I got to look at the business side of porn’s business side when I toured a DVD and sex toy warehouse in Pittsburgh, PA.
It feels like the crack of dawn, and with the time change it kind of is. I’m 20 miles outside downtown Pittsburgh in a fancy residential neighborhood, complete with confusing curvy roads lined by an unreal amount of foresty vegetation. I am definitely in the wrong place.
My jokester of an Uber driver laughs at the blurry-eyed tourist beside him, informing me in full-on yinzer, a dialect spoken by many Pittsburgh locals – “Der-ain’t no porno n’at dahn-aire, sweet cheeks.” Translation: “There’s no porn here, ma’am.”
But he was wrong. I’d gotten into town the night before specifically because there is porn there. I was en route to Pittsburgh’s own Adult Empire.
Much like the city of Pittsburgh itself, Adult Empire is going through a bit of a renaissance. Started in 1997 by computer programmers Jeff Rix and John-Michael D’Arcangelo, the Hollywood film-focused DVD Empire and its subsequently formed porno sister, Adult DVD Empire (where the money’s at, let’s be honest), crashed pretty hard in 2008. The company went from 120 employees to about half that – the economy was dead, DVD was dead, and so was porn. Except… not really.
“We are an entertainment business,” D’Arcangelo told me, “And when times get tough, entertainment is the first thing people cut from their budgets. My partners at the time wanted to sell, but I couldn’t see myself ever doing anything else, so I bought the business from them and doubled-down on our web, video, and digital technologies.”
Adult Empire made it through an extremely challenging period and is now back on the upswing. Though they dropped the “DVD” from their name, they currently offer over 60,000 DVD and blu-ray titles and 4,500 different sex toys. They expanded their VOD capabilities dramatically and boast a massive video on demand library, as well as a Netflix-like monthly subscription service – Adult Empire Unlimited – which taps over 30,000 streaming movies and 150,000 individual scenes. Put simply, Adult Empire offers a staggering amount of porn. They’ve also thrown a lot of effort into building their online community – blogs and v-logs and reviews and contests and things, which was why I was there.
I burst through Adult Empire’s main entrance a full 25 minutes late after having given my Uber driver the correct street address, but with the incorrect zip code. I was ushered quickly into the their in-house studio set and almost immediately began recording footage for YouTube-based “The Chelsea & Becky Show.”
Chelsea McCain and Becky Merbler work for “The Empire” (as they call it) as Director of Novelties and Director of Product Management, respectively, but their campy-ham dynamic-duo schtick prompted D’Arcangelo to propose a show – these two goofballs dress up in costumes, review sex toys and porn, and go out on the town to cover community happenings, like Pittsburgh Pride and events at local strip club, Blush. They’re hilarious and humanizing, and I was getting to be a guest to talk about my new book, Exposure.
(pictured: Chelsea, Becky, and me)
After 90 minutes of free-form discussion and a lot of laughing (“What historical event do you most want to see parodied in porn?”) McCain and Merbler, Adult Empire’s Director of Marketing Megan Wozniak, and I were off to tour their three separate physical locations.
The main office, where we were already sitting, was as inconspicuous and banal as any other commercial office space, save some brightly colored walls. As we toured our way through a labyrinth of cubicles and past a sweet in-house gym, I noticed a data-nerd’s delight affixed to a wall in a main hallway – a large screen scrolling up-to-the-minute stats about sales activity on all nine of their e-tail sites. I was transfixed for a moment as I watched obvious and surprising titles scroll past – the brand new Megan Rain: Get Wet, 2013’s BDSM-themed The Submission of Emma Marx, and ever topical superheroes a la Batman v. Superman XXX (links NSFW). Then it was time to go to the warehouse.
Located much closer to downtown Pittsburgh, the Adult Empire warehouse came about because of a scandal. Back in 2007, when the company was looking to expand their office facility, they needed to pull some construction permits. This led to neighbors realizing exactly what was happening inside. Apparently everyone thought the company was a bible distributor, but when it became known that they were actually shipping smut and the smut was expanding, a zoning standoff brought everything to a screeching halt. There were even protesters. So the company decided to get warehouse space elsewhere.
Now, I’ve been in plenty of warehouses before, porn-related and otherwise, and I was shocked as I made my way through this one – both by the amount of DVDs they had on hand and the diversity of DVD-related enterprises that were underway.
There were literally thousands – maybe millions – of DVD and blue-ray products, some of which were so popular that Greg, the guy who’s ran their warehouse for over a decade, made a special accessible section right up front near the packaging center in order to save time:
(pictured: frequently ordered stuff)
There was also the rental section. Yep – people rent porn DVDs, return them, and then someone else rents them later (maybe even you):
There was also a burn-on-demand service. You see, Adult Empire produces a small amount of content (which they shoot in California, where porn production is legal), mostly star showcase collections that highlight a particular performer – the aforementioned Megan Rain, Jenna J. Ross, and Scarlett Red for example. In a genius move to create exactly the amount of product they need, saving both money and space, they only burn the exact amount of DVDs they need.
(pictured: burn on demand)
There were also sex toys:
(pictured: Chelsea imitates a sex toy)
(pictured: clothes #P4YP!!)
All this and there was still a third facility to go to– the data center. We all piled back in the car and made our way even closer to downtown.
As more and more people and companies move to cloud storage, hard storage has become more and more difficult to find. And as Adult Empire was expanding their VOD capabilities, they found it more and more difficult to find the type of storage they needed. So they built their own.
“I enjoy the ‘classic’ business model of buying a product and selling an actual good,” D’Arcangelo explained. “It’s not a big idea. It’s not Twitter or Facebook, but it’s real – you can touch it. And it’s a big part of the way we meet our customers’ needs.”
And after a long day of seeing so many different “real life” adult products, I suddenly found myself in a huge icily air-conditioned storage bunker where no people actually worked. A sea of very complex and intimidating looking hard drive systems blinked at me, letting me know it was almost time for dinner.
A couple hours later, after an awesome sightseeing bike ride around town, I was belly up to the bar at Fathead’s on Pittsburgh’s South Side, Headhunter IPA in one hand, a giant “headwhich” in the other, chatting with Daniel Chura.
A born-and-raised Pittsburgher, Chura was turned down the first time he applied for a coding job at Adult Empire. It was 2000, he had just completed school, and the Empire was the only dot com in the area. He tried again in 2007, this time starting in the warehouse before moving into web development, then to his current role as Director of Web Development and Affiliates. Like most everything in porn, it was a pretty unconventional way to move up the food chain.
Today, with seven years of development experience under his belt and a city going through a technology-driven revival, I’d imagine there were a lot more options for a person with his considerable skill set. I asked Chura if he’d ever consider moving on – because even though the code all looks the same, the fact remains that some code is also porn.
“You know, I don’t set an alarm,” he told me between nips of Hippy Sipper Imperial Stout, his brew of choice. “I wake up and I’m out the door, not because I have to be there at a certain time but because I love going to work.”
“I get to work with cutting edge technologies and extremely talented engineers and designers who could hack it in any development house,” he continued. “The Empire is a special place, and I think we’d all be just as happy working here if we sold skateboards instead of porn.”
Merbler had told me about that too, how great the work culture is at the Empire. In addition to that gym, I heard tale of Secret Santas, employee lunches every month, a gardening club (there was a huge community garden off the side of the parking lot at the main office), and going to baseball games and the local amusement park, Kennywood.
“I think the work environment here is one of the things that makes us unique,” Merbler told me. “During the recession we definitely suffered, and now the company is making it up to the employees and really thanking them for sticking with us.”
This idea really hit me, the idea of making the employee experience as great as possible. In today’s world, it seems like a lot of employers are mostly concerned with making a buck, regardless of cost. It could be that Adult Empire is just nicer than most, but it also could be strategic – because when the world is protesting your right to mail products others have ordered, you need to make sure the team around you is on your side.
(pictured: The Empire, a DVD & sex toy warehouse)
All images by me or Chelsea McCain. Used with permission.
Reprinted from UPROXX/FilmDrunk (7/20/15).
And ICYMI, you can read all my work featured on UPROXX/FilmDrunk right –> here
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