It all started in a desert. In a vast landscape with weird buttes and ancient Indian petroglyphs, a friend described a strange film-maker (and local legend) with his own weird story about selling videos on Amazon.com. Will Chase is a deejay, an artist, a Burning Man devotee and a former schoolteacher with a DUI. And yet somehow he found himself filming a surreal series of intentionally meaningless videos called "Bikini Hot Tub Girls."
It's not what you think...
The madness first began on a long night in 2012, when two "no-budget" Boise filmmakers discussed the difficulties of getting their films distributed. "Jokingly we said that we should just do pornography and make lots of cash!" Chase told me sadly. "But we should do really bad porn. The world's worst porn..." Remembering that night, years later, Chase said simply "A seed had been planted in my head..."
But the final push came that Christmas, when Chase learned one of Netflix's most popular videos was just footage of a burning log. Seething, scheming, his mind wandered back to that last good laugh. And besides, Amazon.com had already instituted a strict ban on pornography in their online video store.
So they would actually be the perfect market for "the world's worst porn..."
As a serious film-maker, Chase was aware of film's like Koyaanisqatsi and the concept of "ambient video" — so that's how he approached his new project. "Part of the set-up was to draw a distinction between near-nudity and pornography," he confides. If nothing else, it could become the kind of story that you'd later tell your friends at the bar. There was no money involved of any kind — at least, not upfront. But Chase offered to share 10% of whatever money the videos would ultimately end up making with the women who appeared in his films.
And once the camera started rolling, the women he filmed "could do whatever they wanted — so long as they didn't do anything to sexualize the content. "
Finding models was "just a matter of connecting with some of my more confident Facebook connections, and them recruiting some of their friends, etc." In fact, the hardest part was explaining to other wannabe porn actresses that no, it really wasn't that kind of a movie. "I'm pretty sure they didn't get the joke," Chase remembers. But all of the models he eventually used fully grokked his ridiculous gag.
"Some merely sat in the tub. Some played to the camera. You get the idea..."
Chase says now that the experiment also has implications for the future of society. "Either I'll not make any money off this and the culture of Western Civilization has not completely fallen through the basement, or; I'll get rich and Western Civilization is doomed...
So what happened? "As of this typing, Western Civ is doing okay, but we're not squeaky-clean, either."
The videos eventually did make their way into Amazon's Instant Video store. ("One bikini. One Hot Tub. One Girl," read the description on Chase's first "bad porn" video on Amazon. "The perfect ambient film for your next party!") But there was never any advertising. Instead Will left his fortunes solely to the whims of random Amazon searches. And in a lucky happenstance, when you searched Amazon's video store for "hot tub," Will's videos original occupied five of the top 10 slots. For a while three of them were even in the top 20 results for bikini videos (just above "Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine.")
And the punchline to Chase's prank was provided by outraged consumers who took the time to type out their dissatisfaction with his "Bikini Hot Tub" video offerings.
"This was very very boring. She just sat on the edge of the hot tub most of the time and text with the cell phone."One viewer even titled their review "One Star" — adding just two words in the review itself: "Stupid pointless". ("Verified Purchase!" Amazon reminds you, also asking: "Was this review helpful to you?")
"I was very disappointed... All the film does is shows a girl getting into a hot tub while she drinks and checks her cell phone..."
"waste of time, seriously, a waste of time."
The review below it is titled "Two Stars," with the review itself consisting of just one word: "boring." ("1 of 1 people found the following review helpful," says Amazon — calling this their most helpful critical review.) The longest review was 11 words, with a title complaining that the video is "A Tease."
"The start was promising, but later it was just a disappointment."
Chase acknowledges that "between you and me and the chair, I get some enjoyment out of these idiots. But the funniest words of all may be "Runtime: 31 minutes." And the video's page on Amazon leads down a rabbit hole of other strange quasi-erotic videos that are also skirting the line of Amazon's Terms of Service. "Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought... Massage with Christina and Amber... Natural and Nude Yoga Techniques... Sex n Yoga..." Amazon even recommended another low-quality production called "Orgies and the Meaning of Life..."
"Not great," complained one reviewer on Amazon. "I never should have let my husband pick a movie..."
My favorite review came in response to Will's 2013 magnum opus, "Bikini Hot Tub Girls - Angela." It begins with the words "Super-duper, mega, ultra rip-off."
"This is a video of a woman in a hot tub, like in an apartment complex, with her bathing suit on. That is it. Nothing more than described. She doesn't say a word. She doesn't act in desirable ways. She just sits in silence and watches things off camera...
ZERO stars if possible - however, they deserve one star for getting me to pay for it.
Joke's on me."
But Will's learned some very interesting lessons about the nature of Amazon. It's lead him into a strange where the competing videos are even stranger. (For a while "Bikini Swamp Girl Massacre" was even free for subscribers to Amazon Prime.) And one of Will's models — who calls herself Jin N Tonic — now has an erotic Kindle ebook of her own. Interestingly, when Jin N Tonic was a high school student, Chase was actually one of her teachers. ("Awkward, I know," Chase says sheepishly.)
The last time I checked there was just one review of "Bikini Hot Tub Girls - Episode Eight: Jin N Tonic," but it went into a surprising amount of detail into why he awarded the film exactly two stars. It concluded with the words "If the producer and amazon had to give me a nickel every time I was disappointed while watching this film, I'd have 39.7 nickels."
But surprisingly, there was then even some discussion about his review — in the form of two comments.
"So, to review: There was a girl in a bikini in a hot tub, right? "
"There sure was. "
This definitely proves a point, but I'm not exactly sure what.
Will also remembers the day when one of his models didn't show up — and, well, the show must go on. So Chase himself climbed into the hot tub — along with his cameraman — and released the resulting footage as "Naked Hot Tub Guys: Roundfellas."
"There are no customer reviews yet," Amazon points out helpfully...four years after the video was uploaded.
There's even a sequel. Naked Hot Tub Guys: Roundfellas2.
Alas, all good things must come to an end. "Hello," begin a fateful email Will received from Amazon in October -- after over two years of trolling their customers.
"During a quality assurance review, we found that the titles listed below violate the Amazon Video Direct Content Policy Guidelines as they contain content that does not meet our customer content quality expectations."
Will pushed back. "Exactly what specific Poor Customer Experience issues are the titles having...?" he inquired. Why were his videos good enough to sell for two years -- but suddenly not got enough to continue selling? "Please advise..." Will ended his email.
And then Amazon lowered the boom.
"We reserve the right to determine what content provides a poor customer experience. We’re unable to elaborate further on specific details..."
So it was the end of the road for Bikini Hot Tub Girls - Kim, as well as Bikini Hot Tub Girls – Katie, and even Naked Hot Tub Guys: Roundfellas2. All 10 videos in the budding BHTG franchise were removed from Amazon's Instant Video store.
Though Amazon is still selling the DVD versions.
And they're still attracting really terrible reviews...
After I'd heard the whole story, I had to try watch one of Will's "bad porn" videos myself. I went with "Bikini Hot Tub Girls #2 - Katie." And I'll admit that at some point I did ask, am I having a moment where it's so bad it's good? There's something relaxing about the absence of dialogue, or plot — it's refreshing that it isn't beating me over the head with special effects. Now Katie's sitting on the edge of the hot tub, drinking water. There's something haughty about it — like it's a big fuck-you to the male gaze.
And after watching it, I laughed when Amazon sent me their standard follow-up e-mail.
Subject: How many stars would you give 'Bikini Hot Tub Girls - Katie'?
There's a rather stunning surprise plot twist at the 12-minute mark. You'll never guess what it is. A naked man walks in, and....hands Katie another glass of beer. There's a black circle censoring his private parts, and he instantly turns around and exits the way he came. Katie turns towards the camera, lowers her glasses with a slight smirk, and then — goes back to drinking her beer.
"Yup, that was my naked ass giving Katie a brewski," Chase tells me. (He points me again to Naked Hot Tub Guys - Episode 1: Roundfellas" — available only on DVD, printed on demand, for $15... "Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #685,257 in Movies & TV... Be the first to review this item.")
But Bikini Hot Tub Girls #2 - Katie isn't the worst movie I've ever sat through. (That would still be Gigli...) There's no pretense, no overwhelming musical soundtrack, and certainly no violence or gore. (Or, really, any action of any kind...) It's almost like a parody of the whole online media world. I want to call it a surrealist project. Or am I just being one more chump?
I feel kind of sorry for the bikini hot tub girls - condemned by society's obsession with beauty to be trapped alone and silent In an empty hot tub. Their purgatory is this endless half hour. While a naked man brings drinks.
"My head was sort of in and out during shooting," Katie told me later in an email interview. (Although she acknowledges that "Part of the time I just sat there thinking 'this rocks.'") But yeah, she was also aware of the strange undercurrents that they were playing with.
"It was a project that really did make me think quite a bit about objectifying people and the intense focus our society seems to have on sex... I like the finished product... I can't say I look back and regret it. It was a fun way to kill an afternoon and I still think the idea is amusing."
So maybe it was a kind of weird solidarity that made me watch it all the way to the end. (Katie steps out of the hot tub, grabs her water glass, and walks away.) The camera lingers on her as she recedes, and then the film ends, with a title card thanking the brewery who provided a keg. It makes me think I'd like to see someone do a movie about Will's life. Unemployed Idaho schoolteacher, filming "Bikini Hot Tub Girls" — a hometown hero getting support from at least one local business.
Now all that's left is the legend...
Will has actually watched people at a party when someone's slipped his movie onto their TV. One by one, their eyes start to gravitate to the footage of the woman sitting alone in the hot tub. She's just sitting there — what is this thing? What can possibly be about to happen next? It's like something Andy Kaufman would do — an experimental film with no plot or resolution whatsoever.
Will has a theory that part of his audience was overseas — maybe in religious countries "with serious taboos against porn and nudity... there's a good chance I've accidentally tapped into a niche market." But there's no way to know for sure.
But if so, it's kind of inspiring that for one weird moment, they were watching a blonde American woman relaxing in a Boise hot tub — and that somehow, it became its own little cultural earthquake. I asked Chase if he been trying to penalize people who are looking for pornography, and he joked that "If I happen to be 'punishing' porn-seekers, I'm good with that."
And besides, "Amazon is the worst place in the world to search for porn..."