RCL Exclusive

How the Porn Industry Evolves With the Internet

Burning Angel co-founder Joanna Angel explains how her company keeps changing with technology.

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It would not be a big deal today: “I feel like every girl in college webcams or gets naked somehow.” But when Rutgers senior Joanna Angel put up some photos taken in her bedroom by her roommate and launched the Burning Angel site in 2002, it brought a jarring amount of scrutiny for someone who “wasn’t used to being the center of attention.”

This included times she wanted to be noticed as a political activist: “I stood outside of the Washington Monument for hours protesting things that nobody even cared about.” Suddenly she “put a few naked pictures on the Internet and everybody was asking about it.” Indeed, sometimes more than asking, as it caused “chaos and commotion and drama with my family and friends, all for a handful of pictures.”

Angel quickly realized her life had reached a crossroads: “I thought, I either need to take this website down now and never speak of it again and run away or I need to really do something powerful with this.

“I guess I chose the second one.”

As Burning Angel approaches its 16th anniversary, this is how one Internet company adapted during an era when radical changes are routine.

The Photo Phase

“From 2002 to 2005, it’s not like we were millionaires by any stretch of the imagination,” Angel recalled, noting she “worked at a strip club” to “support my struggling porn site.” Yet there was a very positive sign: “People were paying for naked pictures.” This was particularly impressive because there weren’t “even that many of them! I think the first year that we were a website we updated once every six weeks with one photo set.” (Gradually, this increased to “once a month and then once every two weeks.”)

Even so, they were getting “20, 30 members a day.”

“No one would pay for that now!” she laughed.

After about three years, it was time for a big step forward: the transition to film.

Making a Movie

“It took a whole year to make one DVD,” Angel said. (To put this in perspective, they now make 24 each year “like a machine.”)

This was far more complex than photos, particularly in 2005: “I was in New York, not L.A. I did not have any friends in the porn industry. There was no Twitter. There was no one for me to call and say: ‘Hey, what do I do?’” It was a frantic search for talent, particularly on the male side: “I was walking around New York, asking random guys if they would make a porn with me. It was crazy.”

Relying heavily on friends, the low points included a scene “where the camera wasn’t on so we had to go shoot it again.”

Even tasks that seemed manageable proved unexpectedly complex. “All my friends were in bands. I didn’t think it was a big deal, so I was asking my friends, ‘Oh, can I press my DVDs at the same place you get your CDs pressed?’” They’d get Angel in touch and she’d be told, “Oh no we can’t do it because it’s porn.” (Which still strikes her as ridiculous: “It can’t be in your pressing plant? You don’t even have to watch it.”)

Angel found herself wondering, “How do people make so much porn all the time?” and by the time “that first DVD was in my hand, it felt like I climbed Mount Everest.” And even that moment of triumph brought a challenge, because it wasn’t just one DVD: “I remember the minimum you had to make was, like, 5,000 of them. We had boxes of DVDs in my tiny-ass apartment.”

Selling the inventory led to a grim discovery: they had “started making DVDs the second DVDs started going down.”

“I remember the first meeting I had with a distributor. They’re like, ‘Okay, we can sell this, but it’s not what it used to be.’ (The decline would continue: “Now, I would do anything to have the numbers I had then.”)

Yet there was an immediate benefit to the DVD: it confirmed Angel as a porn star. She noted that her porn career had taken a uniquely odd path, where instead of going to L.A. and getting an agent and doing “20 scenes a month,” making her own movie had resulted in her doing a single scene in a year because everything took so much time.

Now, however, there was physical proof of her career. “When I first got those DVDs, I brought them into the strip club and they went, ‘Wow, you’re a porn star. Holy sh-t.’ It gives you this air of legitimacy.”

To this day, Angel is baffled by people who discuss a movie they want to make but never advance beyond planning a Kickstarter campaign: “My very first movie, I funded myself. I get angry when people feel entitled. Put yourself on the line.”

Having done so much on her own, she started working for others.

Angel for Hire

“After my first DVD came out, I was getting offers from other companies, so I said, ‘Why not? I want to learn how other people do things.’” Not that she had a choice: “Burning Angel didn’t have the means to produce enough content for me actually to be a porn star.” Quite simply, working for others was a way to get “more scenes under my belt.”

There was a move from New York to L.A.: “I’ve been in Los Angeles for more than 10 years now.”

How was giving up control? “Like a vacation. ‘Oh, I just have to come to set when somebody tells me to? Cool!’ I’ve always had good experiences and I’ve been fortunate. Almost like, This is too easy.”

Yet Angel soon felt she needed to shoot for herself: “It just didn’t make sense for me to be this CEO and owner of this company and then have to go when my call time was.”

Burning Angel bills itself as the “World’s 1st & Best Alt Porn Website.” Angel’s love of punk was incorporated into the site (“Punk’s not dead… it’s naked!”). It was a distinct approach that she wanted to keep developing: “I didn’t want to do the same things every other porn star did. I thought if I only work for myself, that makes more sense to my brand and my image.”

Angel still looks back on those days of filming for others fondly: “It was more fun to be on other people’s sets than my own.”

The Machine Starts Rolling

Angel said making porn in Los Angeles is easier for a variety of reasons, including the better weather, better filming opportunities (“There’s a lot of old rich guys who bought big houses and don’t really know what to do with them and they’ll rent them out to porn shoots”) and the general acceptance: “In New York, there were so many makeup artists who didn’t want to work with me because it was porn. Or if they did, they had to be really secretive about it.”

Whereas L.A. and Vegas have a “system”: “Makeup artists know what makeup to put on that doesn’t come off during a sex scene. These are things that a fashion makeup artist just doesn’t know.”

This was when the Burning Angel team came together. Angel said there are “probably four of us at all times,” with others popping in and out on a freelance basis. It starts with the person who shot those original photos back in 2002: “My business partner, who was my college roommate, we are still together.” Angel said he does “all the banking and accounting and logging so I can keep things moving forward.” They still split ownership 50/50: “There’s been people who’ve been like, ‘It’s your body and your name, you should own more,’ but we started this together. I can’t be me without him.”

There’s also an assistant who helps with social media and serves as a “second brain” for some of the pre-production. Her husband is a “big help with the post-production” and “keeping me sane.” (She described his job title as “indentured servant, I guess.”)

On shooting days “I have a camera guy and a photographer, but they’re freelance. It’s not like this is their full-time gig.” Angel praised her director of photography for keeping things running smoothly when she both directs and performs: “He knows what I want. So if I’m in a scene, I don’t have to think.”

And of course “there’s talent, but the talent is different every month.” That noted, two particular performers are regulars: Angel and her indentured servant, who goes by the name “Small Hands.” (He began performing after they started dating and came up with the stage name because he has “tiny hands for a grown-ass man,” conceding it’s “kind of a dumb name, but you won’t forget it.”)

Angel likes her movies to go from initial conception to up on the site in three months. Actual filming is usually limited to two or three days: “That’s all I can afford to spend.” Of the 24 movies a year, she typically appears in 10 to 12 of them: “Burning Angel is not just me. I want to showcase other girls.”

Other girls aside, Angel may increase her appearances this year—“My husband says, ‘You always get grumpy because you’re not performing”— particularly since on-camera careers are finite: “I won’t be able to do it forever.” (As part of her social media activity, she also shoots short videos for her “OnlyFans page after I Snapchat: I have makeup on, I should just masturbate for five minutes and post it.”)

The Work Routine

The days vary widely, but at some point in a given month Angel will deal with media (both interviews like this and the social form), bookkeeping, going through and logging “all the content that’s been shot,” talking to webmasters about “what’s working and what’s not,” planning productions, booking locations, booking talent and actually shooting.

“Social media’s definitely made things way trickier because you’re kind of always working,” Angel said. “The Internet doesn’t close.” Then again, perpetually being on duty is “pretty normal when you own your own business. People in my family who own restaurants, they’re kind of always working too, you know?”

The Challenges

“I’ve done this for a long time now,” Angel said. “I know what to do ahead of time.” The rest of the Burning Angel team does as well. Naturally, this was the point the Internet presented a new test: piracy. While stating it’s a “complicated subject,” Angel feels the best way to fight it is to “keep your content as compelling as possible and keep your website updated as often as you can so people want to pay for it. You just have to work twice as hard to make half as much as you used to. You have to figure out who your customers are and keep them happy.”

The world where people happily paid for one set of photos every six weeks is long gone. (In addition to the two DVDs each month, Burning Angel will “update two or three videos a week, two or three photo sets a week.”)

Of course, now the Internet also provides endless data on what people want: “I try to only look at stats that really stick out. If I see the same thing again and again, then I go, ‘Okay, this is not just a fluke. This is clearly popular.’” (Her biggest selling movies invariably result when “an idea that comes to me out of nowhere and I just take a risk and I do it,” but she has no problem piggy-backing a hot genre such as stepchild porn: “All I have to do is write whatever storyline I want to write and at some point somebody has to say, ‘But you’re my stepdad!’”)

“It used to be like, ‘Okay, if there’s a guy and a girl having sex somewhere, somebody will pay for it,’” Angel said. “I’m actually spending way more money on our productions than I used to because you just kind of have to. I get it: consumers are very finicky… If they’re not 100 percent happy, they’re not going to pay for it.”

And with profit margins dropping, it’s reasonable to ask…

Should You Still Do It Yourself?

Angel is quick to point out she is hardly the only or even the first woman directing in porn: “There were plenty of women directing porn before me.” She acknowledged ownership is primarily male, but also noted that for “most of the world at large, most business owners are.” She praised the 2018 AVN Female Performer of the Year—“Angela White, she’s an owner and a producer and she’s talent. And she’s kicking ass.” Indeed, Angel pointed out enterprising performers in general had an abundance of options today: “Every girl right now, even if they don’t own a studio like I do, this is a very easy time for talent to have their own mini-companies. There’s so many platforms now if you shoot your own content.”

But she also noted, “This is a really rough time to own content.”

And she said it’s “good for a lot of these people to just go and make money and invest their money and just keep working until the phone stops ringing. Work in porn and use their money to open a business somewhere else. I don’t think every person who is talent needs to own their own studio.”

And she observed, “A lot of women are not very good to each other.”

While Angel’s experiences in the industry have been overwhelmingly positive, there is one bit of darkness. She used to date and work with the porn star James Deen. Deen has been accused of abusive behavior by both costars and ex-girlfriends, including Angel. He continues to perform and work in the industry through his company, even earning some AVN nominations.

“Just the same way no one can force me to work with James Deen, I would never force another girl not to work with James Deen,” Angel said. “It just won’t be for my company.”

She could even understand why people still work with him: “There’s people I have great onscreen chemistry with and I don’t know anything about their personal life and I don’t want to know anything about their personal life. When you find that person you can do a good scene with, that’s a good thing. When you’re a director and you find talent you work well with, I don’t really want to know anything else. When a company has a good working relationship with James Deen and James is giving them what they need and the company is giving what he needs, then… I think everybody has the right to make their own decisions. I made my own decision a long time ago. And that’s never gonna change.”

(She also noted, “A lot of people fought me on that decision early on, saying I was immature or just get over it or whatever. Now nobody bothers me about it.“)

Ultimately, it’s “an industry with a lot of different people and personalities. Some people are not going to get along. That’s kind of how it is.”

Full Circle

Angel’s youth and education in New Jersey continue to shape her work today. She credits Judaism with giving her the gifts of both “humor” and “self-hatred”: “I’m very hard on myself and I’m a perfectionist. Literally, every year after AVN, I’m always happy with my awards but on the way home I start freaking out: ‘What if I’ve peaked? Am I going to be screwed for next year?’”

Angel has also returned to an earlier ambition with the publication of her book Night Shift: A Choose-Your-Own Erotic Fantasy: “I’m really excited about this. I went to college for writing. Being a writer was what I was supposed to do with my life.” She said writing a novel—“I’m excited my first book is fiction, not a memoir”—freed her mind from how it normally works when making movies: “My brain is very realistic. People are like, ‘If you could do any kind of porn and budget didn’t matter?’ My brain doesn’t work like that. I don’t fantasize about things that can’t happen. That’s why writing a book was really crazy to me. I can make anything happen and it doesn’t make the cost more. I’m so used to thinking, ‘Everything has to happen in this location.’”

The porn background that once got her banned from pressing plants now often helps more than it hurts: “If you have followers, everyone pays attention to you. They don’t even care where those followers came from.”

Angel said her best advice for anyone hoping to enter the industry is simple: don’t expect anything, much less feel entitled to it.

“This is an entertainment job like any job,” she observed, noting it seems many outsiders “think, Because I’m willing to do porn, because I’m willing to do this dirty thing, millions of dollars are just going to be thrown at me. It’s not true.”

If you don’t work hard, you’ll probably fail. (And even if you do, you might anyway.)

Being a performer and an owner in porn adds a whole new degree of difficulty: it requires you to be incredibly honest with yourself. (After all, you are the merchandise.) “I have to look at stats, ‘How many people are searching for me?’ And I’ve had to see months and years when it’s gone way down. And I’ve seen it go back up. I don’t have the time nor can I afford to be delusional about what’s happening around me….

“My pessimistic attitude has served me well.”