It was the mid-‘90s when University of British Columbia film student, Tosca Musk, returned to her birth land of South Africa. Amid the dry desert air, she traveled towards Johannesburg where her father, Erol, owned a six-acre plot of land. Upon arrival, Musk surveyed the property—there were small horse farms, and vegetation scattered sparsely among the African bush. It was the perfect setting for her final undergrad film, the one that began her career as one of the original creators of web television.
The next morning, she visited the area’s few local equipment houses, where she negotiated rental deals, and filled her father’s pick-up truck with gear. She contacted a newly opened South African film school and recruited students to work on set in exchange for training. Then, through a family friend, she connected with an agency and began casting talent. “Even today, I feel like I cast everyone,” Musk said with a laugh. In about a week’s time, she was ready to begin directing her movie on The Soweto Riots of 1976, the most violent uprising against the South African apartheid administration.
Just a few weeks earlier, Musk was in Vancouver, unsure if she would reach this moment in Africa. For her film, UBC provided $15,000, a considerable budget, but not nearly enough to travel across the world with her crew. She was also told that in order to have access to the school’s facilities and equipment, she must shoot in the lower-mainlands of Vancouver. But throughout the semester, she struggled to find a location that resembled South Africa’s landscape, and one that would, nonetheless, allow her to recreate a riot. “It didn’t make sense for us to keep trying to put a square peg in a round hole,” she said.
Yet Musk was determined to bring her vision to life. So she visited her professors, and acquired written permission to take five weeks off to complete her project. All but one complied, which resulted in a college board meeting between the film, television and creative writing departments. To little surprise, her proposal was denied, so she utilized her resources to move forward with the trip on her own accord. “No one wanted to believe that I had the gumption to actually do it—but I did,” she said. “I made my decision and stuck firmly to it. It can be really hard thing to do, but it’s worth it.”
From ‘90s to the mid-‘00s, the cinema world was much different than it is now. Digital technology was in its early stages, and thousands of full-length features were produced each year, in contrast to the millions of short series that plague the Internet today. Major film studios such as 20th Century Fox and Warner Bros. held down production for the era’s most notable work, while the 2001 collapse of the dot-com bubble left little hope for online revenues. “There was no money in the Internet,” Musk said. “Today, I think there is much more, but remember that YouTube didn’t even exist back then.” Additionally, the “big three” networks—ABC, CBS and NBC—dominated television, and union crews consumed almost every film set in the industry.
By 2000, the new millennium brought game-changing innovations in video technology. Perspectively, Musk’s undergrad film was shot on 16mm film in the ‘90s, and by 2005 RED Digital Cinema was founded, enabling digital 4K raw capture in cinema. On the consumer level, the market was thriving with the well-received miniDV cassette format. Quality was increasing, prices were dropping, and younger generations were experimenting in various mediums. In fact, some of the most critical breakthroughs sprouted from the world of skateboarding. For one of the first times in history, thousands of teenagers were scouring their cities and towns, determined to create the next big skate film. They were shooting on cameras such as the Canon GL1 and Sony VX-1000, which recorded video between 0.2 and 0.3 megapixels on CCD sensors. These devices provided increased flexibility in low-light situations, and in more compact and affordable cameras. But most importantly, it brought a massive consumer market to the industry—and there are some who even argue that this skate-craze marked the emergence of present-day DIY-culture.
Still, movies and television continued to be the most secure way to make a living in the industry; but those jobs weren’t easy to score, even for college graduates. “No one really wanted to hire film students,” she said. “You come out of film school thinking, ‘I’m brilliant and I know everything!’ But they ended up throwing me at the bottom of the rung.” Nevertheless, she landed her first job as a production secretary for Grand Illusions: The Story of Magic, a 50-part documentary series for Discovery Channel. “It was a huge learning experience,” she said, and after only 10 months, she began writing her first feature. Musk then moved from Toronto to San Francisco where she worked with her two brothers, Elon and Kimbal Musk, who had started their second entrepreneurial venture, Zip2—a city guide that provided content for the new online versions of the New York Times and Chicago Tribune. By 1999, Zip2 was sold to Compaq for $307 million in cash and $34 million in stock options.
After Zip2 was sold, Musk relocated to Los Angeles where she began a job with Alliance Atlantis, the media company responsible for specialty TV shows such as Degrassi, Trailer Park Boys and CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. This led her to a position as Director of Development for Magnolia Pictures, where she partnered with Sela Ward, a Golden Globe Award-winning actress known for her lead role in ABC’s former drama series, Once and Again. It was Musk’s job to find movies for Ward to executive produce, which proved to be difficult, even with an award-winning actress by her side. “It was really hard to get the networks to buy into a movie—they’re very picky,” Musk said, despite going on to sell four films throughout the next year. “I thought that was pretty good, since movies went for four to five million dollars back then,” she adds. Soon after, she worked as a producer for TV Guide, but quickly left to direct the film she began writing during her first job with Discovery.
Throughout the next few years, Musk gained experience directing her own films and working as a producer. By 2001, she attempted to finish her first feature, Puzzled, which was never completed due to budgetary issues. “The best advice I could give to aspiring filmmakers is to make sure you’ve secured the full budget before you start making the movie, because you won’t make the money to pay for it afterward,” she said. “I was never given that advice, so I raised two-thirds of the budget and we couldn’t finish the film.” In 2004, she successfully produced The Truth About Miranda, a romantic comedy about an earnest young videographer. Then, in 2005, she released Cruel World, a comedy horror movie, followed by Simple Things, a comedy-drama film (years later it was renamed to Country Remedy). “The film was shot in North Carolina,” Musk said, and is was here that she met Jeff McPherson, the founding creator of an online series called TikiBar TV.
Within this time, the Internet had grown far from its reputation as a sketchy dot-com wasteland. Computers were standard in U.S. schools and households, and the launch of YouTube brought millions of online videos to a worldwide audience. Around the globe, producers were racing to claim their stake, but very few were successful. It was a Wild West market, and the biggest problem was figuring out how to monetize an industry that didn’t formally exist. For many, the Internet was merely a stepping stone for recognition as a filmmaker—for others, it was an uncharted world of opportunity. McPherson was of the latter; knee-deep in the game and in search of a production partner.
Musk recalls the moment she met McPherson in North Carolina when he told her about his vision for TikiBar. “I thought he was crazy,” she said. “It didn’t even sound like a real thing to me.” But as proven by Musk’s verboten trip to Africa as a student, she wasn’t easily swayed by risk. “I started watching the rough episodes McPherson had already created and I couldn’t stop,” she said. “I thought it was the best way to make movies. With Internet shows, there’s no one telling you what you can and can’t do, so it’s up to you to be as creative as possible.” Later that year, the two officially began their partnership, and the first TikiBar set was created inside a small apartment in Vancouver on March 15, 2005.
The concept of the show was simple: every episode was set in the magical tiki bar, focusing a self-contained problem that was eventually rectified by the episode’s namesake cocktail. The cast was comprised of three characters: “Dr. Tiki,” played by McPherson, “Johnny Johnny,” played by co-creator Kevin Gamble, and “Lala,” played by actress Lara Doucette. Each episode was about five minutes long, and would typically open with a dance and end with an outtake. As a comedy, the humor was satirical and trippy, while its quirky ad-libbed mannerisms were akin to modern sketch comedy shows such as Portlandia. In 2005, the first episode aired on iTunes, and in 2006 the series was shown in Apple stores across the world. By 2009, TikiBar was nominated for three Streamy Awards, and years later it was recognized by the International Academy of Web Television for its high standards in production value and design.
According to Musk, the production process would begin with a rough outline of an idea, then McPherson would instruct the actors and guest stars on an improvisational direction. And with little budget, the show’s production crew consisted only of its creators, Musk, and a DP, collectively working on set design and sourcing props for each episode. “We would start shooting an episode around noon and finish at about eight or nine o’clock at night—we were working very fast,” Musk said. Eventually, the set was relocated to Musk’s home in Los Angeles, where she hand painted the show’s iconic 15th Century wooden ship’s hold. “It was a lot of work because each piece had to be individually painted with fake wood finish,” she said. “It was a loft space, so from the second story you could shoot down into the tiki bar—it was a very functional set.”
With this, it is important to note that Musk by no means single-handedly created the show. But as its producer, she played an integral role in the production quality that would often increase with each episode. It was the first Internet show to offer surround sound, visual effects, and implement color-grading. And as more innovation was added, the episodes began to transform into miniature features. Not only was this a stand-out model, but it set a new standard for its competitors, which were comprised mostly of online news broadcast shows. “Everyone was creative and a part of pioneering Internet television, but we were really focused on having a full story and raising the bar each time,” Musk said. “The other shows weren’t necessarily doing that. It was all about what we could come up with to better tell the story to our audience, versus the amount of money and time we had to make it.”
To make money, the TikiBar crew auctioned merch to its cult-like fan-base. They designed TikiBar mugs, shirts and memorabilia, which were sold on their website. Occasionally, they received small sponsorships and threw parties to raise donations. At the time, YouTube was in its fledgling stages, so there was little demand to sell advertising space in their videos, which is how many internet-based filmmakers profit today. Then, by 2009, the U.S. recession hit, making it near-impossible to stay in business without a steady source of income. “Once the economic crash happened people were more focused on saving their homes, rather than buying TikiBar mugs,” Musk said. “Then, Jeff moved back to Vancouver and I was in Los Angeles, and eventually it just dried up.”
But while the show itself no longer runs, the movement it sparked is still very much alive. There’s the concept of rendering professional quality through low-budget, DIY-style production, for example, not to mention the evolution of the monthly “vodcast” format, which has since evolved into weekly and daily vlogging. “Tenacity is crucial,” Musk said. “You have to be extremely determined to achieve what you want to create. If you waver, you will not get there. And if you don’t know something, then go out and learn it.”
Today, Internet video has taken over the television industry. As of April 2015, Netflix is reported to be home to about 62 million subscribers, while TV cable services Time Warner and Cablevision collectively hold only 39.6 million, according to NCTA data. Additionally, YouTube has one billion active users each month, as more filmmakers are converting entirely to the online video format. But perhaps the greatest difference is that it’s now possible to make a living in this medium, which can be attained by selling embedded video ads, company sponsorships, and brand endorsements.
Currently, Musk has returned to her first love of producing and directing feature films. She works with Musk Entertainment, her own production company, as well as MPS Entertainment Group, a company she founded with her business partner Jina Panebianco. “Tosca and I really pride ourselves in the similarities we have in business and the common goals we both want to achieve with our company and as partners,” Panebianco said. “She comes from a family of business-minded people, which is great in that she handles the business side of things really well, while I handle more of the day-to-day negotiations with people.” Musk is also a single mother with 2-year-old twins, yet often manages up to six projects at one time. She tells me her life is devoted her family, made evident by her Twitter bio that reads “Moviemaker and Mom.”
“Tosca is very grounded, which I think is an unusual personality trait to have in the movie business,” said Maye Musk, Tosca’s mother and an award-winning international dietetics expert and model. “We thought she would be a lawyer, but she was just so focused on movies from the time she was a child, like the time she traveled all the way to Africa to make a movie for class.”
And it turns out, after Musk completed this film, she was awarded “Most Promising Graduate” from UBC, which Maye said, “made me a very proud mommy,” in the same South African accent spoken by most of the Musk family.