Can St. Louis Be the San Fernando Valley of Amateur Porn? These Guys Think So.

Categories: Longform
Studio Torno
Sam Arcobasso planned on making a career of kicking ass — not filming it.

A competitive kickboxer since his early teens, he won a couple of lightweight titles and eventually turned pro. Yet after just a few years, the sport was taking its toll on his body. Sam had already suffered several concussions when he woke up two years ago with a pinched nerve. He could have continued training and tried to make a career out of kickboxing, but the constant pain made him reconsider his career goals.

"I just got tired of waking up and feeling like I was in my forties," says the now-22-year-old. "But I didn't want to be in some office doing a nine-to-five. That's just not me."

Sam wanted a career where he could be his own boss, make his own schedule and wouldn't need a lot of initial capital. Porn was the answer.

"It just seemed like it's in high demand, and the competition around here is slim to none," Sam explains. "So it seemed like an easy business to get into."

But if Sam was about to make porn, he'd need somebody who knew his way around a camera. So he put an ad on Craigslist looking for a filmmaker willing to make adult films. Corey, a freelance photographer who often checks the site for jobs, came across the ad and didn't know what to think of it. It sounded intriguing, but...

"It's not exactly something I can put in my portfolio," explains Corey, who asked that Riverfront Times not use his last name for fear that it might affect his commercial photography work. (Editor's note: It has come to our attention that some readers are concluding that the Corey in this article is Corey Woodruff, a freelance photographer who frequently contributes to Riverfront Times. The two Coreys are not the same.)

A month later Corey saw the ad again and decided to respond. After a few emails, he met Sam for the first time.

"He wasn't a creepy old guy like I assumed," Corey says. "He wasn't a creepy young guy like I kind of assumed after I figured out he wasn't old. I was like, 'Yeah, sure. You seem like a fairly level-headed guy — not in this to be a fucking weirdo. I'm down. Why not? Let's make some money.'"

The newbies started by doing their homework online, entering search terms into Google such as "how to make pornos legally" and "how to get into the porn business."

Legality, as it turns out, is not much of a problem. Provided the performers are over the age of eighteen and are not coerced, having sex on camera for money is generally considered protected speech by the Supreme Court. As for pointers on getting into the industry, they found all their answers — and more — on the website of Homegrown Video, the self-described "pioneers of amateur porn since 1982."

In addition to buying and hosting homemade adult films, Homegrown Video also provides its filmmakers with business contracts and model-release forms. The site even offers filming tips on everything from how to use the zoom lens to when to kill the camera. "Don't just cut after the pop shot," reads one such instruction on the company's website. "We want to see the post sex glow. These after sex reality moments are priceless, and you miss them by shutting the camera off too soon after the pop."

To get around copyright issues, Homegrown Video asks its producers not to add music to their clips, so there's no need to edit in that stereotypical porno bass guitar. Additionally, Homegrown Video doesn't require that the actors in its films have sexy good looks. They don't need foot-long penises or DD breasts, either. In fact, ordinary folk is just what it's after (though the company might pay a bit more for the next Ron Jeremy or Jenna Jameson).

Homegrown Video is what Dan Miller, executive managing editor of adult-film trade pub Xbiz, calls a "legacy company." By taking user-submitted films and paying for them, the site puts out a large volume of videos that truly are amateur pornos.

"They've been very successful in their niche because they've identified something that was a strength of theirs and they stuck with it," Miller says. "Other companies market themselves as first-time performers, not 'professional' talent. But as far as soliciting home movies and accepting them and releasing them, they're the only ones doing that."

RFT file photo
Doin' it old school: '90s Lake St. Louis amateur-erotica pioneers Tom and Suzi Wahl.
Homegrown Video's amateur content also lets it circumvent industry formalities. For example, when an HIV scare temporarily shut down the big California studios last year, Homegrown Video kept on humming.

"True amateur porn, the kind that Homegrown Video was founded on, comes from people who are typically in very committed relationships, people who are not having sex with every other person in Porn Valley, USA," Homegrown Video president Farrell Timlake said at the time. "For them, the transmission of any sort of STDs is not an issue."

(Sam and Corey ask their actors to get checked at a free clinic beforehand and bring the document to the shoot.)

And while it's no guarantee that Homegrown Video will buy any of their films, Sam and Corey say they've yet to be turned down. The two each keep a third of the proceeds from the sale of their films and divide the rest among the actors. Girl-on-girl videos pay between $300 and $600. Male-female videos fetch $400 to $700, with a $50 for each bonus "cumshot."

"But the real money is in orgy scenes," Sam says. Five or more people having sex in one film can fetch $1,300 to $2,000. "As soon as we can get enough people together, we're gonna do one."

To be sure, Sam and Corey's STL Adult Films isn't the first amateur porno outfit to hit St. Louis. In the 1990s a Lake Saint Louis couple — Tom and Suzi Wahl — made a name for themselves when police raided their house after hearing about them filming and distributing their homemade porn flicks. (No charges were ever filed.) And more recent user-submitted adult videos made in St. Louis can be found online with a few select search terms. But, for the most part, locally made pornos are nearly impossible to find.

"Everything we get is made on the coasts. We don't get anything made in the Midwest," says Steve Kleinhan, owner of adult store Pure Pleasure. "Normally, stuff made in the Midwest isn't as hardcore as what's on the coasts. I've never even heard of anybody making anything here, other than some amateur stuff."

Sam and Corey want to change that. Yes, their films feature amateur actors, but they try to make the finished product as polished as possible. They set up lighting. They have a hair and makeup artist on call.

"A lot of amateur porn is really amateur," Corey says. "You have pornos where a guy basically just sets up a camcorder on a tripod and has sex with his girlfriend. Our videos aren't like that. We make professional porn with amateur actors."

And Corey does his best trying to make the amateur actors perform like professionals. It's not always easy. Corey recalls having to cut a doggy-style scene because the male actor had bum knees. He's had other actors bow out because they got a charley horse during a more acrobatic performance. Still, at the end of the day, Corey says directing the rookies can be just as rewarding as filming them.

"It kind of does bring a little bit of joy trying to tell people how to fuck like porn stars," he says. "You feel like you've done something with your day instructing them how to have better sex."

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