While Elon Musk is trying to change the way the world travels and Kimbal Musk wants to change the way America eats, their more unassuming sister Tosca wants people to take a closer look at love.
With Jina Panebianco and Joany Kane, she has cofounded Passionflix, a romance-based streaming service that recently secured $4.75 million in first-round financing. Their 24/7 subscription service targets an already significant base of Harlequin devotees and romance novel readers. With the book side of the business estimated to be $1.2 billion, Passionflix is making movies based on best-selling romance novels.
Musk, who recently directed one based on “Hollywood Dirt,” is steadfast about her pursuit. “I actually find this category to be incredibly empowering to women. The romance industry shows women in a very strong, positive light making decisions for themselves as to whether or not they can have sex or not have sex. But it’s their decision. I feel that if you can show that in media, hopefully by just leading by example, women will feel more confident in their sexuality, sensuality and remove the shame from sexuality in general,” she said.
Viewers can choose flicks based on their moods, by considering categories such as “Tissues and Ice Cream” or using the “BON” (Barometer of Naughtiness). However slightly cringe-worthy this might sound, Musk’s approach to the genre, like her telephone manner, is direct and professional. As for those who may be inclined to judge these books by their covers so to speak, she said, “What do I say to them? ‘Give us a chance.’ They’re beautiful love stories about two people who are connecting, communicating, having consensual sex. I think it’s important for us to watch it. It’s valuable and hopefully giving women and men the words that they need to communicate what they want in a relationship. I’m hopeful that they watch it. A lot of these movies and books are all about communication and connection and talking your way through a situation.”
Olivia Newton John’s starring role in the 1980 film “Xanadu” indirectly set Musk’s film career in motion. “I watched it when I was 4 years old and decided that I wanted to make people disappear and reappear. Of course, Olivia Newton John was my idol.”
In the links that collectively make a career, she studied acting, went into theater, which led to stage management, work with Alliance Atlantis and film school at the University of British Columbia. After graduation, she relocated to Los Angeles to work in television and movie development before directing her first feature. “I realized that it is really hard to do it on your own. Then I started producing more independent films and then did Tiki Bar TV, which was one of the first scripted video podcasts, for about five years. [Steve Jobs referenced it in his 2005 keynote speech.] That put us around the world pretty quickly,” she said.
After the global financial fallout in 2008, Musk returned to producing and averaged six to eight TV movies a year for Lifetime, Hallmark and ION before returning to directing three years ago. Aside from having the ear of her brother Elon, the serial entrepreneur behind SpaceX, and cofounder of Tesla, Musk counts their brother Kimball, The Kitchen Café owner and farm-to-table food activist, as an investor and adviser. Their mother Maye, an IMG model, is also a Passionflix investor and runs its Instagram account.
“People certainly have an idea of who we are. It’s inevitable. But I don’t think it hurts at all and I don’t think it necessarily helps,” Musk said. “At the end of the day, I certainly can meet a lot more people, which is great. But people have to still love the idea and want to participate. Doors are opened, that is true, but if I couldn’t actually come through with the job I don’t think anything would happen.”
As a family, swapping ideas is pretty much routine. “The biggest bit of advice that I’ve ever received and something that I’ve seen and experienced is that, ‘You can fail, and that’s OK — just keep going,'” she said. Case in point is SpaceX, which “in order to get to where they are, three rockets exploded before the fourth one actually accomplished what it needed to.”
She continued, “That’s pretty massive. It’s great to have those perspectives rather than every time you do something, you need to be extremely successful immediately. It’s helpful to have experienced some failures. That’s from my brothers. It’s not OK to fail. It’s that things can fail, and absolutely will go wrong — just keep trying, keep trying, keep trying.”
Compared to her 69-year-old mother, who has a reinvigorated modeling career, including a Cover Girl Cosmetics contract, Musk’s style “is a little more upscale-casual. I say upscale but I don’t know how upscale it is. It’s definitely very casual because I have four-and-a-half-year-old twins. I like to be able to run around with them and play. I don’t wear heels. I’m also pretty tall, so at 5’10” when you wear heels you tower over everybody,” she said. “My mom has a stylist and she has so many people who help her dress in these really awesome, cool styles. But I do not. The joke is that I actually have some taste when it comes to clothes, and my mom just needs somebody to tell her what to wear.”
What “very little nonworking time” Musk has, she spends that with her two children, checking out the local farmer’s market for grapefruits and vegetables or making pancakes together at home. “From an outsider’s perspective, it could look like there’s a lot of glitz and glamour involved with our lives. We’re really just real people. That’s probably the most surprising thing,” she said. “I work very hard, and I spend time at home just like all other women out there we struggle with relationships, we eat a little too much sometimes on the weekend.”
Penny-pinching wouldn’t seem a concern, considering her estimate of the romance novel industry at $1.2 billion. After years of making “so many movies” for Lifetime, Hallmark and ION, Musk and her business partners wanted to make movies that were a little sexier, that spoke to a woman of today and showed relationships in a very positive light. From her point of view, the category is “incredibly empowering to women,” she added. “I actually think this genre and these books are very important specifically now in helping us all understand and appreciate that we are women that we have needs, and we can explore those needs. But they are our needs. We can control them and we should be making the decision about what we should be doing with them and just remove shame in general.”
Although Musk has posted about gun control on Instagram and she is a supporter of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, Conservation International, education and anti-animal trafficking, she does not plan to foist any social impact issues via Passionflix. “The films are based on existing novels. We’re very true to the books. That being said, it is unlikely that we would make a movie that would go against our social impact beliefs. We feel the opportunity to make a very positive influence on society,” she said.
Growing up, the South African-born Musk and her brothers would travel to a different country every year with their father Errol. “It changed my world in that it expanded me dramatically. America is my favorite country that’s for sure. I feel very fortunate to be living here. I do love South Africa still. Canada is great. I’ve lived there as well. I love London, northern England as well,” she said. “There is a little bit that you can take from every country that you go to. I had a great experience in Stockholm and Paris is always lovely…Hong Kong. I’ve been very fortunate to be able to go to so many countries. I’m a big advocate for travel, if you have the opportunity — even if it’s just traveling outside of your city to expand your viewpoint.”
Her family outlook is also pretty rosy. “We weren’t competitive against each other, no. Our family in general is very close. We do so many things together. I think unity is our strength,” Musk said. “My mother is a twin so my cousins, my brothers and I all grew up together. We would do anything together…play soccer, go to the movies. Now that we’re older we’re still incredibly close and we plan holidays together. We will choose a country that we haven’t been to before and rally the entire crowd. It can be up to 70 people showing up for a family vacation.”
In terms of why she loves the U.S., Musk said, “First of all, I love Los Angeles. The weather is fantastic. That’s my number one. But there is so much opportunity. There is a lot of encouragement here. There is definitely that idea that you can achieve your dream if you work hard. There are definitely fewer naysayers. It’s not a handout system, that’s for sure. It encourages risk takers. Any society that is encouraging of a risk taker is good. And that’s America.”