Joanna Angel (pictured with husband Aaron Thompson) has operated the brand Burning Angel since 2002.EXPAND
Joanna Angel (pictured with husband Aaron Thompson) has operated the brand Burning Angel since 2002.
Gustavo Turner

Tattooed-Porn Queen Joanna Angel on Why "the Stepbrother" Is Porn's New "Pizza Guy"

“When we launched our website, Burning Angel, in 2002, it was one of the very first porn companies to focus on girls with tattoos," tattooed porn entrepreneur Joanna Angel explains. "The site really took off in 2005, after a lot of DIY marketing. These days it’s pretty common to have girls with tattoos in porn.”

Angel still owns the company, which she runs from her home in the Valley. With her husband, Aaron Thompson (a very successful male porn performer in his own right under the name Small Hands), she casts, writes and directs 24 movies a year. “For distributors to think you’re relevant, you need a steady stream of DVD releases every month. For most companies, that can be anywhere from six to 24. For us it's around two a month,” she says. “We are entrepreneurs. Burning Angel is the biggest smallest company in the industry.”

Angel’s website is still the premier destination for subscribers interested in “Emo, Punk, Goth & Tattoo Porn,” categories under the umbrella term “alt-porn.” In terms of cultural history, both Burning Angel and Joanna Angel as its iconic star are products of the era that produced the Suicide Girls soft-core franchise (launched in 2001), a cultural offshoot of the suburban punk explosion of the mid-1990s. Many of the body art–obsessed, Vans-clad teens who attended the first editions of the Warped Tour became both performers and consumers of this edgier kind of erotic entertainment around the turn of the millennium.

And although its product has been successfully distributed worldwide for more than a decade, Burning Angel is still a small business run by Angel and her husband with energy and ingenuity reflective of their DIY punk roots. Their movies are shot guerrilla-style, with the 30-something couple often starring alongside younger starlets. Thompson, a professional designer before he entered the adult industry, does all the distinctive graphics in-house.

For many years, Burning Angel and its popular website were completely independent. But after the big porn revolution of 2007, when “tubesites” such as PornHub started delivering free, streamable porn scenes to anyone with a web browser, Angel and other small porn producers had to adapt.

“Since our company was so small, we had trouble keeping up with the evolution of streaming technology, and the tubesites were competing with us with faster and better tech,” she explains. Oftentimes PornHub, YouPorn and all the other aggregators were using content that had been taken from the smaller producers and uploaded, allegedly by rogue users.

“We had to seek out a company with a strong handle on the technology and the content delivery,” Angel says. And although she still owns the content she makes and the brand, nowadays if you scroll to the bottom of the website belonging to the company she built — literally, with her body, brain and sweat — you’ll read “burningangel.com is a site owned and operated by Gamma Entertainment.”

Gamma Entertainment, based in Montreal, is one of the new heavy hitters in the worldwide porn industry. Like current behemoth MindGeek (formerly known as ManWin), Gamma started off taking care of the back end of the websites, offering web infrastructure and billing services. Slowly, though, these internet companies started partnering with or outright buying tubesites (MindGeek took over PornHub in 2010) and production companies. More recently, it has started its own production units (think the porn version of the Netflix Originals scenario)

Angel explains how paying customers in middle-America are deciding everyone's porn tastes.EXPAND
Angel explains how paying customers in middle-America are deciding everyone's porn tastes.
Gustavo Turner

A company like Burning Angel still has a few other distribution options outside the internet, but these markets are shrinking yearly. There are VOD services such as AEBN, Gamelink or Hot Movies (porn pay-per-view, basically). There are (still) DVDs, known in the industry as “the tangible product." And there are broadcasting deals in the United States and abroad with networks like Hustler (for people paying through hotel and cable boxes), which still account for a lot of the revenue for independent porn producers.

On average, a small porn movie costs around $10,000 to $20,000 to produce. To recoup the investment, the producers have to maximize the broadcasting deals — and their distribution deals with the big web players.

And if they want to get the attention of these companies (which are also competing with them), smaller outfits like Burning Angel have to pay attention to what the big distributors, and their huge research departments looking at metrics, tell them that paying customers want to watch.

Which explains all the “stepbrother and stepsister porn” you'll find on the internet.

“Look, I don’t have an army of people figuring out what people are clicking on,” Angel says. “But MindGeek probably does. They do a great job in trying to figure out what the customers are demanding.” According to industry lore, MindGeek’s own directors are given highly specific instructions of what categories of scenes to shoot, at which minute they should have the cumshot, etc. MindGeek is rumored to have literally hundreds of people on staff that do nothing but research on its numbers. “My webmaster gives me stats and I look at those, but ultimately I decide what I feel like shooting,” Angel says.

General trends in the industry also help her decide on what categories of porn to bet her limited budgets. “If I see yoga scenes have some traction and I’m stuck for an idea, I will take that idea and make it my own. What the hell, I’ll roll the dice and do a yoga movie! Because I’m the boss, sometimes I say ‘fuck it’ and take a bigger risk.”

Angel says she regularly asks Gamma what's "converting" on her site, referring to the web term for actual engagement with the content (i.e., what’s selling). “I also ask them what’s converting across the board, and then I try to make movies for those categories but with my own twist. For example, if they tell me MILF is big, I’ll do ‘MILFLife Crisis,’ about MILFs losing their minds, getting tattoos, buying a motorcycle, joining a band.”

MILF porn is a pretty tame subgenre, but what happens if what’s “converting” is “family roleplay” (incest fantasies), “interracial” (which in porn often means a large black man and a petite/younger white woman playing up a supposed taboo) or “questionable consent” (an industry euphemism for rape fantasies)?

This is not a hypothetical question. All those categories are very big among people (overwhelmingly male) who pay for porn. “A lot of Trump, middle-America stuff,” Thompson says with a laugh. It’s as if younger, more liberal porn consumers, including many women who watch porn, are not paying for it, and thus are leaving the choosing of what gets produced to an older, male, more conservative, possibly red-state crowd, who are paying customers.

“We don’t do ‘questionable consent,’” Angel says flat out. “But when I’m asked to do ‘stepsister’ or ‘interracial’ scenes, which do convert, I try to do them with a twist.” It helps that Burning Angel’s brand is known for content that's lighthearted, even comedic. Its setups have been compared to early John Waters films. When asked to make a “babysitter” movie, for example, Angel and Thompson came up with Babysitter Auditions, a series where they interview babysitters and it becomes obvious during the interview that they don’t actually have a kid.

For interracial, Angel tries to subvert the typical fantasies about race and taboo that many paying fans demand. For instance, Angel, who is Jewish, starred in Jews Love Black Cock, a modern-day adult riff on Fiddler on the Roof. “I play a matchmaker hired for Jewish sisters whose dad would like them to marry rich Jewish men and it turns out what they really want is — well, I guess the title is a big spoiler!” The fans’ reaction? “People are loving it.”

As for the family roleplay stuff, which is also consistently in demand among those who pay for porn, the industry has found a loophole by having the characters refer to each other as “stepbrother” and “stepsister” (or “stepmother” and “stepson,” etc.) at the beginning and end of each scene.

“Look,” Angel says, “I personally like threesomes. I like to shoot threesomes. But threesomes are expensive, because you’re paying double for the girls. So if I wanna do a threesome scene, it needs to do very well. And if all it takes is to say ‘stepsister’ at the beginning, I’m gonna do it even if it’s silly. I can make a regular porno and just say step-something. I make it deliberately hokey: like My Stepsister and I Share Cock.” (That’s an actual Burning Angel hit movie.)

“Family roleplay is also cost-effective!” she laughs “It takes place in a house, with people in normal clothing. No costumes or green screen needed. It’s relatable, like a mainstream sitcom.”

“In the old pornos, they had the plumber or the pizza guy,” Thompson says.

“Stepbrother and stepsister are basically the new pizza guy!” Angel adds.

But even pandering to what “converts” with the paying porn public might not be enough to survive as a DIY porn brand in 2017. Angel has known for a while that the key to staying afloat is diversification. Besides the obligatory sex-toy deals, she endorses a male enhancement supplement called Bone Master; she also recently started directing for Penthouse and she has a book coming out in February with Cleis Press (Night Shift, a choose-your-own-adventure erotic novel). The couple also just launched Doom’s, a 100-proof rye whiskey that is Thompson’s labor of love.

“Pornographers are not evil people,” Angel concludes. “Everyone that is there, in my opinion, wants to be there. We’re trying to stay in business like everyone else. The problems we have are by and large the problems that musicians in their mid-30s I know who are in bands are having.”

But porn producers have an extra challenge. “The people who watch porn and whine about what they don’t like in porn,” Angel says, “they don’t pay for it. They’re not voicing their opinion where it counts. Go buy the porn you wanna see.”

“And I myself,” she adds, “have never met a pornographer who actually wanted to have sex with their stepmom!”

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