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The Wicked Way: Interview With Steve Orenstein

The Wicked Way: Interview With Steve Orenstein

This article originally ran in the April 2013 issue of AVN magazine.

Remember the days when, if you wanted to see a new, high-quality, story-driven feature, you had basically two choices: Vivid or VCA? Before Digital Playground, before Adam & Eve Pictures, before New Sensations Romance, and before pretty much every company that’s now jumped on the parody bandwagon? Well, beginning on March 1, 1993, there was a newcomer about to take its place among the great feature producers: Wicked Pictures.

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But it’s not as if Wicked’s founder/owner, Steve Orenstein, was an out-of-nowhere stranger to adult feature production; he’d already been in the adult business for nearly 14 years, working first in magazine distribution, then managing a small chain of adult retail outlets, and finally handling video distribution for CPLC before Ruby Gottesman, the owner of video distributor Xcitement Video, gave Orenstein a call and offered him a job as one of Xcitement’s primary buyers. Orenstein wound up buying product and servicing a lot of the smaller video companies, and in the process becoming familiar with video production—and getting to know what he liked and didn’t like about the features.

Of course, Orenstein’s tenure at Xcitement was a bit tenuous. Gottesman had been arrested in 1987 on charges of shipping underage Traci Lords videos across state lines to undercover state and federal agents, and though his conviction in federal court was later overturned by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, the possibility of Gottesman serving a prison sentence was always in the background—even when, in 1989, he offered Orenstein a partnership in the video production company Gottesman wanted to set up.

“Six years after I was working with Ruby, he said, ‘You remember one day I said you’ll have your own money and we’ll do something together? I want to get into production. I want you to be my partner.’ At first, I said, ‘I’m not interested,’ but he convinced me.”

While Gottesman’s contribution to the new enterprise was basically putting up his building and staff, it was left to Orenstein to do all the grunt work.

“I did all of the work, and interviewed directors to shoot our first movie,” Orenstein recalled. “So we started the company, and I remember John Stagliano was one of the people we interviewed, who either was directing already or wanted to direct. But as it turned out, Stuart Canterbury directed our first movie, Sleepwalker, and it just took off from there.”

Early Xcitement directors included Fred J. Lincoln, Patty Rhodes, Michael Craig, Henri Pachard and Herschel Savage, but Orenstein took his oversight duties seriously.

“I’d go to the sets after work, watch what was going on, that sort of thing, and we started from there,” Orenstein said. “I’d worked for Ruby for six, seven years at this point, and we were partners in the video production for two-plus years, and being partners brought up challenges that just working for someone didn’t. That’s partly why I said I didn’t want to do it in the first place, and we wound up splitting up over those issues. We split the movie library we had at that time, 24 movies, and I went out and started Wicked from there.”

“If you spoke to anyone I grew up with and asked who’s least likely to wind up owning an adult movie studio, it’s gonna be me,” he added. “It’s one of those things that you fall into this business and it takes you where it takes you.”

One of those places was the AVN Awards Show.

“January of ’94 was our first award show; we’re in business nine months, and Haunted Nights won for Best Video,” he beamed. “Again, first year in business, everyone’s excited, 20 people were on stage to accept it, including me. Jim Enright directed it, and Jonathan Morgan and Steven St. Croix starred in it, and for all concerned, it was the start of a very successful franchise: the ‘Nights’ movies: Western Nights, Arabian Nights, all were successful.”

But even in those days, when the scarcity of high-end production companies should have made it easier to enter the features market, Wicked still struggled to brand itself—and in the process, found its first contract star.

“Our first was Chasey Lain,” Orenstein stated. “Lucky Smith represented her, and I started Wicked and I’d already known him, and he said, ‘I have this girl; if you’re looking for a contract girl, she hasn’t done anything; she’s beautiful.’ I said, ‘I’m not looking for a contract girl, thanks.’

“Anyway, I started Wicked in March, and probably in July, I put out a movie with Shayla LaVeaux [The Look, directed by Paul Norman], and that was sort of my first lesson, that summer is the worst time to try to sell a movie,” he explained. “I also saw that the people that I expected to support me, based on how long I’d been around and how I knew everybody, didn’t really pan out that way. I released the Shayla movie, it didn’t sell a ton, so I called Lucky and said, ‘I want to meet that girl.’ So I realized—look, I truly believed in what we were doing; I truly believed we were making quality product, really felt it, believed it, and talked about it. What I didn’t get was that everybody says their stuff is the best, ‘My stuff is the best,’ this, this and this, and when they hear you say it, it just sounds like another sales pitch to people, and they weren’t buying in. That’s when I said, ‘You know what? I can’t tell them how great we are, because they don’t want to hear that. I need a girl that we can tell them how great she is.’ …

“I didn’t create the contract star model, but that was the internal thinking: ‘I see how this can make sense for us.’ It wasn’t the, ‘Oh, I like that model’; it was, ‘Oh, I see how this could make sense for us.’ So Chasey was this girl that nobody had any preconceived notions on, a blank slate. ‘Now go sell her to everybody.’ And she was a beautiful girl, and that worked. I’d say we signed Chasey in November of ’93.”

Chasey stayed with the company for more than a year, ending her contract run in January of 1995 ... and then there was Jenna.

“When Chasey left, I said, ‘You know what? I’m not gonna look for another contract girl, because Chasey is just so beautiful; whoever I sign next is going to be compared to her,” Orenstein recounted. “Now, when I started Wicked, [artists/photographers] Brad and Cynthia Willis were doing a lot for us as far as the art goes. They were doing that at Xcitement, and they came over to Wicked. They designed our logo, but a lot more than that. Brad was doing more than just art; he was conceptualizing thoughts and asking, ‘How are we going to present this?’ as well. ‘How do we make it a big deal?’ The overall branding. We’d have a lot of long conversations back then, because it was easier to do that back then, and they probably pushed me along the way a lot more than anybody back then. And Brad/Cynthia are actually still doing things for us today.”

So it was the Willises who first brought Jenna Jameson to Orenstein’s attention.

“Jenna was going through personal stuff at the time, and dropped out of the business for a period of time, and then I get a call again from Cynthia Willis, who says, ‘She’s back, better than before; you’ve really got to meet this girl,’” Orenstein said. “Back in those days, there were different phases you go through. What type of girl and what look of girl you think was in the business, and then you get this sweet, innocent-looking girl, what’s she doing here? You know, there was this whole mystique about her. ... So Chasey leaves in January; I sign Jenna in February, because when I met her I knew she had something very special. To sign a girl, she needs the ‘it’ factor, and Jenna certainly had ‘it.’ So I hired Joy King within weeks of hiring Jenna, signing Jenna. I knew Joy, was friends with Joy, and I was trying to figure out how to afford her, so I told Joy, ‘I just hired this girl, and I want you to do the PR.’”

Jenna quickly became the face of Wicked.

“I had people I do business with say, ‘Look; your life is bigger than Jenna Jameson. Stop talking so much about Jenna Jameson,’ but it was what we were doing,” Orenstein explained. “Wicked was still finding its way, and there’s no doubt that Jenna’s explosion benefited us, but our goal and our job was to make her explode. Back then, we were making 24 movies and she was in nine of them. She certainly was our focus.”

But not the company’s, or Orenstein’s, sole focus.

“Brad Armstrong was our first exclusive director, and it was probably late ’97 or so he was exclusive to us,” he recounted. “ He came up to me at a convention pitching himself and wanting to direct, and shot a movie here or there—I think the first movie he shot for us was Wildcats—and for a while he shot for us, and also other companies like Vivid and Metro, partnered up with Greg Steele for Wicked One and Conquest—the latter in partnership with Adam & Eve—for us in ’95 and ’96. We shot out on a pirate ship—this was before [Digital Playground/Adam & Eve’s] Pirates existed, and at a time when there weren’t all these digital effects; you had to shoot what went on the screen.

“Brad has had a great effect on the company,” he added. “He’s created things for the company that go beyond just the movies he’s done. He’s pointed out quite a few actresses over the years; he’s an accomplished art director, which I think is where he starts more from before directing. He’s an amazing talent. It’s going on—could be 16, 17 years with him, maybe longer. … Certainly Brad has been more part of the company than just what he’s directing. He’s been involved in a lot of other things along the way and a lot of other decisions and a lot of input as to where we are.”

Another longtime Wicked director is Jonathan Morgan, who has been with the company “13 years or so,” Orenstein said, as he talked about what Morgan has brought to the table. “Jonathan’s always been extremely passionate about what he does. With Jonathan, he’s on both sides of it. There’s not much in the middle with Jonathan. There’s comedy and there’s dark projects. Crazed, with Serenity, another contract star, was one of those dark projects; he’s done several of those along the way—and then there could be Double Feature, which might be the most awards we’ve won for any movie ever, which was 12, from AVN. It totally cleaned up.”

But even directors who’ve only directed once for Wicked have made their mark.

“Michael Zen came on for one movie, which was a milestone for us, Blue Movie, Wicked’s first shot-on-film movie,” Orenstein said. “There are so many things you’re proud of over the years, and one of them is, we were always shooting on video. There were other companies that had campaigns out there about how many of their features were shot on film because shooting on film was a big deal. So we shot the one movie, Blue Movie, on film, and won the award for Best Film that year. I wanted to do an ad, ‘One Film, One Win,’ but I didn’t. Jenna won, the movie won, editing won, a sex scene won, Jenna won acting in that same year for Wicked One.”

Another male director who worked for Wicked almost exclusively between 2003 and his retirement in 2010 was Michael Raven, also the recipient of several awards—but Orenstein is also justly proud of the women who’ve taken the reins behind the camera: Stormy Daniels and Jessica Drake.

“Stormy, who’s been under contract with us since 2004, started writing scripts very early on for other directors, and started directing for herself early on, and really, it’s her passion, the writing and the directing,” he said. “Today, she doesn’t have a job directing for us because she’s a contract star; she has a job directing for us because she’s done great things as a director.”

(See AVN’s visit to her most recent set, WanderLust.)

“As for Jessica, I don’t think I’ve had another brand ambassador like her, ever. She wrote scripts early on, and then directed a few. The first movie she directed got nominated for Best Video Feature, 3 Days in June, and that was a regular budget movie alongside of the blockbusters, so that was amazing. And then there’s the educational movies, the charity work—she’s just a great person. … After all these years, she still thinks Wicked first, herself second, and that is unique. She has her Playboy Radio show weekly; she was doing her own podcasts, she does her personal traveling, she’s starring in movies for us, she’s shooting the educationals, she’s directing other movies, she’s out on the road giving educational seminars now; not so much porn star signings but education is what’s important in the market today.”

Besides the numerous seminars that Drake, who’s now working on a degree as a certified sex educator, has given at adult stores like The Pleasure Chest, and the creation of her own line of educational videos, Jessica Drake’s Guide to Wicked Sex, the actress/director’s philosophy is in line with the studio’s emphasis on couples-friendly sex. And that emphasis was strengthened a couple of years ago with the creation of Wicked Passions, a romance line that ranks among Wicked’s current best-sellers.

Orenstein explained, “Much as Wicked is a couples-friendly company, we still shoot orgies and d.p.s and anals, and every couple or woman isn’t okay with that, so what can we do? Let’s create a product that’s more for them, which is Wicked Passions. The difference is boy/girl sex scenes, no girl/girl, no anal, no three-ways; no extreme close-ups in the hardcore, no facial cumshots, all these things that the woman or couple that aren’t porn fans are afraid to pick up a movie because of, but do want to try something at home, but they’re afraid of what they’re going to see. This is a line we created that fulfills that for that crowd.”

That new line plays well into Orenstein’s overall philosophy regarding adult videos.

“The concept from the start was to make story-driven, plot-driven movies for couples,” he stated. “It always was that even way back then. We started Wicked and I actually had a Canadian distributor say to me, ‘Look, you make great movies, great box covers, but that market is locked up by Vivid and VCA. Don’t you think you’d be better if you did something else?’ So I said, ‘Are you saying, since two companies are doing this, instead it’s better if I do what everyone else is doing?’ He said, ‘Yeah.’ I said, ‘That’s not who we are.’ I don’t remember if they ever did buy from us, but I remember that conversation, because it made me say, ‘Really?’”

In addition to the branding for its Wicked Passions line, the company also labels its features more prominently than in past years, the better to capitalize on the couples market. And speaking of couples, there’s also something big in the works from one of the brands it distributes: new boy/girl content from amateur all-girl company abbywinters (see page 36).

Wicked’s other recent innovation is the creation of the Sensual Care product line, which is now a company unto itself.

“We hired somebody from the skin-care industry, and we started from scratch to do research and development,” Orenstein said. “To get in the business, we needed to understand about the differences in the various products, and what made one better than another. We went about it in the same way that we did Wicked. First thing is, we want to make the best quality product we’re capable of making. How do we do that? First, we have to understand, what is good quality product? Now, how do we go about creating it? How do we stand out? What’s different? What’s better? I hired this woman in October of 2011 and it wasn’t until the following August that we released product, so it’s really out only six, seven months, and it’s doing great.” (Wicked’s Jelle lube is reviewed in this issue’s Buyer’s Guide, and write-ups on the other formulas can be found on AVN.com.)

It’s that sort of attention to detail and fair dealing that’s made Orenstein known as a man of his word.

“I try,” he said sheepishly. “Integrity is important to me. I would say, if you were to go around and ask people, probably the most proud thing for me is that; that’s what you’re going to hear. Now I can’t swear today that somebody doesn’t feel burned somewhere over something, and people believe what they want to believe at some points, but that to me was always so important. And again, my integrity rolls over to the brand and the integrity of the company, and that was always more important to me than anything else.”

In few areas has that been more evident than in the controversy over the attempts to force all producers to use condoms and similar protective devices in sex scenes—something Wicked has done for over a decade.

“What happened was, we had the big scare in ’98, and there was going to be a big Free Speech meeting with everybody in the business, every studio,” Orenstein recounted. “So I got a call from Steve Hirsch, who said, ‘Hey, there’s gonna be this meeting to go over all these things. Russ [Hampshire, owner of VCA] called me and said at this meeting, he’s going to stand up and say he’s going condoms only. He called me to ask if I’d do the same. I told him yes. I called to ask if you’ll do the same.’ I said yes. So we went to that meeting and we all stood up [in support of] the safety of the talent, and at that meeting about 15 companies committed to go that way.

“But like most things, in six months later when the smoke cleared, there were probably five left; years later there were four left, then there were three, the three that started; then one got bought by a company that doesn’t do that, so there were two; then there was one,” he detailed. “And it’s just been something that it’s been hard for me to undo, to unsay. If there are sales you’re not making because of it, people don’t send you a [note], ‘This is what I would have bought today but I didn’t because you’re condoms,’ so you really can’t quantify it. But I’m sure—I’d be silly to say it didn’t affect the numbers, but I certainly can’t put a figure to it because you don’t know what you don’t know.

“Who knows? Maybe one day I’ll change my mind too … but the reality is, it’s 13, 14 years later, and we’ve kept with the decision. But to be fair and to support the other decision, a lot of the talent today don’t want it. It’s crazy but it’s true. I’ve met with girls about contracts and said, ‘We’re condoms only; you know that, right?’ Years ago, I used to get people say, ‘Yeah, I know that. That’s one of the reasons I want to be here.’ Now, I get, from girls who are very popular in the business, ‘Yeah, I know; I don’t really like condoms but I’d deal with it if I have to.’ That’s where it is today. I’ve had directors in my organization say, ‘We’re only doing it for you anymore. People don’t care, and the decision is in your head only.’ And that’s why I say I can’t swear what the future may be, because if it turns out it is only me, what am I doing? So no change today, but I can’t speak for the future.”

Orenstein may not want to predict the future, but one doesn’t need a crystal ball to believe that more good things are in store from this couples-oriented company. Its contract stars are keeping the fans happy: Movies starring Wicked’s newest contract performer, Samantha Saint, have been climbing the charts. Daniels plans to direct 10 features in 2013, and Jessica Drake will stay busy as ever, filling out her educational series and promoting the Wicked brand across the country (most recently in an appearance at Pasadena City College in March).

Orenstein is also justly proud of his support staff. King, of course, was perhaps the best-known face of “Wicked Corporate,” having been with the company for 18 years until her move to a consultancy position, but the company’s director of international sales, Steve Vlottes, has been with the company even longer—19 years—and publicist Daniel Metcalf has been employed for 13 years.

All told, these two decades have taken Orenstein, the man least likely to become an adult mogul, to some interesting places. And the journey certainly isn’t over yet.

In addition to its own titles, Wicked serves as a distributor for a number of studios. The following companies are distributed by Wicked Pictures: abbywinters, JoyBear Pictures, Marc Dorcel and Vouyer Media.


The Wicked Ones

As the studio turned 20, it had four contract stars on its roster, three of whom—Stormy Daniels, Jessica Drake and Kaylani Lei—have been with the company for close to half that time (though Lei took a break in 2005). The newest, Samantha Saint, started last year. Below is a list of past contract girls, in order of their start dates.

Chasey Lain (1993-1995)

Jenna Jameson (1995-2000)

Serenity (1996-2001)

Missy (1997-1999)

Stephanie Swift (1997-2002)

Temptress (1998-2000)

Alexa Rae (1999-2001)

Devinn Lane (2000-2005)

Sydnee Steele (2001-2003)

Julia Ann (2001-2004, 2006-2007)

Keri Sable (2005)

Carmen Hart (2005-2007)

Kirsten Price (2005-2011)

Mikayla Mendez (2008-2009)

Alektra Blue (2008-2013)

Lupe Fuentes (2010-2011)






Related Content:

Wicked Pictures
Stormy Daniels
Steven Orenstein
Samantha Saint
Kaylani Lei
Jessica Drake

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