Do Sex Tapes Give Stars' Careers a Boost?

This holiday movie season, one hot new release enjoyed the lion's share of media attention — thanks to the memorable performance of its leading lady. But the film isn't going to win any Oscars, and while many have already seen it, this movie that won't be coming to a theater near you. Why? It's the Paris Hilton sex tape.

Watch Chris Connelly's full report on celebrity sex tapes, tonight on 20/20.

Shot 2½ years ago in green-tinged night-vision with a home video camera, the tape captures a 20-year-old Paris Hilton in a XXX-rated tryst with her then-boyfriend, a 32-year-old businessman named Rick Solomon.

Comedians had a field day with it, of course — but just why does this sort of stuff fascinate us?

"It's sort of the realization of your ultimate celebrity fantasy to see this person whose public image is all about teasing you with their sexuality and their sexual availability, actually having sex," says syndicated sex columnist Dan Savage.

The uproar led a mortified Paris to cancel interviews and public appearances timed to the debut of her rich-chicks-in-the-sticks reality series, The Simple Life.

But Kevin Blatt doesn't think it hurt Hilton's career a bit. "I got to be honest with you. I think this tape helped her career by leaps and bounds," he says. Blatt is a publicist for Marvad Corp., the porn company that bought the Paris Hilton sex tape to sell on its Web site

"This is a videotape that had it been legal, in every sense of the word, and had we been able to show this videotape, could have made in excess of $100 to $150 million," Blatt says.

But it didn't happen. Marvad had purchased the tape from an ex-roommate of Solomon's for a $50,000 advance. But the company pulled the tape from its Web site when the Hilton family threatened to sue — and says Blatt, when the tape's supplier couldn't back up his claim that he owned the rights.

"We're the ones that are the victim here," he says. "We did outlay some capital, and ultimately we never were able to sell the tape or show the tape."

Growing Catalog of Celebrity Sex-Tapes

Blatt's company may not have made its hoped-for millions off the video, but that didn't stop a three-minute excerpt of the tape's hottest highlights from hitting the Internet at warp speed.

That's how the hotel heiress and gossip-page party-girl joined the infamous roster of celebrity-sex-tape stars, alongside Rob Lowe; Motley Crue lead singer Vince Neil; figure skater Tonya Harding; and Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee.

Embarrassing? Sure. An invasion of their privacy? Absolutely. Bad for their careers or their images? Not exactly.

Take the case of Vince Neil. In his '80s heyday Vince Neil was a rock star's rock star. Yet he says even he was chagrined when an early '90s tape of him and two centerfold models having sex turned up on the Internet in 1998.

"I never even watched the whole thing, I could only watch maybe the first 15 minutes of it," Neil says. But even though Neil says it ranked among his most embarrassing moments, he thinks the tape didn't hurt his image. In fact, it enhanced it.

So why did he allow himself to be taped?

"You experiment, have fun and tape yourselves, but you just don't really expect it to go out into the mainstream media."

Compromising Positions

But what if a sex tape appears to show a celebrity committing a crime? Rob Lowe had to do community service when his 1988 tape featured a 16-year-old girl; his career took a momentary hit, but he's come back strong. And R. (as in Robert) Kelly has remained a top recording artist — and received two Grammy nominations — even though he was arrested in June 2002 on child pornography charges after police were sent a tape that allegedly shows the R&B star committing sex acts with an underage girl. He's denied the charges.

Allan Mayer is the man to call if you're a star facing scandal. He specializes in entertainment Crisis Management at the public relations firm Sitrick and Company, where his clients in calamity have included Rush Limbaugh, Halle Berry, Tommy Lee, and R. Kelly.

"Robert's feeling is that he knows that, as he says many times, he's no angel but he's no criminal either," says Mayer. "All he can do is turn over the legal things to his lawyers and go about his business, do his job, which is making music, which he happens to do brilliantly well."

And when you're talking about celebrity sex tapes that did brilliantly well, you're talking about Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee.

In 1997, their ultra-explicit vacation video became the one of the biggest-selling adult videos of all time. The millions in profits went to an Internet company that had gotten hold of the tape and then settled out-of-court with its stars.

A public-relations nightmare? Not really. In the tape's wake, Anderson starred in and produced a TV series about a sexy private investigator and mocked her past in last fall's Scary Movie 3.

Pop Culture’s Perfect Storm

The frenzy over the Paris Hilton video represents a kind of pop culture Perfect Storm — a combination of our obsessions with celebrity and sex, the boom in reality TV, and above all, the technological revolution that's put camcorders into America's bedrooms and streaming video onto every home computer. The evidence suggests that, like it or not, the era of the celebrity sex tape may be just getting started.

Blatt says he's been approached by three different companies offering celebrity sex tapes.

So what does Blatt imagine would be the hottest possible sex tape? "If there was a Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears tape out there, I would think that that would probably be the ultimate."

And Blatt says he thinks more celebrity sex tapes are out there somewhere. "There's no doubt in my mind. There's a lot more tapes out there, and it's up to me, and companies like the company I represent, to go out there and find them."

While Mayer doesn't think sex tapes will sink stars' careers, he cautions that they should think twice before recording themselves in compromising positions. "Every time you turn the VCR camera on yourself, visualize how it would look on the Internet. If you're comfortable with that, fine. If you're not, leave the camera off."

Sex columnist Savage says these tapes are becoming increasingly common among young people. "There are people who are very young who are making sex tapes. Some of these people may one day be celebrities and these sex tapes are going to exist."

It's a fact Paris Hilton now knows only too well. But the strong ratings for The Simple Life seem like further proof that for most showbiz careers, starring in a sex tape brings more boom than bust.