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The Women Behind PassionFlix Talk Making Movies for the Female Gaze 

PassionFlix is a new streaming service turning your favorite romance novels into films—and challenging misconceptions about the genre.

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  • Photo Credit: PassionFlix

Have you ever finished a particularly delightful romance novel only to find yourself wondering: “Why aren’t they making books like this into movies?” After all, it has become a common lament that we’re in something of a rom-com drought. Well, it turns out that screenwriter Joany Kane, director Tosca Musk, and producer Jina Panebianco heard your silent plea, and are here to help.  

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  • Photo Credit: PassionFlix

In early November, I had the chance to interview them about PassionFlix, their newly launched streaming service that “caters to the romance community and everyone who wants to enjoy romantic stories,” to use Panebianco’s words. 

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PassionFlix is home to original films based on best-selling romance novels. So far, the team has adapted Alessandra Torre’s Hollywood Dirt and Sylvia Day’s Afterburn/Aftershock. In December, Jill Shalvis’ The Trouble with Mistletoe will premiere. Come 2018, PassionFlix plans to release a new film every 2-3 months. They’re also streaming a variety of romantic classics, ranging from Moonstruck to Strictly Ballroom to Bride and Prejudice.

Kane, who came up with the idea for PassionFlix, acknowledges that the genre has been “stigmatized.” This stigma represents one part of a larger, centuries-long trend of disparaging books primarily written for, and read by, women. Indeed, romance novels have rarely garnered the same respect granted to traditionally masculine genres like sci-fi, fantasy, and crime. 

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This sad state of affairs can leave some romance fans feeling like they constantly have to apologize for the books they love. Musk is adamantly to opposed to this approach: “I don’t feel like we have to defend romance novels.” She points to the billion-plus dollars the genre makes as defense enough. But, Musk adds, “movies are made by the decision makers—and the decision makers are men who aren’t necessarily paying attention to the romance industry” and its popularity. As Kane makes clear, the three women at the helm of PassionFlix are paying attention: “we’re the decision makers and we’re also the fans.”

They’re also quick to point out that PassionFlix should not be described as porn for women. “Romance is about communication, sensuality” Musk explains. As a director, she is attentive to the “female gaze,” making films that focus on representing “emotion,” “connection,” and “how to caress or touch a woman in a positive, loving way,” rather than on showing “gratuitous nudity.” PassionFlix adaptations also only depict consensual sex. Many early classics in romance publishing—like Kathleen E. Woodiwiss’ The Flame and the Flower—were notorious for scenes of non-consensual sex. But romance novels have come a long way. 

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“Over the years, romance has definitely evolved,” Panebianco says; “now, people are writing stories that have an awareness of current issues.” Musk wants the films to “show by example what we can and cannot do.” For Kane, PassionFlix movies—and the books on which they’re based—show “women who are owning their sexuality and controlling it.” 

Panebianco acknowledges that “just like anything, romance is not for everyone,” but points out that with such a wide array of sub-genres (historical, contemporary, and paranormal are just the tip of the iceberg), romance novels have something to offer almost everyone. Although the majority of books in the genre still focus on heterosexual couplings between white, cisgender characters, in recent years, a more diverse range of authors—helped in part by the boom in self-publishing­—have started branching out. (That said, there is still a long way to go, as a recent report from Bea and Leah Koch at The Ripped Bodice makes clear.) The PassionFlix team says they’re committed to representing a heterogeneous mix of voices and relationships on screen.  

So far, PassionFlix has raised $4.75 million in seed funding, which they are primarily using to option books for adaptation. The $5.99 monthly membership fee exclusively funds the production cost of the movies. Panebianco is straightforward: “The more subscribers we have, the more movies we can make.” 

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According to the Romance Writers of America site, “two basic elements comprise every romance novel: a central love story and an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending.” The joy of reading romance novels comes from not knowing how the characters will make it to this happy ending, but still knowing that they will make it. These stories offer certainty and a sense of security in an increasingly uncertain world. PassionFlix is similarly committed to leaving viewers feeling “happy, empowered, and excited rather than heavy,” as Panebianco puts it. Above all, Musk adds, PassionFlix wants to provide viewers with a “community” that feels “safe,” and to help them realize that “there’s nothing wrong with feeling passion.”

Featured still from "Hollywood Dirt" via PassionFlix