“It isn’t too different from an indie movie shoot,” says Joanna Angel. “There’s the challenge of a budget, which is a challenge for any movie, but when you’re dealing with sex you’re dependent on male genitalia to do a certain thing.”
Joanna Angel makes porn. It began in 2002 when she and her Rutgers University roommate started a website called Burning Angel. “We just came up with the name. It had a good girl/bad girl thing going, so we liked it,” she told Business Insider recently. “Initially I thought of being a journalist, possibly a sex advice column type person kind of like a Carrie Bradshaw. I also had this odd dream to teach English classes to people in prison. Burning Angel was a very small experiment at first. I never imagined it would become my career.”
Burning Angel distinguished itself by offering some exceptionally different fare from your conventional Playboy-style airbrushed nudity. While other porn operations are often focused the size of their models’ members and mammary glands, Burning Angel went a different way and became a progenitor of what’s now known as “alt-porn”: pierced and dyed punk rock girls wearing tattoos and little else.
Today, as an 11-year veteran of the adult industry, Angel has served a number of roles in front of and behind the camera. Burning Angel is now a serious business with 10 other people involved in the day-to-day operation. It seems to run much like a startup.
“I think we started at the right time and developed a lot of fans early on. I had a passion for it and I did anything and everything to get the word out about my site,” she said. And the word did indeed get out.
Alt-porn is “kind of a silly name,” she once told Complex. “It’s just supposed to mean porn that is different. It’s like, what is alternative music really? It’s just music that’s different from pop music, you know? But I think what makes alt-porn is the community and the culture behind it in addition to the content.”
Angel’s site also differs from regular porn because it has a focus on community and culture. There are your standard offerings in picture and video, of course. But Burning Angel also has live events, both online and in the physical world, and there’s also an active forum for members to discuss music or tattoos or pop culture in general. Engaging with other members (and even the performers) gives paying users a reason to return to the site again and again.
Burning Angel has to make money in a variety of ways since it’s competing the endless world of free porn on the Internet. The lion’s share of revenue comes from user subscription fees. After that, there’s money in selling DVDs, hosting events, booking appearances, and selling branded clothing. Burning Angel even sells its own line of sex toys.
Burning Angel’s success didn’t happen overnight. “When we started, I had a part-time job as a waitress. I wanted to quit so that I’d have as much time as possible to work on the company. I didn’t want to work for myself during the day and for someone else at night,” Angel says.
She won an Adult Video News Award (think: the Academy Awards of porn) for Most Outrageous Sex Scene in 2006, catapulting Burning Angel to mainstream attention. She has since won plenty more awards, written and directed a number of films, and has obviously appeared in many as well.
And in 11 years of work to date, she still hasn’t tired of it: “I oversee everything, especially on the creative side. Nothing creative gets shown to anyone unless it goes through me first. I don’t work on the day-to-day stuff anymore, but I still kinda do a little of everything. And sometimes I’m on camera too.”
If Joanna has it her way, the future will only hold more work and opportunity for Burning Angel. “Porn is definitely tough,” she said, “but this is my career and this is what I do. We want to expand the brand and do even more with it. At this point, we’ve been around for a while. But we’re still growing because we’re still a small business.”