‘Passionflix’ founder talks female-run streaming service, romance genre

Heading into Valentine’s Day, it’s time to shine a light on some romantic movie options. And as of late 2017, the streaming service Passionflix wants to be your go-to site for romantic and sexy movies. Along with a wide variety of theatrical films, Passionflix is a stand-alone production/distribution company for original romance films based on existing novels. As is true of the genre, the company is female-focused from within, founded by three female friends (Tosca Musk, Jina Panebianco and Joany Kane), who look to female writer/directors, to adapt the work of female authors, which primarily focus on female protagonists. Their first film, Alessandra Torre’s Hollywood Dirt, is a prime example, with Joany Kane writing the screenplay and Tosca Musk directing. We spoke with Tosca about the launch of Passionflix, the market it serves, and why the romance genre isn’t given the respect it deserves.

Lesley Coffin: Where did the concept for the company actually originate from?

Tosca Musk: It was the idea of my co-founder Joany Kane. She’s a big romance novel fan, had attempted to write her own novels, and after 50 Shades of Grey was such a success, wondered why there wasn’t a platform to watch romance films. And she brought that idea to myself and our third partner Jina, and we decided to move forward. I put the business plan together.

Lesley Coffin: Where do you personally fall on the scale of romance fandom?

Tosca Musk: I love romance novels and films. When she brought us the idea, I thought it was a no brainer. I’d already directed two romance movies, and I only wanted to make romance films at this point in my career. I especially wanted to make romantic comedies, but anything in the romance genre I was interested in making and like to watch myself.

Lesley Coffin: It’s interesting that this is launching now, because if you look at the film getting made and released in theaters, romantic films are few and far between, especially compared to 20 to 30 years ago. Do you have any idea why such a big audience has been so underserved by mainstream media?

Tosca Musk: I think a lot of female-led films, but especially romantic films, aren’t being made because the men at the top who make those decisions don’t realize the audience they’re excluding. The movies being greenlit right now are still mostly greenlit by men. But what they don’t realize is, the romance genre is the number one selling book genre in the world. This isn’t a small or niche audience, this is a massive fan base that’s being ignored. So when we realized there’s no place to watch those films, this became a no brainer. It seemed like there was just such a big gap in the market.

Lesley Coffin: When it comes to optioning romance novels, what are you looking for in a book when planning to translate to the screen?

Tosca Musk: The story is always what we look at first. Every romance novel is about two people finding each other, so if there’s some other external element which can help with pacing, that’s especially good for films. A book which is just two people meeting, having sex, and being together, that’s harder to turn into a movie. But when there is something a little more complex or unique, those translate to screen a bit easier.

Lesley Coffin: We’ve been referring to this in term of romance, but you’re very upfront in the marketing with the idea of Passionflix being a platform to present sex in a positive way. Why is that so important to put that idea front and center?

Tosca Musk: I think it’s really important that we have sex shown in a positive way from a female perspective. In most movies we have sex portrayed from the male gaze. We really wanted to show that sex could be portrayed as positive and empowering, because we want to remove shame that so often comes from sex. Men have no problem talking about their sex lives, but women always seem to talk about it in these very hushed tones, making it very taboo. And that can cause shame, harassment and make sex into a negative experience. We want to change the conversation.

Lesley Coffin: The perception of the romance genres has always been complicated, even among some women and feminist groups. What misconceptions did you feel you had to face and address when starting Passionflix?

Tosca Musk: Some people feel it’s a genre which lacks intellect and porn for women. That’s incorrect. I personally feel it’s a genre which is very empowering to women, very liberating, and I think more women should read them or give them a try. Although, there’s a lot of women reading them, even if they’re doing so in private. The biggest challenge was, when we went out to pitch the concept for the company, we were usually dealing with men, who hear romance novels and think erotica or porn. We aren’t making soft core porn. The women in these novels are in an empowered position because they have the ability to say no, often to very powerful men. And in most stories and films written from the male perspective, we see women giving in, rather than taking control of the situation. The women in these novels and films are able to say yes and no when she feels comfortable. But when we were talking about the perceptions people had about romances, I’d spin the pitch to analyze the types of stories we were going to be telling. And often times, if a male investor had a female child, they saw they value. They see that we need to show in pop culture women saying yes or no, and making their own decisions and not someone else’s.

Lesley Coffin: In consideration of the female gaze, do you plan to have women write and/or direct all the films you produce?

Tosca Musk: We have a preference to work with women, but we certainly aren’t against hiring men. There are a lot of men with a great sensitivity to women’s stories. I want the best person for the job, but currently, we are looking to hire female directors.

Lesley Coffin: You also have theatrical films on the site. Were those all hand-picked films you felt could properly represent the brand?

Tosca Musk: They were, my partners and I selected all of them and licensed them through the studios. It was almost a year of negotiations.

Lesley Coffin: I know the films you currently have in production are all based on pre-existing material. In the future are you looking for original scripts or concepts?

Tosca Musk: Yes. Right now we have about 20 films in various stages of production, and those are all based on a novels we optioned. But we would like to move into some originals as well, while still telling the same types of romantic stories. But I see that as something very far down the road.

Lesley Coffin: What appealed to you about essentially being your own distributor, rather than creating a genre focused production company?

Tosca Musk: Controlling distribution as a filmmaker is pretty important. A production company raises money to get a film made, and then tries to sell it. That’s the only way you can make your money back, and it’s rare for the producers and filmmakers to make much at all. So the production company has to struggle to get money back to their investors and struggle again to find the money to produce another movie. It’s a constant battle when you have to rely on a third party. And there is no distribution company which specializes in these films right now, so we had to become our own distributors.

Lesley Coffin: You directed the first film which launched the site. What was it like directing a film and having as much control over the business and creative elements?

Tosca Musk: The first film I directed, at 25, was an indie which was entirely controlled by me. Well, as much control you can have on a low-budget indie. But you learn right away how difficult it is. But making this film, it was very liberating for me as a director, I had more say in the decisions being made. I’m not trying to appease the producers or a distributor, but I do feel an obligation to the authors and I like to get their input.

Lesley Coffin: When you option books, do you make it known during negotiations that you’d like the author’s input?

Tosca Musk: Yes. They aren’t obligated to work with us, but we highly encourage it and ask for their input. If they want to work with us we’ll show them drafts of the scripts and ask for character descriptions before starting our casting process. We run everything by them, but they don’t have final approval. But we want them to be happy with the process because if we manage to make the author happy, we are more likely to please their fans.

Lesley Coffin: Would you like to work with authors as screenwriters?

Tosca Musk: If they’d like to, we’d love to have them give it a try. We’re working on a deal right now, and the author has asked if she can write the screenplay. So she’s going to write a first draft and go from there. The authors don’t have final approval and she’s never written a screenplay, so who knows. But we would love to work with them that way too.

© Lesley Coffin (2/1/18) FF2 Media

Photo: Tosca Musk

Photo Credit: Passion Flix


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