If you’re a fan of adult content on sites such as Sean Cody, Randy Blue and Lucas Entertainment, you’re greatly indebted to a man named Chuck Holmes. Holmes founded the legendary Falcon Studios in 1971, and helped gay men feel proud of their sexuality during an era when distributing pornography was still a criminal offense and adult films were still described as “dirty.” He would eventually use the incredible fortune he amassed for philanthropy, funding HIV/AIDS outreach programs, as well as San Francisco Community Center Project, Amnesty International, The Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund and the Human Rights Campaign, as well as helping finance Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign. Filmmaker Mike Stabile spent more than half a decade researching the life and career of the mogul, who died of AIDS-related causes in 2000, and the result is the riveting Seed Money, which Outfest will screen at the Director’s Guild on July 13. Stabile spoke with Queerty about Holmes’ career, the risks adult filmmakers faced in the 1970s and what happened to Falcon porn stars when they left the business.
Mike Stabile: I had a friend (producer Jack Shamama) who was working at Falcon several years ago. The company had just been sold, and they were throwing out the most incredible material, most of it related to Chuck — pictures of his yacht, photos with Al Gore, FBI indictments — and this incredible story began to unfold of a man who was essentially the gay Hugh Hefner, who’d built this empire and gone on to help fund the gay rights movement.
What purpose does pornography serve in our culture?
I think it depends who you are. For most of us, out in major gay hubs, it’s light and pleasurable entertainment, like pop music or a Hollywood blockbuster. Something to tide us over. But until the late ‘90s, it was one of the only places you could see gay culture represented in a positive way, outside of a few art house movies and “Very Special Episodes” of sitcoms. And so for many gay men, coming of age in hostile environments, gay porn showed that there was another world out there — mostly in California — where you could meet other men and live openly and happily. It showed that you weren’t sick, that you weren’t alone. And for people in the closet, of course, or people who are elderly or disabled, it can be one of the mainstays of sexuality.
What distinguishes Chuck from other pornographers from his era, such as Matt Sterling?
Chuck was a businessman, first and foremost. He loved sex, and he loved porn, and he knew that to be the successful, he not only had to be the best, he had to be dependable. The early gay pornographers seem to fall into two camps: artist or con men. They either wanted to create something beautiful or meaningful, or they wanted to just make money, no matter how bad it was. Chuck seems to have had a bit of both in him, and I think that helped him really transform the industry.
The film touches on the subject of racism in pornography. The most popular performers seemed to be midwestern white boys with blond hair. What was the response when Chuck introduced black performers into his films?
There were always black men in Falcon movies, but they were few and far between. And they’d have titles like Mandingo, or be put in thug roles. I wish I could say it’s changed much in today’s porn. The racial politics of Falcon in the ‘80s was one of the early and compelling reasons that we wanted to make this film. We had one director tell us he had to fight to cast a brunettes, because Chuck only wanted to film blonds. Part of it was Chuck — his own racial issues, his own sexual biases — but part was also the fact that he’d been busted for selling interracial porn. And of course, the gay male market can be tremendously racist as well. I wish I could say that’s changed today.
Being a pornographer in the 1970s was a risky occupation. How did the filmmakers avoid being arrested?
It was difficult. In the beginning, it was all underground — you sold porn like you might sell drugs today. Getting caught get you sent to federal prison for years — for one movie! So it was a secret society. You found customers through word of mouth, you didn’t send things to politically conservative states (like Texas or Utah). You avoided having your picture taken, which is one of the reasons we have so little footage of Chuck. You kept your locations secret, and you tried not to draw attention to yourself. And still, many directors, like Matt Sterling and William Higgins, were either sent to prison or driven out of the country.
Chuck had shipped a 8mm film to an address in Tennesee, that turned out to be a member of law enforcement looking to entrap him. In the ‘70s, obscenity was defined by “community standards,” so if the Feds wanted to get you, they’d trick you into shipping something into a socially conservative local. In this case, it was an interracial film. He was indicted along with Matt Sterling, but Chuck threw tons of money at the case, so that he could delay it and have it moved to San Francisco, where he prevailed. Matt Sterling, who was always more cautious with money, did not, and went to prison in Texas.
Chuck was initially an outsider but his wealth and power opened a lot of powerful doors for him. He was even photographed with the Clintons. Did they know who he was? Did Chuck have political influence?
Some did and some didn’t. Chuck was often in the closet about where his wealth came from, and for many in politics it was an open secret. But it certainly came back to bite him.
Chuck certainly contributed financially, and I think he thought of that as his real legacy — the National AIDS Memorial Grove in SF, the Gay and Lesbian Center, the Human Rights Campaign and the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund. But I look at his films as even more important. I think for many gay men, they were the original “It Gets Better” video, a way to imagine that life could be different, that life could be fulfilling, that you could be sexual and happy, rather than lonely and suicidal.
How has adult filmmaking changed since Chuck’s heyday?
In some ways, it’s returned to those early days — 15 minute ‘loops’ shot in hotels and bedrooms. At a screening in San Francisco, Falcon director John Rutherford said his budget for a big film in the ’90s was $500,000. Today, it’s $15,000.
We talked to a lot of former Falcon stars, and it really ran the gamut. Some were selling real estate, and the industry was a distant memory. Others were married, or doing personal training, or working in the industry as a director. And others were having a harder time getting by. As a culture, we’re often backward in the way we treat porn stars — treat them like they’re wearing a scarlet letter, and then blame them when they can’t escape their past.
What do you see as Chuck’s legacy?
That it’s important to be proud of who you are, and to not let people shame you for your sexuality. There were groups that wouldn’t accept Chuck because of what he did for a living, even within our own community. As gay people, we’re more than just our sexuality, sure, but it doesn’t mean that we should be embarrassed, or hide it just because the Christian right is scared of it. It’s something to celebrate, and to be proud of.