When James Franco visited the San Francisco Armory to shoot a small role in a friend’s film, he walked away from the set with a film idea of his own.
For seven years, the Armory has been the home of Kink.com, the world’s most successful BDSM porn production company—and, for Franco, a fascinating subject for a documentary. "I realized immediately that there was something that needed to be captured," he says. "Despite the extreme nature of a lot of the content on their videos, all the participants seemed to be of a team. And the dynamics of sadomasochism that were operating within the context of the videos was not happening behind the scenes." Franco called Christina Voros, a frequent collaborator, and proposed she direct the film with him as producer.
Voros balked at first. "I was trepidatious about the idea of directing something that I couldn’t necessarily relate to, and I think I have my own hang-ups about what pornography was," she says. But she hopped on board when she visited the facilities and realized she knew less about the business of BDSM than she thought she did.
Kink.com was founded in 1997 by Peter Acworth, who started the company out of his Columbia grad school dorm room. Today, it’s a $30 million enterprise with around 130 employees, drawing revenue from online subscription sales. Kink walks you through the company’s administrative offices, which look like any other administrative office—nary a whip or set of handcuffs in sight. Voros takes you into the thick of business meetings, where Acworth discusses stagnating subscription sales and how the proliferation of free porn websites are affecting Kink.com business. In one meeting, he concludes that use of tentacles in a porn video violates the guidelines of their bank loan, which prohibits the website from displaying bestiality.
Kink also follows Kink.com directors as they shoot porn videos—and this is where it got tricky for Voros, who grappled with how graphic to make the film. "At the beginning of the process I remember thinking, ‘How do we handle this and is there ever going to be an audience for this film, considering how graphic the material is?’" She decided to shoot first and ask questions later, all the while adhering to a mantra, "Shoot the people shooting the porn, don’t shoot the porn itself."
When it came time to finally ask those questions in the editing room, Voros didn’t want to scare off non-BDSM viewers with footage that was too explicit, but she also didn’t want to tame scenes to a point that would bore BDSM fans. It was an ongoing negotiation, but Voros ultimately picked footage based on its relevance to the creative process at Kink. In one scene, she films a director in the midst of shooting a "fantasy rape" scenario. It’s bound to make audiences squirm—Voros herself was squeamish and almost assigned another unit to the shoot. In the end, though, she decided to include the scene not for its shock value, but because it showed the BDSM director dealing with an interesting creative struggle.
The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on Saturday and is still looking for a distributor. Voros hopes to sell the film to a mainstream outlet but also acknowledges the sense in using a more discreet distribution model such as VOD. "With Fifty Shades of Grey, part of the reason that book is so popular is because you have the ability to quietly download it onto your eBook," she says. "VOD distribution keeps that space for people who may really want to see this movie but not watch it in front of their roommates or spouse."