Documentary Tells the Tale of an Adult Film Dynasty

Chuck Holmes, co-founder of Falcon Studios, “was one of the people who defined gay male culture,” says Michael Stabile, the director of ‘Seed Money.’

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Photo: Breaking Glass Pictures

These days, most people over 18 probably have at least one “adult-oriented” DVD (or even video) stashed away in their collection. For gay men, it’s probably from Falcon Studios, the largest and perhaps most prestigious adult film company catering to gay and bisexual men.

Seed Money, a documentary that was recently released on DVD and V.O.D., tells the story of Falcon founder Chuck Holmes, the pioneering San Francisco-based adult film producer turned philanthropist.

“Pornography is a very important part of the gay culture — and Chuck was a very important part of pornography,” we are told at the beginning of the film.

“He changed people’s lives,” one commentator observes.

“What he did liberated many, many people — at least on a very basic, primal level – to show that it was OK,” another said.

The film explores Holmes’ interest in creating social change for the gay community. In those pivotal uncertain days after the 1969 Stonewall riots, Holmes helped shape and create a modern gay identity.

He later became a major contributor to gay advocacy groups such as the Human Rights Campaign and the LGBT Victory Fund, not to mention such political candidates as Bill Clinton, back when he was the Democratic nominee for president.

Despite all the photos taken of him with the Clintons, Al Gore and others, though, Holmes would often find that his money was welcome, but he himself was not.

“No one minded getting Chuck’s money,” a commentator says, “but some of them minded where it came from.”

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Photo: Breaking Glass Pictures

In Seed Money, writer-director Michael Stabile keeps the visuals non-explicit, for the most part, in favor of informative storytelling. Taking viewers back to the days of 8mm “loop” films, he illuminates a time when those who were producing such short, often grainy and badly lit films lived in constant dread of dealing with federal authorities and postal inspectors – encounters that regularly led to jail time.

“I saw Chuck’s life as a way of understanding the trajectory of gay culture, from illegal outsider to inside power-broker, and what you gain and lose in the process,” Stabile said. “From the first stories I heard about him, I knew we had to do something. Chuck really wasn’t just the godfather of the porn industry – he was one of the people who defined gay male culture.”

Back in the day, Stabile reminds us, porn was primarily a mail-order business. Many buyers would send cash payments directly to dealers, fearing that a check could too easily be traced back to them. Porn, after all, equaled prostitution back then, and this meant that the entire industry was kept pretty much anonymous as a survival tactic.

This was never the case with Holmes, although we’re told that he, too, was once indicted in Texas for exhibiting an interracial sex scene, of all things.

Nonetheless, as more and more adult businesses abandoned their existing product, given the pressure, Holmes simply bought up their inventory and distributed it under his label.

In 1969, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in Stanley v. Georgia that (as NBC anchorman David Brinkley put it): “A person has every right to satisfy his intellectual and emotional needs in the privacy of his own home; the law has no business telling anyone, alone at home, what books he may read or what films he may look at.”

Stabile has packed his film with loads of great archival footage of San Francisco in the period right after Stonewall, showing what, for many, was a free and vibrant time. Memories and firsthand accounts in the movie share the excitement of being part of the city at the height of the sexual revolution.

Cult film director John Waters says, “San Francisco was, I think, ‘gayer’ when I first came there than it is today.”

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Photo: Breaking Glass Pictures

Bay area film reviewer John Karr says, “Having sex was a political statement, because we were allowing ourselves the privilege of having sex — unfettered by straight people’s expectations of our sexuality. It was a new era, and Chuck helped create that. Chuck Holmes and Falcon Studios translated the sexual life of gay men in those large cities into a kind of historical record.”

The films themselves, he says, “were reflecting the new gay freedoms – the explosion of our lives and our visibility on the streets, in the world, in bars that no longer had their windows painted black.”

Jake Shears of the musical group Scissor Sisters, says, “The porn stars were really heroes at a time when it was not easy to be gay and out. Not only were they gay and out, they were really putting it all out there on the table! They were kind of going the extra mile for all of us.”

Other notables who lend their recollections about Holmes include Jeff Stryker, Jim Bentley, Tom Chase, Chi Chi LaRue, Steven Scarborough and Sabin Gray.

Jim Hodges (better known as director “John Travis”) recalls that he was Holmes’ first connection with the world of adult films. Shortly after their meeting, Holmes moved from his home in the Midwest to the bright lights of San Francisco where, in 1970, the pair co-founded Falcon Studios, initially running it out of Holmes’ house.

Then in the 1980s, the advent of home video burst the adult industry wide open. Falcon was doing a huge amount of business, and Holmes and his colleagues were “living large and loving it,” partying with the likes of Calvin Klein, Studio 54 co-owner Steve Rubell, movie mogul David Geffen and the designer Halston.

“There were plenty of stories I knew that I couldn’t get on film, either because people told them off-camera or they wouldn’t fit in the doc as it was structured,” Stabile said. “I mean, Chuck had parties at Calvin Klein’s house on Fire Island. He had a yacht with so much marble that it nearly sank. It’s hard to just throw that stuff into a documentary, because each second you use costs money in rights and music and editing.”

Along the way, Holmes’ standard for models became higher, setting a new benchmark that still remains for the studio’s performers. In fact, Falcon quickly became the standard-bearers and style-setters for the entire gay adult film industry. Holmes’ philosophy was “beautiful people in beautiful settings.”

On a deeper level, though, Holmes was trying to combat the effeminate stereotypes that gay men had been saddled with for ages. His guys were always handsome, wholesome and hot.

Yet, this “high life” that they were all enjoying (and Falcon was celebrating) also led to the spread of the scourge of the age, AIDS, which eventually took Holmes’ life in 2000. (Seed Money features a melancholy montage of all the Falcon stars who also died from HIV/AIDS during this time.)

Paradoxically, while the rest of the industry was begrudgingly starting to use condoms on their sets, Falcon still held out against the practice and against requiring tests for their performers.

However, as director Chi Chi LaRue bears witness, they readily used Nonoxynol 9, a spermicide believed at the time to inhibit the passage of the virus from one partner to the other, as a precaution. (In later years, researchers found that this was not at all an effective safeguard against the disease’s spread.) Eventually, though, as condoms became the norm in the industry, Holmes changed the policy and even helped promote this new safer standard.

“Falcon was really the first real ‘gay brand,’ if you think about it,” Stabile says. “Something we made, that was ‘out’, and that gay men could be proud of.”

“Falcon was the MGM of gay,” concurs Steven Scarborough, former executive vice president of Falcon and Holmes’ former partner. He said that Holmes’ philanthropy and charitable endeavors were to serve as a kind of living legacy, as well as a way to protect his business and the freedoms that he and his community had come to enjoy.

In 2002, Holmes got the type of legacy he had dreamt of when the Charles M. Holmes Campus of the San Francisco LGBT Community Center opened.

To Stabile’s credit though, he doesn’t shy away from the controversy this honor brought with it. He quotes several letters to the editor from some of the city’s news outlets, written by members of the local LGBT community and opposing the move. He also reports that on occasion, Holmes’ donations were given back—often from the most unexpected campaigns or candidates.

Former California legislator Carole Migden remembers him this way: “He was a full-service activist. He loved to go out and have a good time and hit the town and go to countless parties, yet at the same time he was working and being focused. He understood the power he had and he wanted to apply it in a concentrated way as long as his talents and wherewithal would allow him.”

Holmes was a multi-faceted, but always fascinating man.

Ayse Kenmore, who was Holmes’ friend and an AIDS activist, described him in her poignant eulogy: “He was incredibly secure, and he was as secure as he was vulnerable. He was filled with enormous self-love and with enormous self-loathing. He forgave immediately and he carried a grudge forever. He wanted to control everything and he knew he had no control.”

If anything, one wishes there was more time given to this particular part of the documentary, but as Stabile explains, “The challenge was always to find footage of Chuck. He was a man behind the camera, not in front of it. He was always afraid that any photos of him could be used by the FBI and that he’d end up in jail like so many of his competitors. I think the triumph here is in preserving a history – not just Chuck’s, but of so many of those pioneering gay men making these movies.”

Today, the Falcon name has spread into several successful specialty video lines, including Jocks, Mustang, Guys Like Us, and Falcon International, as well as a popular line of novelties.

But what does Stabile feel the future holds for Falcon and other studios like it in these days of online, readily accessible porn?

“I think it’s much harder to make money off of pure hardcore,” he says. “You know, when Chuck was making those big Falcon two-parters, like French Connections or High Tide, he would make three copies of the footage to send back to SF – one by the mail, and then two with different people in two different planes in case the mail were seized or one of the planes crashed. That’s how valuable they were! Those are getting harder and harder to do, just with the economics.”

He points toward not only Falcon’s diversification, but to other companies like it that are offering more lines, each with a more specialized focus, and more types of products — including Naked Sword, the internet company behind Seed Money.

“I think that what Naked Sword is doing in launching an independent film line like NSFW [which helped produce Seed Money], is really smart. I think Chuck would be proud of that. He was always an empire-builder, and I think that Falcon is still an empire.”

“I knew very little about Chuck when this started,” Stabile said. “I knew that he founded Falcon and that the Gay and Lesbian Center in San Francisco is named after him, and that was about it. I didn’t realize just how involved in politics he was — that he had dinner with the Gorbachevs or that there is a Chuck Holmes Room at the Human Rights Campaign headquarters. When you first start out with a project, people tell you things like ‘Oh, he was friends with a lot of powerful people,’ but you don’t really believe them. I was always shocked by how accurate this was.”

After premiering last year, Seed Money went on to screen at more than 40 festivals worldwide.

“I really want this film to start a conversation,” Stabile concludes. “For the past 20 years, gay politics has really been about assimilation – that we’re ‘just like’ everyone else, white picket fence, marriage, etc. I think that we are starting to see the limits of that, in the same way that maybe Chuck did (or should have). I’d love for people to start talking about the joy of sex and sexuality, and finally throwing off the homophobia and the long shadow of fear that came from HIV.”

Recently released on DVD and V.O.D. and distributed by Breaking Glass Pictures, Seed Money is now available to buy or rent across digital platforms and on demand through most local cable and satellite providers.