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Stairway to Stardom: Top Agents Reflect on the New Talent Landscape

Stairway to Stardom: Top Agents Reflect on the New Talent Landscape

On August 28, 2020, several months into the most treacherous period following the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic worldwide, the adult industry woke up to the news that Jim South, the legendary head of the equally storied World Modeling agency, had passed away at 80. People called South’s passing “the end of an era,” an obituary cliche that nevertheless was fitting.

Two decades into the 21st Century, talent representation in the adult business would likely be unrecognizable to a time traveler from the “Golden Age of Porn” in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, when the San Fernando Valley-based South, in the words of several of today’s top agents eulogizing him, pretty much “invented the job of porn agent.”

I go through a long signing interview and we chat about their life, their wants, their availability. I look for the upbeat, excited talent that wants this opportunity — and is not a diva.

2020 was also another kind of watershed moment in adult, as the industry ground to a halt for months over mandatory isolation protocols, crashing the agencies’ percentage-based business even as the unstoppable rise of premium fan platforms, led by OnlyFans, began turning models and performers into lucrative personal brands and — in some particularly blessed cases — millionaires.

Now it’s two years later and performers are back on sets, vaccines be praised. And despite near-tectonic shifts in the talent ecosystem, many performers continue the ancient showbiz tradition of engaging what used to be called “a ten-percenter” to handle bookings and other day-to-day unpredictabilities — though in adult the agent’s cut is often higher.

XBIZ spoke with principals from several of the most prominent agencies in the business, to size up how agencies have adapted in the post-pandemic world and perhaps get a glimpse at the future of one of the less reported-on, yet most intriguing sectors of the adult industry: representation.

THE ‘IT’ FACTOR IN 2022

Another Old Hollywood and Valleywood cliche: Girl walks into an agency. Cigar-chomping guy behind the desk looks her up and down and says, “I’m gonna make you a star.”

Nothing remotely like that is happening in adult entertainment in 2022. First of all, no girl, guy or nonbinary performer is walking anywhere since most talent scouting and model reach-outs these days are done strictly online. By the time agent — no longer guaranteed to be a “guy” either, cigar optional — and talent meet, photos have already been copiously shared and social media stats carefully scrutinized.

Adult “stardom” itself means something completely different too, compared with the Jim South days. The supply of adult performers now far outpaces demand, including the public’s willingness to pay for content and the capacity of the limited number of agencies to add to already bursting-at-the-seams rosters.

In 2022, talent is an overcrowded field, which makes the traditional role of agencies and agents as filters, gatekeepers and taste-shapers even more crucial.

One thing hasn’t changed from the days of auditions on film stock, though: that elusive “it” factor that makes someone a star remains as rare as ever.

That may be why ATMLA focuses on more tangible qualifications, a practice that veteran agent Mark Schechter tells XBIZ has not changed much over time at his agency.

“We primarily look for talent who are reliable, have a solid work ethic and demonstrate character that will ultimately have mutually beneficial results for both the talent and ATMLA as a team effort,” he explains.

Schechter sees that talent-agency relationship as sacrosanct, and it is important to him that it has remained consistent over time.

“We provide integrity-minded representation with proper guidance and support,” he tells XBIZ. “Regardless of whether an adult film performer is in their first year or is a seasoned veteran, we are able to provide representation that is tailored to their needs and desires.”

For Matrix Models’ John Steven, the search for models at any given time is based narrowly on the current production requirements for bookable talent. Even before the pandemic, he notes, studios and companies were already becoming more selective.

“The number of models who want to get into the industry has increased dramatically,” Steven explains. “So a model that was totally bookable five years ago is now facing stiff competition.”

But it’s not only the size of the endlessly replenished talent pool that has led to the current decline in booking offers; it is also that fewer and bigger companies now decide who works and who doesn’t.

“With the consolidation on the studio side of the industry, it’s become more critical than ever that we find professional, responsible models ready for a career in the entertainment industry,” says Motley Models’ Dave Rock.

Rock has famously made diversification of opportunities a priority at Motley.

“In addition to the adult community expanding to now include cam models, premium social media creators, etc., we see adult blending with the entertainment industry as a whole like never before,” Rock elaborates, adding that his ideal “Motley Girl” can juggle the roles of social media influencer, on-point performer and even multi-revenue-stream entrepreneur.

“We look for the ability to wear those multiple hats in each model we consider because with the rise and widespread adoption of platforms like OnlyFans, mainstream adult stars have more competition than ever for fans’ eyes and dollars,” Rock concludes. “With a more competitive landscape comes a higher degree of sophistication required of talent.”

For some agents, even after the now-customary extensive online scouting process, an old-school interview is still central to their decision to represent somebody.

Andre Madness, one of the two partners at Nexxxt Level Talent Agency and a multi-hyphenate veteran of the industry, says his agency goes through a series of discussions with each model before signing a contract.

“Nexxxt Level looks to partner up with individuals that intend to shine through their performance and professionalism, and possess an ability to work in a team environment,” Madness explains, adding that the goal is not only to find someone who is right for the agency, but also to determine whether the agency is the right fit for their career.

His partner, Jonathan Morgan, adds that their agency has “always sought to align ourselves with individuals who have the three ‘P’s: professionalism, physical beauty and an understanding of the art of performance.”

“I go through a long signing interview and we chat about their life, their wants, their availability,” offers OC Modeling’s Sandra McCarthy. “I look for the upbeat, excited talent that wants this opportunity — and is not a diva.

“They need to have ‘it,’” McCarthy declares.

THE GREAT CREATOR ECONOMY DISRUPTION

The ubiquitous Web2 buzzword “disruption” may be the butt of many jokes these days, having been seriously critiqued in popular documentaries about the ups and downs of notorious business disruptors Uber, WeWork, Theranos, etc. But any discussion of the myriad changes in the adult space during the pandemic must center on the seismic disruption of business practices — particularly among the talent pool — caused by what can generally and broadly be termed “the independent creator economy.”

Before the pandemic, says Nexxxt Level’s Jonathan Morgan, “Only a handful of motivated performers were using the resources available to them to generate additional income outside of paid production work.

“But once the pandemic hit and paid production work ground to a halt, it forced performers to look into the exciting world of being their own production company and creating their own content for money,” the agent added. “More performers than ever before now have the means to generate multiple revenue streams, as well as increase the popularity of their names and brand.”

John Steven sees a parallel explosion, this one in the number of women who “two years ago would never have entered the industry and are now flocking to be a porn star.”

During the pandemic, Steven notes, “a lot of women lost their jobs and were faced with the harsh reality of financially supporting themselves and their families. Since they were in lockdown at home, camming became a way to have a steady income. After the pandemic they decided that being a nude model was no longer frowned upon, and it could be a great revenue stream. A lot of these women decided to take the next step and start doing porn.”

Some agents have embraced the new breed of entrepreneurial, financially independent sex workers enticed to becoming creators and brands.

“The talent pool has changed,” says Rock. “We’re seeing a different type of applicant now. It’s becoming more common for us to sign established talent with a large social media following, looking to us to help navigate the world of studio content, instead of new talent starting from scratch.”

These models, Rock explains, are used to enjoying multiple revenue streams from the outset.

“Not that long ago, a talent we signed would rely solely on income from studio shoots. But now most of our talent see studio shoots as a way to grow their audience and not as a primary source of income, which is a significant departure from the pre-pandemic days.”

The indie disruption of adult also shattered the stereotype of “a down-on-her-luck girl getting into the adult industry as a last resort,” Rock emphasizes. “It just doesn’t apply anymore. We have models who are married, are parents, that are college-educated and come from all walks of life. These are individuals that have the resources to go into any industry they choose, and they’re choosing to come into this industry because they see a shift happening.”

This new breed of incoming performers, whom Rock describes as “empowered, sex-positive people that enjoy the challenge of creating adult-oriented content,” is also acutely aware that the barriers between porn and mainstream are crumbling, as evidenced by the likes of Maitland Ward, Chloe Cherry and many others currently making news.

“More and more, the new models see the adult industry as a way to break into entertainment in general,” Rock says.

Independent content creators now routinely reach out to established, licensed agencies to grow their brands.

“I have personally experienced a substantial increase in the quantity of new talent submissions and inquiries,” says ATMLA’s Schechter. “I see a greater number of new talent desiring to enter the mainstream side of adult film production to capture and gain a wider audience exposure and to grow their own personal content production business.”

Conversely, Schechter has also seen the pro talent pool become increasingly successful at boosting their personal revenue streams by creating and distributing their own content.

From an agent’s point of view, both developments are beneficial to a healthy relationship because the new revenue streams “have reduced the dependency on the agency to be that main source, if not the only source, of income for talent,” Schechter adds.

For OC’s McCarthy, the stability provided by indie income has literally saved lives, even if her final assessment of the overall disruptive effect is decidedly mixed.

“Well, I have felt that COVID put OnlyFans on the map,” McCarthy told XBIZ, “and I’m grateful to some extent. Without this revenue stream, we might have seen many more overdoses and suicides. But it has also retired most of the big stars and the rates are way higher now, because of what the girls are making on their own. And there’s way more cancellations because of COVID testing, and some just don’t care and don’t want to shoot. They can make the money at home and don’t have to stay on set for 10 hours.”

Before the pandemic, says 101 Modeling’s Robert Moran, “talent relied more upon their position in the marketplace to drive traffic to their social media outlets.”

As Moran sees it, instead of relying primarily on the marketing skills of the companies they work for to attract an audience, models now “build their social media presence by flooding the market with cheaply-made content before they become popular through traditional ways: building an audience, press, product in the marketplace, reviews and word of mouth.”

THE STUDIOS EVOLVE AND ADAPT

Adult talent agencies have traditionally been tasked with balancing the equation between the talent for whom they work and the studios wishing to book them. But the aforementioned consolidation of studios into larger conglomerates which are booking less, and thus prefer to hedge their bets with surething performers, has altered that equation. As Nexxxt Level’s Andre Madness puts it, “Collectively, studios continue to evolve their process of selecting talent.”

The biggest change, according to Foxxx Modeling’s Chris Cane, is that “studios want to see a social media presence. They still want attractive women, but the bigger your following, the more they will shoot you.”

Studios, adds Hussie Models’ Riley Reynolds, “continue to look for fresh and familiar faces, for unique performers with great attitudes, and as always the response of their fans and fan base has an influence on the selection process.”

Moran notes that studios “are looking more at Facebook, Twitter and Instagram enrollment of the talent and less at sexual skills they possess in front of the camera than in the past. They still try to shoot hot models, of course, but mediocre talent get more noticed than before due to their social media rankings.”

Or perhaps the definition of “hot” has changed too. As Moran puts it, “Who can predict what is attractive to any one person?”

The self-motivated audience-building factor, ATMLA’s Schechter confirms, is indeed crucial, since studios are becoming more and more selective with the casting process.

“Social media and ‘power rankings’ — such as Pornhub — have become deciding factors,” Schechter reveals, also noting that the studios’ selectivity has also foregrounded queries about each potential performer’s “reliability and good character.”

Nexxxt Level’s Morgan educates new talent by telling them that, given the greater competition for fewer bookings, “It is fairly easy to get a production company to hire the hot fresh new face just once; it is difficult for that performer to get hired a second or third time unless they have shown that company a high level of performance and professionalism.”

Beyond the “new girl” stage, Motley’s Dave Rock confirms, studios are looking to book models “that market themselves well, have an existing fan base and that will support a scene upon release,” but with fewer shoots available, they also put a much greater emphasis on professionalism.

“If talent cannot reliably make their call time and show up with a great attitude, ready to work, their opportunities will dry up quicker than in the past,” Rock adds.

The general consensus, as Moran puts it, is that “times are different and studios are finding new ways to become profitable.”

THE NEW NORMAL FOR AGENCIES

It wasn’t just talent and studios that had to adapt to the post-COVID new normal. Some of the more established agencies saw longstanding business practices and dynamics upended by the global public health crisis.

“The pandemic caused us to close our physical office location,” says ATMLA’s Schechter. “This resulted in having to adapt to make myself and my staff become more proactive and creative in our communication skills.”

For a business that relies fundamentally on human interaction and carefully cultivated relationships with clients and industry stakeholders, rethinking communication strategies needed careful consideration.

“We are always readily available for online, face-to-face meeting environments,” Schechter says. “The benefits from this change of working environments have been substantial in our continued growth and success as a leading agency in the industry.”

Nexxxt Level likewise took advantage of the remote-office technologies popularized by the 2020-2021 social-distancing protocols, and carried them over into its own new normal.

“Our agents meet on Zoom twice a week to go over business practices and techniques, and to support each other as agents, so that the agency’s performers and the producers we deal with continue to get the best possible service each day,” says Andre Madness. “We continue to evolve with technology, social media platforms and training to be the best resource for anyone who needs help.”

Improving and strengthening communications in all aspects of business is a common thread among all the agents XBIZ consulted. They see the lessons learned as something of a silver lining after the uncertainty of the pandemic era.

“We’ve realized now more than ever that communication is key,” says Rock. “This year we’ve started holding regular one-on-ones with our models, similar to what you’d experience in a corporate environment. Through these touchpoints, we’re able to receive feedback, set expectations and identify areas where each party can improve.”

In 2022, Motley has also instituted post-shoot surveys to allow models the opportunity to raise any issues and provide real-time feedback after each shoot.

“The most important thing, above all else, is that our talent feels safe on set and that their boundaries are respected,” Rock says. “These processes help us to ensure that is what’s happening. We never want a model to feel pressured to do anything.”

Rock says he sees his agency as “a mission-driven business — we want everyone participating in this industry to leave it better than we found it.”

THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EXPERIENCED

One of the clearest value propositions for a talent signing with an agency is being able to take advantage of a storehouse of knowledge about career building.

Even in the new landscape — where models are content creators and content, as we all know, is king — trusted, experienced agents can still empower talent to grow by providing guidance, promotion and marketing tips.

The agents we spoke with consistently mentioned social media training, and do’s and don’ts in particular, as an area where many talent could benefit from the advice of a seasoned mentor.

“Having been in the business for 24 years, I try to give them the best advice possible,” says Foxxx Modeling’s Chris Cane. “I talk to them about networking, and posting on their social media platforms and how important it is.”

OC Modeling’s Sandra McCarthy says she tells her models to “stay on social media, be visible, always look good, always be ready to shoot, never be negative — especially on social media — don’t be a bummer on set, shoot as much as you can and always stay tested.”

Riley Reynolds tells XBIZ that Hussie Models prides itself on its social media presence, and on “ensuring that we praise both our rosters’ studio content and their personal projects.

“When we sign new models, we provide as much information as possible to ensure they succeed through both written resources and open conversation with agents, assistants and our branding director,” Reynolds explained, adding that his agency encourages discussions surrounding mental health as a way to “truly try to empower performers.”

ATMLA’s Schechter prefers an approach to mentoring that is tailored to each performer on his roster.

“If there is one important aspect that I have learned,” Schechter says, “it is that every talent has a different path to success in this industry. Their individual goals, aspirations and vision for success are different from one another. It is an important role for me to provide each and every talent the proper guidance and advice that is tailored towards their individual needs and desires.”

For Schechter, cultivating talent involves “providing them first with a business-minded approach and relationship, and educating them on the various expectations and experiences in order to continue improving their long road to success.

“This is of great importance to me,” he adds. “I maintain very consistent messaging to each and every talent we represent, to understand the importance of endurance in their quest for success over years, not just months. Becoming a successful adult film performer takes time, patience and consistency. Creating a brand name and reputation doesn’t happen overnight, and becomes valuable over time.”

Nexxxt Level’s Andre Madness describes himself and partner Jonathan Morgan as “advisors and coaches to those individuals who want, and request, help.”

Every performer, Madness explains, “is their own boss. We are a part of their team to assist their professional journey.”

Madness says Nexxxt Level provides “a written list of guidelines to assist each person in becoming a standout performer. We also provide a written list of wardrobe to help prepare our performers for most every project and scene scenario. We offer basic and foundational social media/marketing techniques. We also work together in strategies where talent can help us help them in actively marketing them and their availability.”

101 Modeling’s Robert Moran also thinks an important role of his agency is to “empower the models by actively teaming them up with companies that will assist them in growing, cultivating and harvesting the dollars that exist now in the social media marketplace.”

Moran says 101 also supports talent in “choosing the right collaborators when producing their own content, so the experience helps grow their audience.”

Rock says the guidance Motley provides to its models “begins from day one. We endeavor to ensure they understand the rules of the social media platforms where they maintain a presence. It’s everyone’s goal to make sure these girls keep their accounts and continue to grow. Playing by the rules helps to ensure that.”

Rock also touts the professional networking benefits of “big events we hold multiple times throughout the year” bringing agency talent together with top photographers, influencers, videographers, industry professionals and the press.

“In addition to being great opportunities to get tasteful, Instagram-safe content, they provide meaningful exposure for our talent that leads directly to more bookings,” Rock notes. He cites as a 2022 highlight Motley’s partnership with Doc Johnson and boutique fashion line Rose In Good Faith (RIGF).

“Our models were part of a campaign supporting the launch of RIGF’s latest shoe,” Rock says, pointing out that, for a month, anyone driving by the iconic Fred Segal store in the heart of the Sunset Strip saw “Motley Girls” on the giant LED screen as part of the campaign.

“We had adult stars in a space that until now was reserved for the likes of Pete Davidson and Gigi Hadid,” Rock reports proudly.

BRIGHT FORECAST FOR INDUSTRY AND AGENCIES

Every agent consulted by XBIZ forecasts a bright future for the industry and the ever-evolving role of agencies within it.

Foxxx’s Chris Cane says that having more producers than ever before, because of OnlyFans and other platforms, bodes well for 2023 and beyond.

“You always have to be looking ahead at trends and what is best for your models,” Cane notes. “There is nothing like the present; put your focus towards that.”

Hussie’s Riley Reynolds also cites “the boom the industry has seen in the last few years,” in terms of both independent studios and performers.

“We feel confident that our growth is inevitable as well,” Reynolds adds. “Through our hard work, flexibility and being receptive to feedback and new information, we feel unstoppable. Our goals are to continue supporting our roster in unique ways, continue to adapt to our ever-changing environment and — as always — sign fresh and familiar faces and propel them into successful careers.”

Motley’s Dave Rock sees a broader progressive social change that he likens to the success of the marijuana legalization movement.

“The adult industry is red hot right now,” Rock declares. “It’s edgy and exciting. Everyone knows a sex worker — someone they know has an OnlyFans. As we saw with the end of cannabis prohibition, everyone is now openly consuming it.”

For Rock, although everyone has always consumed adult entertainment, the pandemic and the premium content boom have shifted popular sentiment and now the public “feels comfortable openly consuming and engaging with adult entertainment like never before.”

To take advantage of this sea change and potential for growth, Motley has been investing in technology “to help automate repetitive aspects of the booking process, and to better empower our talent and studio partners to win.”

Rock’s outlook for the future is unguardedly positive for the agency and its clients. “We predict that Emily Willis’ success on YouTube and the Eddie Alcazar film ‘Divinity,’ and now Charly Summer with HBO’s upcoming series ‘The Idol,’ will continue. We will see mainstream TV and film casting adult influencers more than ever in their projects. More brands are beginning to look to and feel comfortable with adult influencers for their campaigns, and their customers are supportive of it.”

Mark Schechter’s optimistic forecast is grounded in the recent trial by ordeal that affected agencies, the industry and society at large.

“I have to start by sharing my perspective that I was faced with between April and June 2020,” the ATMLA head says. “The pandemic literally shut down the mainstream production of adult film content, and I was seriously concerned about our ability to survive what appeared to be a devastatingly long shutdown period.”

However, Schechter points out, the industry “quickly adapted to a stringent COVID testing policy that enabled us to operate efficiently. Challenging at best, but proven to be effective in keeping the mainstream production of adult film content in operation. I feel this was actually a time of opportunity to focus on evolving, with the pivot of talent taking a more hands-on approach to their own content production and providing an environment that caters to those needs.”

The crisis, in Schecter’s view, prompted agencies to begin looking towards the next horizon.

“We established relationships that have enabled us to refer talent to content managers, as well as other areas of guidance,” Schechter explains. “I had always envisioned being able to provide additional guidance, services and benefits to our talent roster. As talent continues to become more financially independent and focused on their own content creator business, I see a tremendous need and advantage for me to be able to offer resources such as financial planning, budgeting and assisting our talent partners in their overall business growth.

“I often say to talent, ‘Your success is our success,’” Schechter shares. “And this will always continue to drive my motives and intentions.”

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