Forget Twitter. This musk likes things that make his toes curl up.
Tosca Musk, Elon’s younger sister, is behind Passionflix, a streaming service that makes movies based on romance novels and erotic fan fiction.
Tosca Musk is not very interested in either space tourism or making electric cars. She is not a Twitter troublemaker who just bought Twitter. She doesn’t have a lot of money, at least not enough to be the richest person in the world.
But she is like Elon Musk, her older brother, in at least one way: she is determined to make a business out of an idea that is easy to make fun of, no matter what the prophets of doom say.
It has to do with love stories.
Ms. Musk, who is 47 years old, is the person behind Passionflix, a new streaming service for movies and TV shows based on popular romance novels and erotic fan fiction. The online service costs $6 a month and sorts content by a “barometer of naughtiness.” “Oh So Vanilla,” “Mildly Titillating,” “Passion & Romance,” “Toe Curling Yumminess,” and “NSFW” are the categories (Not Safe for Work). Early funding for Passionflix came to almost $22 million.
Ms. Musk said, “We want to raise another five, and maybe even ten.” “Who do you know?”
Passionflix has a wide range of licensed content in addition to adaptations, most of which are directed by Ms. Musk, who is also the CEO of the company. There have been movies like “Random Encounters,” which came out in 2013 and starred the Duchess of Sussex when she was still known as Meghan Markle, and “Two Night Stand,” which came out in 2014 and starred Miles Teller. Studio movies from the 1990s like “Sabrina” and “The English Patient” have also been shown.
Passionflix is like the sexier version of the Hallmark Channel. The stories are simple, and sometimes the acting isn’t very good. Most of the time, the dialogue in Passionflix comes straight from the source material, which can be gloriously cheesy. In “Gabriel’s Rapture,” a Passionflix series based on Sylvain Reynard’s best-selling novel, a shirtless hunk says, “I’ve missed making love with you.” “It felt like one of my limbs had been cut off.”
Don’t call Passionflix a guilty pleasure, though. Ms. Musk said it in a matter-of-fact way, “I hate that description.” “It’s nothing but fun.” Get your heads out of the gutter: Putting aside the naughtiness barometer, Passionflix content almost never, if ever, gets close to the soft-core threshold. There are definitely sex scenes, but the sexuality is often on low heat: a sultry look here, a graze of the thigh there. Ms. Musk has a rule that you can’t be naked in front of her below the waist.
“Most of the time, people look down on romance. Having female desire as the main theme seems radical to them, and they don’t think romance is smart enough,” Ms. Musk said. “I don’t agree with that. Romance is about recognizing how you feel. It’s about taking shame out of being sexual. It’s about stories that give hope.
“Nothing we do is about being a victim or putting women in danger or making them into housewives,” she said. “At the end of the day, whether it’s a second-chance romance or a Cinderella story, it’s about two people who connect, talk, and find a middle ground.”
Passionflix started in September 2017 and is now available in 150 countries. Content is subtitled in nine languages. But things have been going slowly. Only six people work for Passionflix. For a while, no work could be done because of the pandemic. The number of subscribers is unknown because Ms. Musk won’t say and analysts say the service is still too small to keep track of. A Passionflix spokeswoman said that subscriptions grew by 73% from 2020 to 2021.
Also, the gold rush in the streams is slowing down. At the very least, it’s getting harder to figure out where to go. Brett Sappington, who works for a media consulting firm called Interpret, said, “The current market for streaming services is noisy. Big streaming services spend millions to get consumers’ attention, while niche services don’t have that kind of budget.”
Mr. Sappington continued, “Niche services are often at the mercy of aggregators like smart TVs, streaming boxes, or online platforms.” “They don’t have much negotiating power when it comes to revenue sharing, they are often at the back of the line for developer support, and they can’t always pay for the best spots on websites or app stores’ front pages.”
A consulting firm called Parks Associates says that people in the United States can choose from more than 300 streaming services. Parrot Analytics says that from January to March, 88 percent of the demand for original content came from the eight largest sites. Niche services like Revry, which is for the LGBTQ community, Bloody Disgusting, which is for horror fans, kweliTV, which is for Black culture, and little Passionflix fought for balance.
Ms. Musk is not going to give up, though.
She said with a big smile, “It’s just not in my genes.” “Keep trying, trying, trying could be our family motto.”
Elon Musk is the founder of SpaceX, the CEO of Tesla, and the richest person on Earth. In April, he made a deal to buy Twitter for $44 billion. Kimbal Musk, Ms. Musk’s other older brother, runs a restaurant business and is an advocate for farm-to-table food. He is also on the boards of SpaceX and Tesla. Maye Musk, their strong-willed mother, is a model who just wrote a book called “A Woman Makes a Plan.” Maye was in charge of Passionflix’s Instagram account for a while.
Ms. Musk said that the average Passionflix subscriber was “voraciously engaged” with the site. If Jan Edwards is any indication, that may be an understatement. Ms. Edwards, 65, lives in Tuckerton, New Jersey, and has been a Passionflix subscriber since 2018. She lost her husband in 2015 and quit her job in human resources in January. When a reporter called, she said, “I’m just putting laundry in the dryer. Let me tell you, it’s an exciting day here, so it’s a good time to talk.”
Why does she get the magazine? She said, “Oh, that’s easy.” “Most of the time, the rest of the media doesn’t pay attention to me.”
Ms. Edwards said she started reading romantic fiction after a friend “forced” her to read “Fifty Shades of Grey,” a sadomasochistic love story. It was like a gateway drug for people who like to read: Ms. Edwards reads up to three romance novels a week now.
“People look down on romance, but it makes me feel good, and I know a lot of women who feel the same, even if they don’t say it out loud,” she said.
Women aren’t the only ones: A trade group called Romance Writers of America says that 18% of romance readers are men. Every year, thousands of new romance books are published. NPD BookScan says that in 2021, about 48 million copies were sold, including e-books. This is a 10 percent increase from the year before.
Early investors in Passionflix included TV producer Norman Lear and his wife, Lyn, who is also a producer, as well as internet entrepreneur Jason Calacanis and angel investor Kimbal Musk.
Who is Elon?
“That’s a hard question for me to answer,” Ms. Musk said. “If I say that he is an investor, everyone will say, ‘Oh, she just got her brother to pay for it,'” If I say that he didn’t invest, you all say, “He doesn’t back her.” Elon Musk did not respond to inquiries.
First Look Media is the biggest investor in Passionflix, but the CEO of that company, Michael Bloom, wouldn’t say how much it owns. (Ms. Musk still owns most of Passionflix.) The eBay billionaire Pierre Omidyar started First Look, which is made up of a number of separate parts. There is a non-profit branch that does investigative journalism and makes documentaries. Topic is a movie studio that makes high-quality movies like “Spencer,” “Spotlight,” and “The Mauritanian.” Streaming services like Topic.com, which is all about crime, and Passionflix are part of a relatively new division.
Mr. Bloom said, referring to all-audience streaming services like HBO Max and Netflix, “We fully understand that we’re walking on the feet of elephants.” “But we don’t want to be like them. There is a chance for niche services like Passionflix to serve a specific audience better than the big, mainstream retailers.
Romantic escape used to be a big part of television. In the 1980s, miniseries like “The Thorn Birds” and “Hollywood Wives” kept it going. In the 1990s, it was “movie of the week” that kept it going (all of those moaning Danielle Steel adaptations). But in the 2000s, most networks stopped using these formats. One reason was cost, but networks also started to like repeating crime procedurals and reality shows, like the romance-focused “Bachelor” franchise.
In the last 10 years, only a small number of romance novels have been turned into TV shows. Even fewer (“Outlander” on Starz, “Bridgerton” on Netflix) have been hits.
Ms. Musk said that Passionflix was not made as a cynical way to make money off of the streaming boom. She and two friends, Jina Panebianco and Joany Kane, wanted to make spicy romance TV, but they couldn’t find buyers in Hollywood.
So, Ms. Musk said, “we had to come up with a way to distribute it.”
Ms. Musk, whose name comes from an opera by Puccini, went to the University of British Columbia in Vancouver to study film. After she graduated in 1997, she worked for a Canadian production company called Alliance. She then moved to Los Angeles, where she wrote, directed, and produced a movie called “Puzzled” in 2001 with help from Elon. In the end, she started making TV movies and directing them for Hallmark, Lifetime, and ION Television.
She was angry, though. “I kept getting into fights with network executives because they didn’t want to hear about strong women who were proud of their sexuality.
Ms. Musk talks very quickly and has an accent that shows she has lived in Canada, the US, and South Africa, where she grew up. She is tall, lively, and honest. At the beginning of an interview last month at the Ritz-Carlton, Marina del Rey, near Los Angeles International Airport, she said that her 9-year-old daughter Isabeau was in a room next door playing a video game and that she had gotten pregnant with Isabeau and her twin brother Grayson with the help of an anonymous sperm donor and in vitro fertilization.
During the pandemic, Ms. Musk moved to Georgia to take advantage of the state’s generous tax credits for making movies and TV shows. But she had taken over most of the Ritz-Carlton for PassionCon, the first convention for fans of the Passionflix movies. Packages for two cost $1,000 and included lodging for two nights, meals, alcohol, a hair and makeup session, panels with Passionflix stars, and a pajama party for the third-season premiere of “Driven,” which is about a nice woman who falls in love with a bad-boy racecar driver. Ms. Musk said that about 200 people came. Some of them came from as far away as Australia and Germany. (Yes, she did wear PJs.)
Ms. Edwards, who flew in from New Jersey, said, “It was like a dream.” “I really care about this group of people.”
Ms. Musk is making a new effort to find ways to grow Passionflix’s business beyond the screen. She also used PassionCon to show off wine made by Passionflix. The price of a bottle is $35, and the slogan on it is “Toe-Curling Yumminess.”