays a go-getting young office worker — also named Kayden — at an identikit Californian workplace. With a promotion in the offing from the company’s demanding chief executive Giovanni, tensions rise between Kayden and her colleague Stoya, with both eager to earn the boss’s favour. In a reflection of today’s harsh corporate environment, Stoya is quick to resort to underhand tactics to secure the promotion, hacking into Kayden’s social networking accounts to send a barrage of salacious messages to co-workers and friends, thereby sabotaging her prospects at the company.
If the premise seems torn from some doomy tabloid article on the evils of the internet, the film itself has similar preoccupations. Kayden’s suffering at the hands of her more tech-savvy colleagues (both Stoya and a skeezy I.T. guy who colludes in her diabolical scheme in exchange for sexual favours) soon sends her spiraling into a Polanski-esque psychological breakdown, as she loses the promotion, her boyfriend and her job all in the space of an afternoon. In the world of Hacked, the internet isn’t just a dangerous place, it’s a sinister, abstract villain that knows where you live and isn’t afraid to hit you there.
The Digital Playground brand hasn’t always been so technophobic. Its vocal support of Blu-ray technology in 2006 (at a time when most mainstream movie studios were still declaring HD-DVD to be the superior home entertainment format) was a key factor in deciding the HD format war. They also moved faster than their competitors into developing streaming, 3D and tablet-based porn technologies. In fact, technical trailblazing has long been company policy — as far back as 1998, Digital Playground released the first ever interactive porn film: the pixel-tastic Virtual Sex with Jenna Jameson, available only on CD-ROM.
One aspect of Digital Playground that isn’t so future-proof, however, is their mode of production. The studio specialises in what’s loosely known as “couples’ porn” — classy, vanilla, reasonably gender-neutral erotica, featuring a story you can follow along with if that’s your pornographic cup of tea. In Hacked, each sex scene lasts around fifteen minutes, and follows a fairly strict set menu of carnal pleasures. Once the characters are introduced (tenuously, it must be said, for a movie so concerned with narrative) the camera pulls back to a tasteful wide shot, which is then maintained for the remainder of the scene. Cunnilingus begets fellatio, fellatio begets spooning, spooning begets doggy-style, and doggy-style finally begets cumshot, all of which plays out in deathly silence as the performers strive to stay in character at the expense of passion, spontaneity and general plausibility. In fairness, one of the more proficient couples does deviate briefly from the routine with an attempt at standing sex, but only after it’s been tediously established that they’re doing so within a safe, loving, and most importantly, committed relationship.
This easily palatable brand of pornography hasn’t changed much since the so-called Golden Age of Porn in the 1970s, when movies like Deep Throat had theatrical runs in mainstream cinemas and racked up box office receipts in the tens of millions. But while Digital Playground’s movies might be indistinguishable from those made forty years ago, mainstream porn tastes are not. Where once such films could pack out 1000-seat venues and garner reviews in the New Yorker, now they’re relegated to specialist DVD stores, and hidden away behind online paywalls. In 1972, Linda Lovelace was a pop cultural icon. In 2013, most people don’t even know the names of the people they masturbate to. (Of RedTube’s ten most viewed videos of all time, only one contains a named star.)
That might not be a problem if Digital Playground was willing to reposition itself as a rarefied niche in the porn industry, there to satisfy consumers disillusioned with modern pornographic trends, but instead the company clings to the kind of USPs that only a large, mainstream audience can support — namely a raft of contract performers (what is this, 1930s Hollywood?) and a tendency to put huge budgets behind its films. DP’s 2008 high seas epic Pirates II: Stagnetti’s Revenge remains the highest budgeted porn film of all time, at $8 million. Hacked, while a considerably more modest proposition, must also have outstripped the average porn budget by a factor of ten. Even the film’s fleeting exterior shots look more like cutaways from House of Cards than images from a 21st Century porn film.
In the words of porn star du jour James Deen, ‘as far as making visually stimulating erotic cinema, Digital Playground’s pretty much the best.’ Also in the words of Deen, ‘personally, I hate it.’
Of course, I wouldn’t wish to malign the sexual appetites of an avid Digital Playground customer any more than I would those of an insatiable patron of scat porn, or a foot fetish enthusiast. If anything, I’m just concerned about their ability to access such material five or ten years down the line. Because while most specialist pornographers have embraced the changing tide of technology — working with small budgets and low production values to suit the climate of the internet — Digital Playground continues to treat its films like blockbusters, without making any efforts to prepare its business model for the future. The company only has 31,000 followers on Twitter, while some of its fellow studios have close to half a million. ‘Retweet if you have great sex’, they recently instructed their audience. Seven users and a spambot obliged.
In the final scene of Hacked, a newly-promoted Stoya wreaks one final act of cruelty upon Kayden, sending her a break-up text under the guise of Kayden’s boyfriend Bill. In keeping with the film’s laughably inauthentic depiction of modern technology, the message bounces energetically across the screen as though to sarcastically underline its malicious content. Dejected, Kayden sits alone in a San Fernando Valley parking lot, the hopeless victim of a modern world that’s finally left her behind.