How much people in the adult film industry get paid

There's a well-worn porn cliche about the college student-turned-actress who decided to have sex in front of a camera in order to pay off her student loans. Like many cliches, it's rarely true - but it's worth wondering: How big are paychecks in the porn business, anyway?

Money is a topic that's shrouded in mystery in the adult entertainment world. While it's widely presumed to be a multibillion dollar industry, there's no real firm accounting to back that up. Companies regularly inflate their numbers when speaking publicly and may deflate them at opportune times as well. The same is true of performers.

The median household income for the United States was US$53,657 (S$76,711) in 2014 (the most recent data available), according to a Census Bureau survey. While that report breaks down average salaries among several careers, there is no data about adult performers.

So to determine who makes what, CNBC spoke with a number of individuals who work in all aspects of the adult world to get a sense of what sort of money trades hands. While there's no way to say with absolute certainty that the figures are correct, they were supported by enough people to at least seem roughly right.

Adult film industry's biggest stars

  • Carter Cruise: Two years ago, this 24-time nominee was a college student, but she knew the academic life wasn't for her. After taking a semester off to reassess life, she came up with the Carter Cruise brand - and launched it with a topless photo shoot. When she realized she was comfortable with that, she decided to dive all the way into porn. Her popularity soon exploded. In addition to making our list, she also topped the ranking of 2015's most popular stars at porn site GameLink.
  • Riley Reid: A six-year veteran of the adult entertainment industry, Reid is a master at social media, where she has cultivated her fan base by regularly tweeting pictures and Vine videos of herself - usually nude. In 2014, she was named Performer of the Year by Xbiz, which gave her already fast-growing career a big boost. She's up for that same award from both Xbiz and AVN this year - along with 14 other nominations.
  • Aidra Fox: Fox started her career in porn as soon as she turned 18, becoming Penthouse's Pet of the Month less than a year later. Now 20, she was nominated for 13 awards this year. As her career progresses, she has mentioned she's interested in getting into directing. But for now, she's busy in front of the camera.
  • Annika Albrite: Currently in her fifth year as a performer, Albrite is coming off a huge year. In 2015, she swept performer of the year honors from AVN and Xbiz, which she has parlayed into some behind the scenes work as well. Three years ago, LA Weekly said she was one of 10 porn stars who could be the next Jenna Jameson. It's too early to declare that as truth, but with 12 more nominations this year, she's certainly on her way.
  • Dana Vespoli: Vespoli, who made the Dirty Dozen last year as well, is a curiosity of sorts. While she is a performer, most of her AVN and Xbiz nominations come from her work behind the camera as a director of films for adult film studio Evil Angel (something she has been doing for 10 years now). But her willingness to jump into the action makes her higher profile than many women who oversee porn films, earning her a big fan base. She's up for 12 awards this year.
  • Skin Diamond: A former model for Louis Vuitton and American Apparel, Diamond quickly became one of the top performers in the porn world when she made the switch. She's nominated for 11 awards this year. She also boasts one of the more distinctive looks in the industry, often sporting a haircut that has one side of her head shaved close.
  • Chanel Preston: Preston has appeared on the Dirty Dozen since its inception - and has a substantial fan base within and outside of the industry. She is in constant demand as a performer, hosts an occasional Web series ("Naked with Chanel") that focuses on issues surrounding sexuality in America, directs films, is a board member of the Adult Performer Advocacy Committee, and has appeared more regularly on mainstream programs, such as Showtime's recent documentary on the adult industry.
  • Jilian Janson: Janson's porn career started when she was in high school, a rarity even in this industry. She began appearing as a Webcam model on MyFreeCams, but was recruited by an agent and began shooting three months after her 18th birthday. She dropped out of school after word of her career choice spread and she was harassed. But in the two years since she entered adult entertainment, she has found a niche, earning eight award nominations this year.
  • Vicki Chase: Perhaps the only performer to take her stage name from a major banking institution (where she was a teller before entering the porn world), Chase has had a fairly low profile for the past six years. Her star began to rise when she had a cameo on Sons of Anarchy in 2014 and this year she has seven nominations.
  • Romi Rain: Adult entertainment is a family tradition for Rain. Her mother, while not a performer, posed in Hustler many years ago. Rain stuck with nude modeling at first as well, performing occasionally as a Webcam model. Curiosity about the industry led her to give it a try and this year she has accrued seven award nominations.
  • Keisha Grey: A two-year veteran of the industry, Grey amassed seven nominations this year. A music lover, she say
  • Mick Blue: Last year's AVN Male Performer of the Year, Blue has more than 30 nominations this year. Born in Austria, he has been part of the industry since 2000 and in 2014 married fellow performer Anikka Albrite.

Actresses

Women are, of course, the main attraction in mainstream porn - and, as you might expect, the amounts paid to actresses span a wide range. A superstar performer - one who has name recognition that extends beyond adult entertainment - earns considerably more than a newcomer or someone who is well-known only among porn enthusiasts.

The performer's representative/agent is also important. There are a number of top agencies, such as LA Direct and Spiegler, whose actresses (again, excluding the top stars) earn what could be called the industry average. But some naive or desperate performers will associate themselves with fly-by-night individuals or agencies, who ask a much lower rate, often in hopes of earning a quick buck.

The determining factor is the sex act performed and whether the actress has done that act on camera before.

"When the girls first get into the business and they're new, I think they can command additional money for different sex acts," said Steven Hirsch, owner of Vivid, one of the biggest adult entertainment studios. "Initially they make more money, then it depends on how popular they become."

Here's how things break down. For a "traditional" sex scene between a man and a woman, the average actress' compensation is typically between US$800 and US$1,000, depending on the studio's budget. Top-tier performers can earn as much as $1,500, occasionally $2,000, while newcomers with bad representation might earn as little as US$300.

More extreme acts, as you might expect, command higher rates. The most extreme - unsuitable for describing in polite conversation - can go for US$1,800 to US$2,500.

Want to work in China? Here are 6 jobs that will see biggest pay rise in next 5 years

  • 1. Software engineer:

    It's been four year since Su graduating from university. Now Su works as a senior R&D engineer in an Internet company with annual salary reaching 350,000 yuan (S$78,184).

  • 2. Cross-fields talent:

    Case: Cheng, a 31-year-old former banker, earns a monthly salary of 35,000 yuan after changing his job to become a risk manager in a P2P company.

  • 3. Intelligent hardware engineer:

    Case: After two years on the job, a hardware circuit engineer surnamed Pan earns 30,000 yuan per month in a smartwear company.

  • 4. Farm contractor:

    Case: A farmer in Gaotang county, Shandong province, has circulated 600 mu (40 hectares) of farmlands and his income this year is estimated to be more than 300,000 yuan.

  • 5. Designer:

    Case: A junior college graduate started a design company for auto parts after working on industrial design in an auto company for five years. In less than two years, the annual income of his startup became nearly 1 million yuan.

  • 6. Maternity matron, nurse:

    Case: Liu Aiqun, a maternity matron from Henan province, earns as much as 11,000 yuan per month in Beijing, while her daughter who works as shop assistant can only earn 1,000 yuan in their hometown.

Male performers

Men might be a critical part of porn films, but this is one industry where the balance of pay certainly leans toward women.

With men, there's no pay differential depending on the sex act. Generally, male performers receive a fixed amount per scene or day, depending on how the shoot was booked.

And while there are a few top tier actors, such as Manuel Ferrara, who command top dollar, most earn considerably less.

In general, males average US$500-US$600 per scene or day. Better known male performers can earn US$700-US$900; superstars up to US$1,500.

Find out which are the well-paying jobs in Singapore

  • Financial Services Company Director The average financial services company director in Singapore earns a tidy $22,517 average monthly salary.
  • Financial Services COO/General Manager Although your average Chief Operating Officer or GM in a financial services company receives a lower pay compared to the company director, their $16,242 average monthly salary should be enough to scrape by.
  • Insurance Company Director An insurance company director will have to be content to earn even less than the General Manager at other financial services companies, taking home just $14,745.
  • Air Transport and Supporting Services COO/General Manager The perfect job for the aviation enthusiast who's willing to settle for $14,076 per month.
  • University Lecturer We all love to talk, but how many people earn $13,684 off talking? If the stressful life of a company director or COO isn't for you but a fat paycheque is absolutely your thing, then this is definitely the direction you will want to go.

Behind the scenes

It takes more than performers on screen to make an adult film, of course. While the production values typically aren't on the same level as a Hollywood film and the writing is generally skipped via the fast forward button, they're still roles that need to be filled.

One difference between an adult film and a more mainstream one, aside from the sex, is that directors are a lot more hands-on when it comes to the filmmaking process, sometimes securing locations, ensuring lighting is correct, picking up the food for the craft services table and sometimes even acting as the film's cameraperson.

In general, a director of a porn film - an actual film, rather than a short - will earn US$1,000-US$1,500 per day. In extreme cases, when he or she is required to do dramatically more than direct, that can go as high as US$3,000, though few studios will pay that amount.

Writers earn considerably less, pocketing US$250-US$400 per day. Shoots for most productions typically last two to four days. Tentpole porn films can take four to eight days.

Camerapersons, when the director's not filling that role, can earn $500-$700 per day; those who own their own camera, generally a Canon 5D Mark III, get the higher end.

Sound technicians can get US$300 and US$400 per day, while production assistants pick up $100 to $250.

Virtually all film shoots include still photograph sessions, which are either sold separately or used to market the film online. Those photographers earn $500 per day.

And, of course, every actor and actress needs their makeup done just right. Makeup artists can earn US$500 for working a full day on set, but many prefer to do what's known as a "come and go." That brings them to a set for a shorter period, where they charge US$100 to US$150 per person, then are free to move on to other work.

Adding it up

While films and scenes from them are the most visible part of the industry, smart performers don't limit their revenue streams to just that part of the business. Feature dancing and product endorsements, among other things, can be ancillary income streams, which can equal or even exceed the amount made doing shoots.

Feature dancing can be especially lucrative if you've got a large fan base. Performers earn an appearance fee, which varies widely, as well as any tips from patrons. And many performers bring along merchandise to sell to fans. One actress/dancer said she regularly earns US$7,000 to US$10,000 per feature-dancing appearance, which can last two days.

Affiliating with a line of adult novelties can also be lucrative. Generally, there's a base payout for that, but some companies offer a percentage of each product sale. The more items that bear an actresses' name, body and face on the packaging or the product, the bigger the check.

So how much does a porn star make? Six-figure incomes are likely common for popular stars, though that's far from an industry average. Ultimately, assuming they have a decent agent, a performer's salary comes down to three things - two of which are in their control: Their work ethic and frequency, their entrepreneurial spirit and their popularity.

There's also a fourth intangible: their longevity.

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