Originally created 04/23/04

Overseas productions threaten health of porn actors



LOS ANGELES -- For the past few years, the adult film industry has operated on a closed set of sorts, with many actors preferring to work within a few San Fernando Valley communities using a testing system that made them feel relatively safe from AIDS.

The recent news that actor Darren James contracted HIV while filming in Brazil and infected at least one other person upon his return has uncovered an open secret no one has wanted to confront: Adult film companies often shoot movies in foreign locales like Brazil, Budapest and Prague, in part to save money on less expensive local talent, in part to find new faces to fill the voracious demand for adult films.

But those trips come with a price that has gone unpaid until now.

"You have such a strict situation here with the testing," said photographer Suze Randall, who has recently begun producing adult films. "We all felt safe and all of a sudden this came from left field."

Many countries do not require AIDS testing for adult film actors or they require unsophisticated tests that fail to uncover HIV for up to six months, industry observers say. Actors often have filmed sex immediately after returning to the United States, potentially infecting others.

James performed with 13 actresses before a blood test last week showed he was HIV-positive. One of his partners, Lara Roxx, also tested HIV positive. More than 60 performers who had contact with the two have been barred by the industry pending new blood tests, and more than 30 companies halted production indefinitely.

The industry has regulated itself successfully for the past four years through the creation of the Adult Industry Medical Health Care Foundation. AIM administers tough tests - called PCRDNA or polymearase chain reaction deoxyribo nucleic acid tests - which can detect the HIV virus within 30 days of exposure.

The adult film industry requires its talent to be tested every 30 days and actors are supposed to ask fellow actors for their test results before each performance.

The system has lulled many actors into thinking they are safe having sex without a condom.

"In any country that has PCRDNA testing, I'm comfortable if that's what the talent wants to do," said Patrick Collins, owner of Elegant Angel Productions.

Some of the larger production companies, such as Vivid Entertainment and Wicked Pictures, require condom use.

Most others do not, thinking that movies with unprotected sex sell better. Performers sometimes are paid more for such scenes.

Los Angeles County health officials have asked the state Division of Occupational Health and Safety to look into working conditions at the production company that hired Roxx.

"We have received a complaint on the issue and are opening an investigation" that could take up to six months, Cal-OSHA spokeswoman Susan Gard said Wednesday.

If the agency finds that employees were exposed to serious health dangers it could issue fines of up to $25,000 per incident, she added.

In addition, county health officials have ordered the health care foundation to turn over the real names of the infected stars and their confidential medical records. The county is trying to determine whether the actors might have spread HIV into the community.

Sharon Mitchell, the foundation's executive director, said Wednesday she complied although she was "not happy about it."

The adult film industry includes about 200 companies employing about 6,000 workers, of which 1,200 are actors, according to Jack Kyser, chief economist for the Los Angeles Economic Development Corp.

It's estimated that as many as 11,000 videos are made each year. Estimates on the economic power of the industry vary from $4.4 billion to as much as $10 billion.

Over the last 10 years or so, an increasing number of those productions have been made overseas. In some cases, production companies fly their regular stable of actors to such locations as Hawaii or Mexico.

"You can only see the same people so many times and you can only see the same view of the San Fernando Valley so many times," said Steven Hirsch, co-chairman of Vivid Entertainment.

In most cases, a company will fly its male actors to the foreign location, then recruit local female talent.

"It's the same reason why they shoot films in Canada - costs are lower," said Tim Connelly, editor of the trade magazine Adult Video News. "With 11,000 movies coming out annually, you try to get different people. It's the girls who drive the market and you try to get different women."

The biggest cost of adult films is salaries. An unknown actress gets paid anywhere between $300 and $1,000 for a day's work, Connelly said. Most films are shot in a single day. Top female stars make $5,000 per day or more.

Filming overseas can cut those costs by two-thirds, Connelly said.

Brazil has a thriving adult film industry of its own and pornographic movies are widely available at corner newsstands.

There is no law there requiring adult film actors to use condoms, said Joao Paulo Borges, an aide to a Brazilian legislator who has proposed such a law. But most local performers wear them anyway, he said.

The adult film industry is lobbying legislators to leave it self-regulated and is considering requiring that all actors returning from overseas wait 30 days before returning to work.

Whatever the solution, something needs to be done quickly, adult film actress Shay Sights said.

"I don't think anyone should be shooting anywhere without a PCRDNA test," she said. "It's cheaper for them. But should it be a matter of money when lives are on the line?"

Associated Press Alan Clendenning contributed to this report.