John Stagliano is equal parts artist and economist. This unique blend provided the foundation of his Evil Angel empire. For the first six years of his career as a pornographic director in the mid-1980s, Stagliano produced films for companies who often didn’t even bother to list his name on the box cover. While this upset his artist sensibilities, it was his training as an economist that saw a new way to sell films.
“The structure of Evil Angel was something that I conceived of as a better way to incentivize directors to make a good product. I didn’t want to own the product I sold. I wanted the director to be vested in making a better product.”
Stagliano launched Evil Angel in 1988. Instead of hiring contract performers, Evil Angel focused on recruiting and branding a stable of directors whose films they distributed. Because directors would finance, produce, control, and own their films, they were more invested in producing quality films. As a result of Stagliano’s vision, Evil Angel has become the premier distributor for edgy, hardcore content. The list of directors who have worked for the company reads like a catalogue of adult industry legends: Belladonna, Dana Vespoli, Sean Michaels, Manuel Ferrara, Nacho Vidal, Lexington Steele, James Deen, Christoph Clark, Kevin Moore, Jonni Darkko, and Mike Adriano.
In college, Stagliano studied English, journalism, engineering, theater, playwriting, and dance before majoring in economics at UCLA. In the early 1970s, Stagliano dabbled in writing erotic fiction, nude modeling, and acting in hardcore 8mm loops. Then, in 1979 he began a four-year run as a Chippendales dancer while he did economics research during the day. In 1983 Stagliano invested his savings in producing his first pornographic film, “Bouncing Buns.” For the next six years, he directed 40 movies for other companies before founding Evil Angel in 1989. That first year, he produced 11 films, including “Adventures of Buttman.” Employing a POV technique new to porn, the film is largely credited with sparking the gonzo porn revolution. It’s not surprising then that gonzo has become the trademark style of Evil Angel in its near three decades of existence.
I caught up with Stagliano to discuss his Evil Empire at the 2017 AVN Awards in Las Vegas.
Alfie: What lessons did you take from your years of studying economics that served you well in porn?
Stagliano: I had a sales manager tell me once, "John, your product is really good. I think we should raise the price and we will sell more." I was like, ‘Every law of economics says that you won’t sell more. If you raise the price, you will sell less.’ It’s little things like that, and being able to see through common fallacies… For instance, people will look at one incidence and exaggerate its importance in terms of the probably of that anomaly happening again. Economics has given me perspective.
Alfie: Is there anything about the adult industry that goes against standard economic theory?
Stagliano: Not really. It’s just human behavior. If the economics are accurate, it applies to all people and human behavior. Although I just read, “The Undoing Project,” by Michael Lewis that talks about how people don’t always behave rationally.
Alfie: You studied journalism, theater, and playwriting. Given your background in scripted stories, what do you think drew you to shooting, POV, gonzo scenes?
Stagliano: It was a cheap, easy movie to do between my harder, big movies. This was in the summer of 1989. I had this idea to put myself in the movie as the camera man, just to play with girls as they looked right into the camera. I had seen still pictures of models looking into the camera, but I had not really seen it in video. I also wanted to do a butt obsession movie. Not necessarily anal sex, as there was little anal being shot in 1989. I combined those two ideas as a cheap way to get new releases out for Evil Angel - which as a manufacturer and distributor, I had started six months earlier. I needed a release every month at the time, so that was going to be my easier movie, and it turned out to be one of my most successful.
Alfie: Do you think the POV style was just practical for a butt obsession film, as it allowed you to get as close as you wanted to the ass without a male performer blocking your view?
Stagliano: The male performer’s energy does change what is being presented on stage and how the female performer acts. It wasn’t so much about that when I first did it. When I first did it, I was just looking for an excuse to shoot the butt more. In the very first Buttman movie, you don’t even know what is happening until I step in front of a mirror with my camera on my shoulder… It was just an excuse, but I started to shoot POV more and more. There was "Buttman Toy Master," "Buttman Anal Savant," "Buttman Stretch Class"… I still shoot Buttman scenes where I participate and talk from behind the camera, classic gonzo style. By participate I mean my hand comes out from behind the camera and I play with her tits or whatever. In the mirror, you see my face. I have an excuse to focus on the ass. It is totally visual. There is no male who is coming into the scene, so there isn’t that distraction of energy. The energy is focused on the girl and how pretty she is, how nice her ass is. I enjoy doing that. It makes enough money. Not great money in today’s market.
Alfie: I’ve recently encountered a few directors—Brad Armstrong, Greg Lansky, and yourself—who got started in the adult industry by using their savings to finance their first adult films, which they then used to prove their directorial talents. Do you think this is the best way to break into the industry as a director, to bet on yourself?
Stagliano: In any business, if you are going to try to get capital, you have to prove that you have the skills to do the job. Fortunately, cameras are cheap enough, especially today, and editing is way cheaper and easier than in 1983 when I started. It cost me $8,000 to get my first movie done, which was a huge expense back then. I had to max out my credit cards and things like that. The movie cost $4,000 to shoot and another $4,000 to edit. Editing wasn’t cheap in 1983.
Alfie: Do you ever give a shot to young directors who lack proven track records?
Stagliano: There was one director. I really liked the first movie he shot. I hired him for my company and the second movie I hated. He’s not at Evil Angel anymore. That was a bad decision. I prefer to work with people who have shot many movies. Since that experience some 20 years ago, I want to see a consistent track record. That also makes it easier to build their brand name. It’s hard to sell a brand-new person’s movies.
Alfie: You’ve said that many of your best directors aren’t great business people. Do you find that most creative, passionate filmmakers, have less interest in sales?
Stagliano: The business side is a very different skill set than the production side. I have a skill set of producing and directing movies, and I had some experience creating an office, but I wasn’t a salesman… I had my economics degree, and I had been working in an office for 10 years at market research companies, so I knew how to supervise people. A lot of my directors are artists and they don’t possess that experience. However, my directors finance their own movies. They own their product, so they have to have some business sense. There are some directors who didn’t want to work for my company, or who I wasn’t interested in working with, because I knew they had no desire to do the business side of things. They just wanted to be paid to make a movie and move on. Those are not people I am interested in at Evil Angel.
Alfie: You want directors who think about who will buy their films?
Stagliano: Yes. The reason why Evil Angel is as big as it is, with 15 or 16 directors, selling 20 movies a month, is because I don't tell them what to shoot. They are using their own money and coming up with their own ideas. There are some ideas we won’t sell, but they know what those are. They can shoot whatever they want: a big tit movie, a big ass movie, a MILF movie, young girls anal—which is really popular right now. Joey Silvera came up with the idea of transsexual movies because he was really into it. He shot the first one for himself in 1998 and it’s become a huge sensation. Those are our best-selling products at Evil Angel.
Alfie: Transsexual is your best-selling genre?
Stagliano: Yes, on DVD and total number of gross dollars per movie. However, on many internet platforms, they don’t do as well as some others… I could never have come up with those ideas on my own. I wouldn’t have the ability nor would I have been able to expand the company as I have.
Alfie: When a director brings you a product that doesn’t appeal to your sense of erotica, how do you know whether to take a chance on it?
Stagliano: Well, in the past, I was pretty good at sensing whether or not the director was a sexual person or if he was just doing this for the money. I could just tell based on where he chose to put the camera. If they are in there working as hard as they can to figure out what the good angles are, that is one thing... If they care about figuring that out, that’s the kind of person I want. If they don’t care about it, or are unable to figure that out, then I’m uninterested in their movies.
Today, it’s not so simple. The market is much different. You have to be able to shoot something good for a low amount of money. And if you are going to shoot for a high amount of money, it has to be something we can build a brand around and sell, and that is difficult. It is possible. Obviously Blacked.com and Tushy.com have done that. But, almost nobody else has managed to make money selling stories with a big crew in the porn business.
Alfie: Have you learned anything interesting from studying the demographics of Evil Angel customers?
Stagliano: Millennials aren’t buying DVDs because they were brought up with the internet. The older generations that are dying out, they are still buying DVDs. Online, people are more interested in buying specific scenes or clips. The internet has allowed viewers to find exactly what they want more quickly and easily. They don’t have to fast forward through a feature for what they want.
Alfie: Every company has different rules as far as where they draw the line when it comes to censorship. Your director Dana Vespoli was telling me how she can’t show fisting in her films—
Stagliano: With DVDs, our buyers will not take fisting. The lawyers for disturbers and stores won’t allow it due to the risk of an obscenity prosecution. However, we can put fisting clips up online, and Evil Angel has at least two directors who regularly put fisting on their updates online.
Alfie: I know you give your directors a lot of freedom, but what are some of the stipulations you make about the kinds of things they can shoot?
Stagliano: The things that we can’t sell to DVD distributors we tend not to want in films, but that is changing as DVDs become obsolete and the internet takes over. For instance, in DVDs you can’t show bondage and penetration together, or any kind of urination or defecation. Peeing on the ground is okay, but peeing on someone is not okay.
Alfie: Has squirting been a way of getting around the peeing restriction?
Stagliano: Ha! That’s an unfair question. Do you think it is squirting, or do you think it is pee? Isn’t that the big question that has been bouncing around the porn industry? I was prosecuted in Washington DC because Joey Silvera did a movie called “Storm Squirters #2: Target Practice.” I was ultimately acquitted because the prosecutor did such a horrible job presenting a case. But, the question of whether or not it is pee is interesting. Since squirting happens in conjunction with orgasms, and because it’s going all over the place, I think it’s fine. It does point out the idiocy of certain rules and regulations in regards to peeing.