By Faith Karimi, CNN Photographs by Austin Steele, CNN
Tosca Musk strides onto the red carpet at a Regal Cinemas, statuesque in a white pant suit and glistening burgundy silk top.
A hush comes over a group gathered outside the theater’s doors. Some whip out cell phones and start recording her every move.
It’s a chilly October night in Atlanta, and the fans are here for the premiere of “Torn,” the second in a trilogy of romantic fantasy movies based on books by author Jennifer Armentrout. The group of mostly female fans range in age from their twenties to their seventies, and some flew in from Boston, Detroit and other cities.
This is a big night for Musk and her five-year-old streaming service Passionflix, the backer of the movie. It’s their first public film premiere since the pandemic started.
She floats from one group to another, chatting effortlessly with Passionflix’s superfans, known as Passionistas. Her older brother, Elon Musk, may be the most famous sibling in the family, but he’s not the only one who’s founded a company.
Musk, 48, is the force behind Passionflix, which adapts romance novels into movies and streams them to a devoted niche audience. Romance novels are the most popular genre of books in the United States, and Musk is tapping into that market with stories about sultry, powerful female leads and handsome men with chiseled abs. She directs some of the films herself.
“Passionflix focuses on adapting romance novels exactly as the fan and the author envision it,” Musk says in a separate CNN interview. “We focus on connection, communication and compromise — and remove the shame from sexuality, specifically for women, because it empowers women to both acknowledge and ask for pleasure.”
Her passion for romantic movies goes way back
Days earlier, on the set of a Passionflix movie, “The Secret Life of Amy Bensen,” Musk provides a few glimpses into life with her famous family.
Perched on a navy blue couch in a room tucked inside a warehouse in suburban Atlanta, she chooses her words carefully when asked about her older brother, who was on the verge of his Twitter acquisition.
The Musk children — Elon, Tosca and another brother, middle child Kimbal — were born in South Africa and spent time in Canada before coming to the United States. Their father, Errol, is an engineer and property developer, while their glamorous mother, Maye, is a model.
Tosca Musk attended film school at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver and moved to California after graduation. For three months, she worked for one of Elon Musk’s companies, Zip2.
“I realized every time I stepped out of the film world, I was just not happy,” she says. “It just wasn’t my thing.”
After a brief stint at the Los Angeles office of Canadian media company Alliance Atlantis, she began directing and producing films while still in her twenties.
Musk produced romance films for the Lifetime and Hallmark channels and in 2005 launched a comic web series, Tiki Bar TV, which was hailed by Apple CEO Steve Jobs as ahead of its time in the emerging field of vodcasts — or video podcasting.
She doesn’t ask for advice from Elon — unless she really needs it
Then came Passionflix. Its origin story is a classic tale of when one door closes, another one opens.
About five years ago, Musk got an email from a woman who wanted her to turn her script into a movie. Musk loved the script, but there wasn’t much interest from production companies.
“People weren’t really that interested because it was too risque … It was an adult movie with a little bit of reincarnation, things like that,” she says. “It just wasn’t one of those things that regular network television wanted to do.”
But Musk met the woman, Joany Kane, in Los Angeles, and they bonded over their shared passion for romance novels. During that conversation, Kane brought up the idea of turning romance novels into movies and creating a streaming platform for them.
And with that, Passionflix was born — with Musk at the helm and Kane as a co-founder.
“We had no investors. We had to go out and find every investor. So it was a matter of going out and pitching every single person,” Musk says. “We pitched every friend, every family member, everybody just for that small bit of angel investment. It was hard. The first money in is always the hardest money.”
Musk declines to say whether her brother Elon was one of her original investors. But she says she can always count on her two brothers, including restaurateur Kimbal Musk, to give her advice on her business ventures. She tries not to ask unless she really needs to.
“I get advice from them to a certain degree when I ask for it. But no unsolicited advice,” she says. “If I ask for advice, I have no doubt that he (Elon) will give it to me. And then I have to take it, because he’s going to be right. So you have to really want to know what you want to ask. But most of the time when I’m with my family, we talk about family things.”
So what does she think about her brother’s new role as CEO of Twitter — and the flurry of headlines surrounding it?
Passionflix has carved out a niche in the crowded streaming market
Passionflix’s first film was “Hollywood Dirt,” based on a best-selling novel by Alessandra Torre about a Southern woman who finds romance with a Hollywood star when he comes to her small town to film a movie.
“During that shooting of that movie, we were struggling,” Musk says. “Are we going to get money? Are we going to be able to finish it? We were not really sure. We basically were just sort of piecing the dollars together.”
In May 2017, Musk played a trailer of the movie at a romance novel convention and asked attendees to prepay $100, as founding members, for a two-year Passionflix subscription. About 4,000 people signed up, Musk says, and she and Kane used that to show potential investors they were onto something.
“Trying to raise money for a female-driven platform on romance was just not high on anybody’s priority list at the time,” she says. “But as soon as we showed there was that many people that would come on board, the investors just started flying in.”
Passionflix has since produced more than two dozen feature-length and short films, according to the Internet Movie Database.
The company remains lean — it has a core team of seven people who each wear a lot of hats. In addition to producing its own content, Passionflix also licenses films for its platform.
“I think the biggest challenge for Passionflix is we can’t produce enough content to satiate the fans,” Musk says. “It’s a struggle with so many streaming platforms, when people want original content all the time.”
With more than 200 streaming services now competing for viewers, such niche markets face a myriad of challenges, says Dan Rayburn, a streaming media expert and consultant.
Creating, licensing and marketing content is very costly, he said. And while romance is the biggest-selling genre of books in the US, that doesn’t necessarily mean its popularity translates to movies.
“That’s comparing apples to oranges. Books are different,” Rayburn says. “This business is beyond tough. It’s highly competitive and requires an absolute large sum of money.”
Passionflix charges a subscription fee of $5.99 a month. The company does not disclose its subscriber numbers. Musk says subscribers are in the “six figures,” but declines to offer specifics.
Rayburn says it’s hard to determine the company’s profitability without knowing its expenses, including production and licensing costs.
“OK, if you don’t have subscriber numbers, what’s the usage? How many hours per month do people watch it? How much are you spending on content licensing?”
Its movies are rated on a ‘barometer of naughtiness’
A deep dive into Passionflix’s online movie catalog reveals a mix of contemporary romance, fantasy romance, paranormal romance, erotic fan fiction and related sub-genres.
The films, which stream on the Passionflix site and on Amazon Prime Video, are rated on an escalating steaminess scale Musk calls a “barometer of naughtiness.”
The five categories: Oh So Vanilla, for wholesome romcoms; Mildly Titillating; Passion and Romance; Toe Curling Yumminess; and NSFW (Not Safe for Work). The latter category has risque plot lines and more sex — think “Fifty Shades of Grey.”
But Musk says that even the naughtiest Passionflix movies don’t reach the soft-core porn threshold.
“When we first started Passionflix, somebody asked us if we’re going to rate using MPAA,” she says, referring to the Motion Picture Association of America’s movie ratings such as PG-13, R, etc. “I don’t actually like any of those ratings. They’re not specific to women. I wanted something that could rate our shows and create more of a tongue-in-cheek conversation.”
Musk says she’s a romantic at heart and is a big fan of the genre.
“Love is amazing, it’s incredibly powerful. I love to tell stories of love, all kinds of love,” she says. “So parental love, friend love, family love, and love between any kind of couple.”
That broad range of romantic genres, and its sexy content, are what sets Passionflix apart from channels such as Hallmark and Lifetime Movie Network, says romance novelist Tamara Lush. She believes the romance genre has been especially popular during the pandemic because people seek comfort in stories with happy-ever-after endings.
“Hallmark is romance-centered but the stories are very, very sweet. Passionflix tells a wider range of stories, and the ones romance readers want to watch,” Lush says.
“The popularity of ‘Bridgerton,’ ‘After’ and ‘365 Days’ on Netflix should tell streaming services all they need to know: that romance is a lucrative and sure bet for viewers.”
Passionflix fans say the movies empower women
Passionflix’s original subscribers, known as founding members, get access to movie premieres and filming sets.
Last month in Atlanta, about four dozen of them piled into the Regal theater for the premiere of “Torn.” Following the movie, Musk hosted a question-and-answer session with the lead actors, followed by an after-party at a bar across the street. Fans and actors mingled over drinks.
Debbie Parziale, 67, says she flew in from Boston for the event. One of the founding members, she says she spent the pandemic years curled up on her couch, watching Passionflix movies.
“I love Tosca’s premise of empowering women and making sex not such a taboo subject,” she says. “She’s so true to the romance novels. When you read a book and watch one of her movies, it’s the book you read.”
Amanda Cromer, 32, says she signed up for Passionflix at a romance book convention. She loves the camaraderie that comes with being part of the Passionistas. The group has a virtual book club, called Passion Squad.
As one of the original members, Cromer can visit sets and interact with the actors. Cromer, who lives in a suburb of Atlanta, says that during a visit to the set of “Torn” she became an extra in a cafe scene.
“I love the empowerment the movies bring,” says Cromer, who attended last month’s “Torn” premiere with her mother.
“They choose books with strong female leads. They’ve done such a good job of portraying the female persona as a strong independent female, and not a timid person.”
Musk hopes Passionflix will change the film industry’s mindset
Back on the set of her latest romance movie, Tosca Musk moves from one sparsely furnished room to another.
Musk lives in suburban Atlanta with her two children, 9-year-old twins who were conceived through in vitro fertilization using an anonymous sperm donor.
She’s getting ready to fly to Italy with the twins to film “Gabriel’s Redemption,” the third book in a series by Sylvain Reynard about a Dante scholar and his passionate affair with a younger graduate student. She says they plan to enjoy lots of gelato in Florence and visit Oxford, England, so the kids can see some of the locations where the Harry Potter movies were filmed.
As a single mother, Musk says she marvels at the path that led her to a job she loves.
She hopes Passionflix will help convince the film industry’s big names that adopting romance novels into movies is a worthy investment.
“The entertainment world is controlled mostly by men. At the end of the day, the decisions tend to sway toward the male audience as opposed to the female audience,” she says. “They also tend to be more about the victimization of women than they are about sexually free or sexually empowered stories about women.”
And for Musk, there’s also a simpler reason for her filmmaking ventures.
“I’m a storyteller at heart,” she says. “I just want to be able to tell stories.”
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