College girls flashing on request is just another day at the office for Joe Francis.
JOE FRANCIS has a gift. He can make more than half the girls he meets take their shirt off. He can make half of those girls take their panties off, too. He can make a straight-A student, prom queen, wife- and mother-to-be go outside a club with him, lift her skirt and show him the goods. All it takes, Francis has found, is a camcorder and one magic line: "Do any of you girls want a T-shirt?"
The shirt is nice enough, a little white cotton tank with the logo of Francis' company stenciled on the front in red: GIRLS GONE WILD. It's a brand that's become ubiquitous thanks to the late-night TV commercials selling the video series that Francis dreamed up. His company doesn't release sales figures, but it's been estimated that it sells 2 million tapes a year — 2 million hour-long looks at naked college girls set to bad club music, costing anywhere from $9.99, to $29.99 for the wilder "uncut" versions.
Girls Gone Wild videos might not be PBS documentaries, but they're not hard-core pornography, either. "A lot of guys aren't turned on by nasty sex chicks with tattoos and piercings, and they're not turned on by the airbrushed, unattainable Playboy girls, either," says Francis, yelling to make himself heard over the din in a massive nightclub in Panama City Beach, Florida, in March. "What we offer are girls you can touch. You can touch our girls!" He laughs.
Two tall blondes walk by, amazonian in strappy black stilettos.
"Do any of you girls want a T-shirt?"
They teeter to a stop and squint at Francis — not in a way that's wary or untrusting, simply curious. At twenty-eight, he resembles Jimmy Fallon with a better body, and he has the same way of punctuating each comment with a giggle.
"What do we gotta do for it?" asks one of the blondes.
"All you have to do is flash," he says.
If they don't walk away right now, they're going to do it— the half of the female college-age population that won't give it up doesn't stay to chat. "It's like the girl who says she's not going to have sex with you and then does," is how Francis puts it later. "She goes, 'I shouldn't, I shouldn't, I shouldn't,' but you know she's going to."
"I haven't got any boobs," wails the other blonde.
"No, your breasts are beautiful," says Francis. "Plus, we like nipples, too."
It takes just a few minutes to parry their other concerns: No, showing their tits doesn't make them sluts; yes, if they flash and sign a model release, they might actually appear in the video; no, there's no guarantee they'll be in it, but seeing that they're both so adorable, Francis doesn't think it'll be a problem.
"Is my dad going to see it?" one girl asks, not sounding weirded out by the prospect. "He and his friends always watch Girls Gone Wild."
"Great," he says. "Now get naked."
The flash itself takes much less time than the negotiations, but once the girls lift their metallic halter tops, some college guys appear to cheer them on. Francis tells the girls to do it again, and inspired by the camera and the swarm of boys — or maybe just by some innate girls-gone-wild-ness — they flash again, Francis counting to ten very, very slowly as their blue eyes shine with excitement.
He tells the girls to "smash boobs together," which they seem happy to try, and next they're kissing.
"Can you go downtown, too?" he asks, and then both girls are dropping their pants. There's an ear-splitting cheer as it becomes clear that neither one of them is wearing underwear, and another yell when it's revealed that they're both hairless. By now, the crowd is pressing in so close it's hard to breathe, the guys screaming like it's a rock show, and from the balcony of the club a girl yells, "Jenny! You fucking hooker!" to which Jenny responds by flipping her off, even though the girl clearly doesn't think Jenny is a hooker, because soon she has her shirt off, too. But then the first two girls have had enough, and in an absurdly anticlimactic moment — but this is always the way it ends, because how else can it end, really — they simply — lower their tops and zip their flies and walk off into the humid night.
Francis takes a big gulp of his drink and leans back against a wall. The crowd disperses. One kid with an upside-down visor sticks around. "Dude," he says to Francis, "are you taking résumés?"
JOE FRANCIS made his first Girls Gone Wild video four years ago, two years after he graduated with a dual degree in business and in film and television production from the University of Southern California. He grew up in Los Angeles, a Ritalin kid in a big house with three sisters and a doting mother and a father who owns a pharmaceutical company. After college, Francis worked first as a marketing manager for his father and then as a production assistant on a reality-TV show (he won't say which). Neither job turned into a career.
"I sucked at working for someone other than myself," says Francis. "Even my dad fired me after three days."
Though he doesn't particularly love movies and can't remember the last book he read, Francis has always liked taping things on video. He's been that way from childhood, since the time his dad bought him an 8 mm camera while on a business trip to Japan. Francis' sole extracurricular activity in high school was video-yearbook editor. And he'd always fancied himself an entrepreneur, so when he cooked up an idea for what he thought would make a good reality-type program, he just took out big cash advances on a bunch of credit cards and got to work.
Banned From Television was a compilation video showing people getting hit by trains, shark attacks, public executions and other gruesome spectacles. Francis sold it via direct-response commercials, meaning you watch, then call the toll-free number and order with a credit card. "It was cheap to get the footage, because there were news guys out there who couldn't do anything with it, since it couldn't get on TV," Francis says.
The idea for Girls Gone Wild came from footage that someone had submitted for Banned. It was shot in New Orleans, at Mardi Gras, and showed drunken college students having fun. "That tape lived in my VCR for a month" says Francis, grinning. "There was a lot of porno on it, too, but I didn't like that part. I just kept going over the parts of the real girls flashing their breasts — just girl after girl after girl. It was awesome. More than anything else, Girls Gone Wild started off as a product of my sexual fantasy." Meaning? "Girls look really good from age eighteen to twenty-five," he says. "It's just a fact that that's the best time for girls. Afterward, things start to happen — bad things."
Francis wondered how he could market such a concept. On a plane one day, he took out a legal pad and wrote down titles: "College Women." "Girls Gone Crazy." Then he wrote, "College Girls Gone Wild," thought about it for a minute and put a big X through the word college.
Francis put out the word to cameramen who had supplied his Banned video that he now wanted a new kind of footage. He got in about a hundred tapes and spent three weeks assembling a reel before buying $50,000 of commercial air time (mostly late at night, when rates are cheapest) to sell it. The response wasn't huge, but it was enough to keep the ball rolling, and tapes kept coming: from guys who usually shot porn and wanted some quick cash, from TV-news cameramen who'd shot B-roll of nudity on spring-break assignments, from random amateurs who'd taken hand-helds to Mardi Gras.
These days, Francis claims a staff of ninety full- and part-timers. The GGW commercials air 40,000 times a year all over the U.S. Francis talks about buying Playboy or starting his own magazine, or a GGW video game or feature film. "My brand is so huge, and it's only getting bigger," he says, calling from behind the wheel of his 2001 silver Ferrari 360. "I really see myself becoming a global media player."
Though Francis remains the sole owner of Girls Gone Wild, he recently signed a deal with Mandalay, the Hollywood production company founded by Peter Guber, the former studio head and producer of movies such as Midnight Express and Caddyshack II. Under the name Mandalay Direct, they're producing new videos using the Girls Gone Wild formula. Guber declined to comment for this article, but managing director Ken Stickney says, "Joe's demonstrated that he's one of the best, if not the best, direct marketer in the world, and we want to be in that business, whether it's to sell sex or comedy or fitness products."
As Francis' business has grown and become more of a real enterprise, so have its problems. In the early days, not all the cameramen who sold him footage had gotten model releases from the girls they'd filmed. Consequently, suits were filed, and on one occasion Francis settled a claim out of court for around $10,000.
Becky Lynn Gritzke, a business major at Florida State University, was taped topless at Mardi Gras last year — but was never asked to sign a release. She wore a big smile on her face as she squeezed her breasts and juggled them for the camera. "The girl was putting on a show," says Francis' lawyer, Ronald Guttman. Gritzke was featured on the GGW commercials and Web site, and on a billboard that a friend spotted in Italy. According to Florida law, even an image filmed in a public place cannot be used commercially without the subject's consent. Gritzke is now suing GGW, and her case is scheduled for trial in the fall.
"In my opinion, what people in this industry do is visually rape these girls," says David Sergi, a lawyer who sued a company that tried copying Francis' concept on behalf of a woman who was caught on tape at a wet T-shirt contest.
Francis doesn't worry that such suits will cramp his style.
"In the past, we did license a lot of stuff from people who represented to us that they had releases when they didn't," he admits. "But we're not doing business like that anymore. Now we get releases from all the girls. Why? Because getting them is too easy."
WHEN JOE FRANCIS IS NOT AT THE home office being a global media player, he's out in the field. These days he gets around in his Falcon 20 jet (they go for around $9 million, used). While watching the Discovery Channel recently, he saw a segment about how to achieve zero gravity in a plane, and he wanted to try it himself. So next time they were flying, his pilot aimed the plane upward at a steep angle and then pointed it downward, and through whatever aeronautical juju was created, Francis found himself floating in the air.
"Going weightless in my plane is the best thing I've ever done," Francis says. "Other than getting to see every girl in America naked."
The way it works on these spring-break treks is that Francis flies from place to place in the Falcon with two cameramen, who work alongside the dozen other shooters hired in the chosen locales — Cancún, Mexico; South Padre Island, Texas; and Panama City Beach, Florida.
In each place, Francis sets up the guys — all of whom are under thirty and are required to be single — in hotels near the wildest clubs and with the type of management that won't fuss about girls getting naked and Francis getting rich off it. Much to Francis' chagrin, he and his workers get booted out of places a lot. "Sometimes, this is the best gig in the world," says Adam, a blond twenty-four-year-old shooter with a goatee. He's sitting on his hotel room's terrace, cold Bud in hand; it's 10 A.M. and he's not been to sleep yet. "Sometimes, it's like the ninth circle of hell."
Though the cameramen complain that Francis cuts corners on expenses, they seem to like him fine â€” except when he shows up to shoot alongside them, because that means they'll be going sixteen hours a day. Francis has a tendency to call his employees in rooms at random hours, from wherever he happens to be, and holler, "Who's in there right now? Why are you all inside? Get on the beach! Get me south-of-the-border shots! I want taco! Go! Go!"
Francis exhorts his cameramen like a field general, but the girls don't need much convincing to do their part. The cherry on top of spring break, and a rite of passage since the mid-Seventies, has always been the wet T-shirt contest, or some variation on it, which ends up with girls getting naked. To a lot of young women, it's titillating to break the taboo and all the more thrilling to think that millions of people might see them doing it.
"I just don't see what the problem is," says Laura, a Kansas State sophomore with long blond curls who has undone her halter top and pulled off her pants. "I like doing it. Guys like me doing it. I'm not going to be at clubs with my husband when I'm seventy. My motto has always been that life is short."
"We have the Mardi Gras tape at school," says Lindsay, a pre-law major from Ohio University who's on the beach with thirteen friends in Panama City. "When we popped it in the VCR, we became totally obsessed! We're obsessed with boobs. We rate them. We get really upset when there are girls on there with small boobs, because we're like, ˜Dude, what's she doing on there?' We even witnessed some not-so-cute girl licking some other not-so-cute girl's nanas!" She makes a face. "I mean, it's gross."
A RECENT NIGHT ON THE TOWN during spring break in Panama City starts with Joe Francis making out with an array of girls at a bar, and ends with Francis, a cameraman and a pair of strippers back at Francis' room at 2 A.M. It was hard to get the girls past hotel security, and there was even a little skirmish at the front desk that ended with Francis cursing out the clerk.
Although Francis keeps a money clip of crisp hundreds for occasions exactly like this one, the girls didn't even ask for payment. Once the camera was running, they just started taking off their clothes, the brunette in black boots touching the blonde's huge fake breasts, then slowly parting her legs and playing with her glow-in-the-dark piercings. Then the blonde gets on all fours with the other girl's tongue right on her — when suddenly there's a very loud knock at the door. Six guys are out there — hotel security guards, a plainclothes policeman and two sheriffs in green uniforms and broad hats. They say that management has demanded that all of Team GGW leave the hotel immediately, even though it's 3:45 in the morning.
As the strippers dress and Francis packs, he calls his assistant in L.A., asking her to get his Tallahessee attorney on the phone, and here he mentions something about getting "aggressive" with lawsuits, even that perhaps next time he comes to town he wants the hotel renamed the "Joe Francis Holiday Inn."
And with that, Francis is slapped into handcuffs and taken off somewhere in a trooper's car to answer charges of nonviolent resisting arrest and maybe a misdemeanor for swearing in public.
Leaderless, everyone else crashes on the pullout couches. It takes ten hours for Francis to get himself out of jail, but then he turns up at the hotel in his usual high spirits. "They made me fill out a questionnaire where I had to check off what kind of car I had," he says. "I was like, 'Is there a box to check for a plane?' " (No charges were filed.)
The Falcon is ready to go, gleaming white on the runway. Inside there are a half-dozen leather seats that swivel and recline. It takes off right away and goes up really, really fast and really, really high, so that when the pilot steers downward, the G-force presses down hard on everyone's heads. Then it stops and ... it's a plane full of astronauts, floating around the cabin. Francis does a perfect somersault, catapulting himself toward the shiny, wood-paneled bathroom, then collapses to the floor in a heap, cracking up as the plane resumes normal altitude.
"I'm so fucking amped!" he shouts.