by Rich Moreland, November 2013
This is the first of a two-part series on Girlfriends Films one of Porn Valley’s most popular studios.
Driving to the Girlfriends Films facility in Valencia is a hike but well worth the effort. Like the company’s industry leading product, the building is bright and pristine with an honesty that is a true reflection of its owner, Dan O’Connell.
The people who work in adult film are generally quite receptive to guests. At the 2013 Adult Entertainment Expo (AEE) in Las Vegas, I met Dan and immediately felt welcomed into the Girlfriends’ world. This unassuming October day proves no different.
Dan gives my photographer Bill and me a quick tour. The upstairs contains his office and those of the editors. White is the predominant color, the feeling is crisp and streamlined. Spotted around the massive hallway are old movie posters, an engaging artistic touch. Dan has an appreciation for film history, particularly the old days of the B-grade exploitation flicks of the 1930s and 40s.
“Shooting is the best part of the business,” Dan says. He does less now than ever due to director B. Skow, who has come on board recently.
“He’s doing a boy/girl every month,” Dan says of the company’s newest addition, adding that Girlfriends has a steady monthly output of five girl/girls. At least two of those are now in B. Skow’s territory. I’m guessing that’s the balance needed to please the buying public without over saturating the market.
The editors’ offices are opposite a bank of windows that extends the length of the floor. Editors are sensitive to light, we’re told, controlling it is vital to their work. The main editor, Dave, along with the business’s marketing guru Moose, keeps Dan up and running. We drop in his office.
Before storing content, Dave’s job is to do a write-up on the film and code it for identification within Girlfriends’ “database system,” Dan explains. Dave finishes off the movies with the other editors, putting the film into a DVD format complete with titles, trailers, and the like. The content is then ready for distribution and sales.
Despite this massive warehouse and office complex, the company maintains a storage vault in Hollywood. If an earthquake damaged this facility, Dan could lose everything, similar to the risk a computer user faces if the hard drive crashes and data is not backed up, a sort of technological earthquake.
There is a lot of film. Each four-hour shoot yields forty-five minutes of content using one pair of girls. Add a second twosome and the time needed expands to six hours. All this effort expended for two scenes with the typical DVD containing four intimate episodes, all with the same storyline. And remember, Girlfriends has thousands of shoots.
Though the shooting process is exact, developing new ideas for content is another matter. It “gets more difficult because you’ve expired your fantasies,” Dan says. Despite writer’s block Dan might suffer, Girlfriends’ central theme gives him a starting point for new scripts. It’s about “the girl who is the predator and the girl who is seduced,” he points out.
Is it a formula? Dan doesn’t think so, but concedes it could be viewed that way. He tries to vary the circumstances within the film, but remains resolute on what he wants to portray. Characters must be explored, who they are and how they meet, he explains. Going from there, Dan elaborates, the script accentuates the Girlfriends’ theme, “have they known each other before and how does that predator give that girl the first kiss?”
In other words, it’s about developing a girl’s larger reality beyond just a sex act, asking the question who is she and how does her on-screen presence support the sex she is having? The key is intimacy, a theme that is often lost in pornography. By the way, Dan’s philosophy reflects a feminist approach to adult film and separates Girlfriends from the majority of porn companies.
Dave talks about the Girlfriends’ philosophy.
“Dan shoots specifically to let the girls go with the flow,” he says. The performers will have real orgasms and that buys customers. It’s Dan’s “magic potion” for success, Dave tells us.
Of course, it also lightens an editor’s task. Dave never has to rework scenes “to contrive the story.” Rather, he wants the viewer to feel like “a fly on the wall” and uses “suspension of disbelief” to describe the experience. “You want the viewer to believe they are in the room,” he explains. This type of editing is not the same as just telling a story. It’s a kind of authentic voyeurism that dissolves the shooter’s presence.
Perception makes it work. “The girls do what they’d do if they were in their own bedroom,” the editor explains. The narrative “comes in the set up and that’s between each scene.” In other words, it’s all about real sex and using it to massage the viewer’s interpretation of what is seen and felt. Think of it as unrestrained spontaneity, a distinguishing characteristic of the Girlfriends product.
Dan affirms that bona fide filmed sex means interruptions on the set are kept to a minimum. This includes stopping the action to shoot stills, a habit of some companies. Also there is no interference from the crew, unlike the gonzo genre in which the cameraman might take part in the filming.
Girlfriends’ pairs models “who want to work together” because that puts real orgasms on the agenda, Dan explains. But pairing is just the beginning. Gaining a rapport with performers is a necessity. For example, Dan likes them to share a bathroom when they are getting dressed so “they have time to meet each other.” Unfortunately, success is not one hundred percent. A girl who is reticent about having sex with the other girl in the scene is probably “one and done,” Dan says, because attitude is the energy of the shoot.
Calm them down
Most pornographers have a commonality. The type of film they produce appeals to their sexual tastes. Eroticism is brain based, of course, and everyone has a fetish of some sort. To watch it come alive can be an exciting experience and storing it on a DVD likewise rewarding, not to mention profitable.
Most filmmakers say they care about their performers, but at times I’ve heard otherwise. Never has an unpleasant word about Dan or his company come my way. He treats everyone with respect, especially new models whose nerves might get the best of them.
“We have a lot of girls who aren’t that experienced,” Dan says. The atmosphere surrounding the shoot makes a difference. “If I was having sex [on camera],” Dan adds, “I would want people there who were actually working.”
Models can become uncomfortable on a set that buzzes with unnecessary activity and gawkers can be disruptive to a performer. Of course, that doesn’t include every performer, particularly a veteran..
Dan brings up Dana DeArmond. She’s a shooter’s dream girl because her level of experience is rare in the business. “You could put an auditorium full of people in the room and she’d be ok,” Dan says. The tall brunette is not going to get rattled; she’s seen it all and is a true professional.
Understand that Dana DeArmond is porn gold. She thinks of herself as a mother figure around younger models, priceless for newbies when negotiating their way through a shoot. Dana on set opens up all performers to become involved in the sex.
To get what he wants and create a homey feel, Dan limits his film crews to three. Among them is the tall, bespectacled, Sabrina. On this day, she’s collecting trash from the offices. Dan introduces us.
Having a female shooter is important because performers’ nerves get tense. Sabrina reinforces what Dan says: she’s there to “calm them down.” Her warm smile does the trick. She laughs about being a jack of all trades for a small company. “I do everything,” Sabrina says, remarking that she’s in the warehouse during the workweek and often on weekends.
In our brief conversation, Sabrina tells us she is from the DC metro area. I’ll add her to the list of Washington transplants I’ve met in the adult film industry. A touch of home is comforting . . .
With roominess an understatement, the lower level storage space has a newly minted, clean, efficient feel. Dan points out stacks of boxes that belong to a neighbor in the warehouse complex, a producer of food flavoring. A sweet deal for his fellow entrepreneur because moving around in this downstairs area is more than convenient.
Dan gives us a walk through, pointing out boxes of DVDs and scores of box covers. “We package them as we need them,” he says. Sort of like print-on-demand books, I suggest. Girlfriends’ hires out the cover designs and supplies an independent contractor with photos and script summaries. Incidentally the artist is female, quite natural for the company, I thought.
The demand for the Girlfriends’ product is high. Even their earliest work still sells on VOD (video on demand).
But Dan can’t do it all and fondly remembers the days when VHS was the market. With today’s internet and the variety of entertainment formats that cater to pornography, running a company and producing a viable product “just gets more expensive and more difficult,” Dan comments. But he isn’t alone. He has help from two names in the business that are worth a South African diamond mine: Moose and B. Skow.
“Extremely bright and very loyal” is Dan’s description of Moose, an imposing guy on the underside of forty. He has a no nonsense amiability that commands attention while remaining warmly endearing.
Moose is the best in the business at what he does, Dan explains, emphasizing Moose’s “official job” of marketing and sales. Moose does it all with an efficiency that impresses his boss. “I don’t know how the guy accomplishes everything he does,” Dan says.
The challenges of physical activity and a sense of competition have shaped Moose, who is a former firefighter and volleyball player. Working under pressure and paying attention to detail are his fortes. The native Californian’s experience in running his own EMT company and working on “Monster Garage” as the safety officer shaped the kind of management skills that profits Dan. Landing at Girlfriends was almost by accident. Meeting Dan at the 2007 AEE led to a job offer and secured Moose’s place among the porn’s recognized executives. Today he is the company’s vice-president.*
B. Skow’s move to Girlfriends from Vivid Entertainment was a noteworthy industry change. Directing for Vivid meant some restraint as to what he could shoot and B. Skow sought a greater level of artistic freedom. “Here we let him do his own thing,” Dan says, “I don’t review his stories, what girls he’s going to use, what he’s going to do,” though Dan does tell his newest director how many movies the company needs each month. Paying B. Skow the richest of compliments, Dan says the director pulls the maximum out of his performers in a shooting day that can be grueling.
What makes B. Skow special is his comfort level in taking on controversial subjects and handling them respectfully. Dan mentions a B. Skow film in which a girl with leg braces is portrayed as sexual and successful in her pursuit of the girl she wants. Porn involving the disabled can be dicey.
“Dan has this freedom that he allows,” B. Skow says, “they trust me and have never pushed me in any way to do this or that.” Studying the Girlfriend’s product was the director’s first move before venturing to make his signature boy/girl films, ground breakers for Dan’s company. A recent success, Southern Hospitality, B. Skow characterizes as a “fun, crazy movie.”
Our time in B. Skow’s office, where we found him working on his computer, is brief. I’ve heard so much about his talents, meeting him was a rewarding finish to our tour.
Heading back to downtown LA, a story Dave told sticks in my mind.
Mentioning what keeps him working at Girlfriends, Dave remembers Dan canceling a meeting for three days when a girl got sick. He needed to be available for her in the hospital. “How many thousands did he lose by doing that?” Dave remarked. “Most people would just say, ‘you’re on your own,’ and just take off.”
Dan is “a friend as much as a director,” Dave says.
That takes heart. It’s the soul of Girlfriends Films.
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* My thanks to Dan Miller of XBiz for permission to use material from his article on Moose, “Executive Seat: Takin’ Care of Business” (January, 2011).