AVN Awards Show: 3 Decades of Rewarding XXXcellence

Once upon a time there were some magazine owners who decided to give out awards to the best of the best in the adult industry. And...they were boring.

The AVN Awards, which are celebrating their 30th anniversary this year, were by no means the star-studded event they are today when they started. At first, it was simply a listing of the winners in the magazine. But it wasn’t long before AVN founder Paul Fishbein decided it needed something more.

“The first real ceremony was a wine-and-cheese reception in a small meeting room of the Aladdin Hotel,” explained Gary Miller, who has been the show producer for the AVN Awards for almost three decades. “There was a riser, a small PA and a spotlight and that was it. Paul stood on that riser and read off every winner in every category. Everybody liked the idea and wanted to go, but it was slow-moving and the most boring thing ever.”

Shortly after the 1987 show, which was at the Tropicana, Miller said, his partner Mark Stone went to Fishbein and asked to take over the show and make it into a real production.

“Paul said no,” Miller said. “He told us it would never work. No one would want to see a big production of an awards ceremony that had to do with porn.

“But his partner at the time, Barry Rosenblatt, thought it was a good idea,” he continued. “By the time the summer rolled around and the VSDA [Video Software Dealers Association] show happened, Barry said he thought he had Paul talked into it.”

Fishbein had reason to be skeptical. The AVN Awards were not the only celebration of the adult industry at the time, and there was no reason to think one magazine’s recognition of performers, directors, scenes and studios would stand out and last longer than any other.

The Adult Film Association of America hosted one of the first shows, with its Erotica Awards starting in 1977 and running for 10 years. For a time, the AFAA Erotica Awards were the most notable of all the awards ceremonies. Mainstream celebrities like Francis Ford Coppola and Hunter S. Thompson were attendees.

Other shows during the porno chic era included Adam Film World’s X-Caliber awards, which were first given out in 1975 and based on fan votes; Hustler magazine’s Erotic Movie Awards, first presented in 1977; and the Critics Adult Film Awards, awarded by East Coast adult sex film critics from 1981 to 1987. Criticism of the Erotica Awards spawned the founding of the X-Rated Critics Organization and its Heart-On Awards. And while some of those shows continue today, and new awards shows have come on the scene, none have seemed to reach the stature of the AVN Awards.

The first several AVN Awards shows were nonprofit events, with any proceeds donated to the Free Speech Coalition.

“We never made any money on the shows,” Miller said. “Which I still find funny when people say that companies or people bought their awards.”

Tom Byron, who started in the industry in 1982, was an attendee at that first show.

“It was a little, tiny thing,” said Byron, who has only missed a handful of AVN Awards shows in his career. “No one really paid attention, though. It was just a meeting room with a bunch of chairs.”

When Miller took over production, he knew some changes were needed. The first time Miller produced the show, a live band was added. But it was still just a live band playing while Fishbein read off a long list of winners. More than 100 categories were honored, and every winner was read aloud and afforded the opportunity to come up onstage to accept their trophy—which was soon dubbed the “Woody.”

The next change was to bring the stars up on the stage with Fishbein as presenters.

“There was a time when Gene Ross [former AVN editor], Mark Stone, Paul and myself were walking the floor of the [Consumer Electronics Show] and trying to hand out tickets, begging people to come to the awards show,” he said. “Christian Mann was working with Paul Norman at Catalina Video back then, and they had the Catalina Twins, who were signing at their booth.

“In those days we were making shit up as we went along, so we begged Christian to see if we could get the Catalina Twins to walk Paul up onto the stage,” Miller continued. “We figured if we made a big deal out of it and had them walk down the aisle of the ballroom, people might get interested and come to the show. Everybody did like it...except Paul.”

Miller said Fishbein was never comfortable hosting the awards, so they decided to open it up to the industry. In the early years, many of the big names would share the hosting duties. Everyone from Nina Hartley to Chi Chi LaRue were staples as hosts. Byron said he even hosted one year, and performed the opening number, singing Foghat’s “I Just Want to Make Love to You.” (“I just cringe thinking about it,” he said.)

Another addition was to add a comedian into the mix. Some of the top comics ever have graced the stage, doing a short routine during the show through the years: the late Bill Hicks, Bobby Slayton, Greg Fitzsimmons, Dave Attell and more. The announcement of the comedic host each year is sometimes as anticipated as the nominees list.

“I always felt bad for the comedians,” Byron said. “The show was so long and by the time they came out, about half the room was coked up and the other half was talking business. No one was paying any attention to the comedians, and those guys just bombed.

It wasn’t until 1990, he added, “when Bill Hicks performed, that things really turned around and the production value of the awards show really started to go up. Hicks came out and really took over the room. He made an entrance like he was Elvis, and he had toilet paper wrapped around his shoulders like Elvis used to have his scarves, and he really made people pay attention to him. From that point on, things just got bigger and bigger.”

This year, comedian April Macie will join the long list of comedians to perform at the AVN Awards when she and performers Asa Akira and Jesse Jane host the 30th annual event.

Macie, a stand-up comedy headliner who travels all over the world, was a finalist on NBC’s Last Comic Standing in 2006, has appeared on E! Entertainment, Fuel TV, HSN, Sirius and XM Radio, Bob & Tom, Access Hollywood, and was labeled an “emerging talent to watch” by the Hollywood Reporter at the Just for Laughs Comedy Festival in 2005.

Macie is a regular guest on the Howard Stern Show, where in 2008 she was voted the “Funniest and Hottest” comedian in America. She has appeared on Showtime in the documentary I Am Comic, and in the Showtime stand-up specials Vegas Is My Oyster and Snoop Dogg Presents The Bad Girls of Comedy.

“I’m really excited to host the awards,” Macie said. “A lot of amazing comics have hosted in previous years, so I’ll be able to join them and put my cool pants on for a night.”

But it wasn’t just the production values that got bigger; the venues did too. What started off in a small meeting room eventually moved to casinos like Bally’s, the Riviera, The Venetian and even Mandalay Bay.

“I think the pinnacle was the year the awards were at Caesar’s Palace,” Byron said. “I think Paul had gone to the Hot Video awards and saw what they did there, so he thought the AVN Awards really needed to one-up those. There was a full-spread buffet; it was at Caesar’s and people were really starting to take notice. There were Hollywood celebrities that were starting to come to the awards, and it became kind of the racy thing to do.”

Byron said it was the 1990s when performers and studios really started to take stock in the awards and give them weight. They started to mean something, and helped validate performers, directors and more.

The AVN Awards have changed throughout the decades, as has the industry. One tradition Byron misses is being able to receive the trophies the night of the ceremony, he said. “They were those big, heavy trophies with those gold winged ladies on them,” he said, referring to the “Woody” trophies of old. “There was a sense of satisfaction when you could walk around the casino with those after the awards. If you won four, you could carry two in each hand and really feel superior. People knew you won, and that really meant something.”

Director and company owner Jules Jordan also remembers those heavy statues well. He first came to the Vegas awards show and AVN Adult Entertainment Expo in 2000, as he was transitioning from Pleasure Productions on the East Coast to a new life in Southern California. At Pleasure, Jordan said, “I would wholesale DVDs and in my off time I would shoot movies.” When he went to Vegas in 2000, “I was still by myself, weighing the options. It was a time of uncertainty.”

What he found at AEE and the Awards show was “a Disneyland of porno. Everybody had these giant booths. I think half of the San Fernando Valley was there.”

By the following year, Jordan was working at Evil Angel. This time at the show, he won his first award. “It was a movie called Heavy Metal, and it had Lexington Steele,” he said. “All anal, all interracial and one guy throughout the whole movie, which hadn’t been done at that point.” The ceremony was in the ballroom of the Venetian, Jordan recalled. “It was lined with photographers, you couldn’t move. It was a huge media event. It kinda like showed me how seriously people take the industry, by it being this gala event.”

He added, “One year I won six or seven awards … it was the second year that I was with Evil Angel…There were so many I couldn’t carry them out of there.”

Tori Welles, who will be attending the AVN Awards this year for the first time in 16 years, remembers the awards being a night where everyone could get together, party together and celebrate one another. And they could have an attitude about winning.

“I was so young then, and I was so caught up in my rock ‘n’ roll attitude,” she said with a laugh. “I remember when I won Best New Starlet [she tied in 1990 with Victoria Paris] and thinking, ‘Fuck you I made a lot of you people a lot of money, I SHOULD get an award!’”

For a time, Welles said she was even on the other side of the red carpet, mingling with other journalists—throughout the years, media from all over the world have attended the red carpet and AVN Awards, covering it for all types of audiences—when she did interviews for a show she hosted for FilmNet in Sweden.

“The AVN Awards back then were that night where we could be with one another without having to work,” she said. “I miss those good old days, when we were a family. The whole industry was like a family. You worked with the same people over and over again and we celebrated at the AVN Awards.”

Welles admits that she’s not sure what to expect when she returns to the ceremony this year.

“The whole industry has changed,” she said. “It’s a whole new industry from when I was in it really. But I think it’s much more visible now. Porn is still that dirty little secret that everyone watches, but now the world watches when we have the awards.

“It’s like the Porn Parade,” she added. “We’re here, we’re porn, get used to it!”

Renee Johnson, who has worked in AVN’s events division for 16 years and became involved as the awards show’s executive producer in 2010, remembers the first show she attended. It was at the Venetian Hotel in 1999, she recalled, “when the shows took place in ballrooms and tables stretched back as far as you could see. During the ceremony half the people (or more) would be gathered at the bar ordering drinks, chatting away and smoking. I recall Larry Flynt came on stage to accept a special achievement award. He talked about personal freedom and how it's our responsibility to fight to defend it. There was a hush that came over the room. The chatter stopped; you could almost hear a pin drop. Then he was wheeled off stage and everyone went back to drinking, smoking and chatting—but still it was a poignant moment!”

Now in its second year at The Joint inside the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, the AVN Awards will not only celebrate the best of the best from this past year, but also recognize the role it has played for the past three decades.

“I always thought this awards show was going to be the biggest thing ever,” Miller said. “From the start, I knew it would be huge.”

So here’s to another XXX years of celebrating XXX movies.

1987—AVN Awards Show moves to the Tropicana
1988—Awards added for Best Renting and Best Selling Titles of the Year
1989—Best Supporting Actor/Actress, Best Non-Sex Performer categories added
1990—Categories included for gay adult titles
1992—Show is held at Bally’s Grand Ballroom
1993—Female and Male Performer of the Year categories added
1995—Members are inducted into the AVN Hall of Fame for the first time
1996—Show is held at Aladdin Hotel
1997—Show moves to the ballroom at the Riviera
1998—Show moves again to the ballroom at Caeser’s Palace
1999—GayVN Awards Show now separate event; show moves to Bally’s
2000—First Reuben Sturman Award goes to David Sturman of GVA West
2000—Trophy switched from winged figure to clear block with outline of couple
2000—Show begins seven-year run at the Venetian
2003—Best Male Newcomer category added
2004—Transsexual Performer of the Year category added
2007—Show takes up residence at Mandalay Bay for a couple of years
2008—The ceremony, edited down for broadcast, begins airing on Showtime
2010—Best Parody category added; show moves to Pearl Theatre at the Palms
2011—Fan awards are introduced
2012—AVN Awards, AEE and Internext held together at Hard Rock Hotel & Casino
2012—Visionary Award and Movie of the Year categories added
2013—Best Romance Release category added