When Porn Was King

Believe it or not, there was a time when pornographic film did pretty good business in theaters. Yes, in theaters. From 1972 until 1983, they accounted for 16% of total box office receipts in the United States. Deep Throat, the first hard-core film to become a cross-over hit with mainstream audiences, grossed $1 million its first seven weeks in theaters in 1972. It made a then-record $3 million in its first six months of release and was still listed among the top 10 highest-grossing films by Variety 48 weeks after its release. Deep Throat and Beyond the Green Door made Linda Lovelace and Marilyn Chamber, their respective stars, household names. Both films were the first of their type to reach a mass, mixed-gender audience. Some of the major hits, like Deep Throat and Beyond the Green Door, migrated from porn theaters to mainstream theaters and the term “porn-chic” was born.

In 1973, The Devil in Miss Jones made Variety‘s list of the top ten highest-grossing pictures of the year, and Deep Throat, in its second year of release just missed the top 10, coming in at #11. The Devil in Miss Jones racked up box office receipts of $7.7 million for the year, coming in just below Roger Moore’s Bond entry Live and Let Die and Peter Bogdanovich’s Paper MoonDeep Throat  grossed $4.6 million for the year, placing it ahead of Joseph Mankiewicz’s Sleuth, which featured stars Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine.

Hollywood was smarting. For as much as they like to pretend they take the highroad, the money being made from these films was too good for them to just say, “whatever.” Organized crime stepped in. Anthony Peraino helped develop pornography into one of organized crime’s biggest moneymakers. The Peraino family financed and produced the most profitable pornographic film of all time — Deep Throat, starring the first porn star ever, Linda Lovelace.

The trend of pornographic films going mainstream in neighborhood theaters was slowed by the Supreme Court’s 1973 Miller vs. California decision, which redefined obscenity from that of “utterly without socially redeeming value” to that which lacks “serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value”.  Behind the Green Door‘s producers were twice prosecuted for obscenity and the film was banned in California, Colorado, and Georgia.

Instead of Hollywood dabbling in porn, independent producers tried their hands and produced a few hits, among them Alice in Wonderland:  An X-Rated Musical Comedy.  As well, a popular trend in the mid-70s was putting “hardcore inserts” into B-grade European films. Usually, these were sex films that an American distributor had re-edited with shots of actual sexual acts, usually not the original performers, spliced in. Why? Supposedly, it sold.

Then came home video and people didn’t have to watch their guilty pleasures with strangers, saying, of course, you went there just to watch the film. This was the second era of porn, more of what could be termed the “guilty pleasure era”. The introduction of home video also introduced the American public to films that skirt the line between softcore and hardcore. Directors such as Joe Sarno, Radley Metzger, Jess Franco and Joe D’Amato, freely jumped back and forth between softcore and hardcore. As well, traditional porn film benefitted from a massive explosion of revenue.