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“We see ourselves as the Blumhouse of romance”: How Frolic tapped into a billion-dollar industry

The billion-dollar romance industry is driven by an 85% female, extremely engaged audience. Sarah Penna and Lisa Berger launched a media company to cater to them.

“We see ourselves as the Blumhouse of romance”: How Frolic tapped into a billion-dollar industry
Lisa Berger (left) and Sarah Penna (right) of Frolic [Photo: courtesy of Frolic Media]

In the spring of 2017, Awesomeness TV executive Sarah Penna was sitting in the office of Lisa Berger, the former programming president of E! Entertainment, who was working as a consultant at the youth-centric, multimedia company. They were awaiting the launch of a new digital series they’d commissioned for the streaming app Go90, based on the YA romance novel Confess by Colleen Hoover, in which a single mom falls for an L.A. artist who makes paintings based on anonymous confessions that people slip under his door. 

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Among romance aficionados, Confess has a huge cult following, as does its author, whose many books about young people in and out of love have appeared on the New York Times’s best-seller list. 

Penna and Berger, both devout romance novel lovers, were well aware of Hoover’s impassioned community of fans. But even they couldn’t believe what happened when the first 22-minute episode of Confess dropped: Go90 crashed. 

“We just looked at each other,” recalls Berger over lunch with Penna and Fast Company one recent afternoon at an outdoor cafe in Santa Monica. “We said, ‘Wait a minute, there’s something going on here.'” Though they’re from different generations—Berger has grown children and Penna is a self-described “millennial mom” of a toddler—the two women have the synergy of sisters and often complete each other’s sentences.

“It was like YouTube, 2009, where you go on the street and no one’s heard of Tyler Oakley, but he has millions of subscribers,” chimes in Penna, an early social media pioneer who cofounded the YouTube management company Big Frame. “Only now you go out on the street, you’re not a romance fan, you don’t know Colleen Hoover, but she wields this enormous influence. Yet nobody’s paying attention to this.” 

How, they wondered, could they tap into this massive, devoted audience of readers?  

[Image: courtesy of Frolic Media]
The answer was Frolic, the website and media company devoted to all things romance that Penna and Berger launched earlier this year. A cross between BuzzFeed, Entertainment Weekly, and the romance novel site Romancelandia, Frolic aims to engage the kind of bookish, overwhelmingly female pop culture junkies who devour movies like To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and books like Hoover’s, then deconstruct, analyze, and swoon over them on social media. In other words, a portion of the billion-dollar romance industry that is driven by women between 30 and 54. Frolic is zeroing in on the younger segment of that devoted group: 25- to 39-year-olds. And though its core focus is literary, the site also mixes in TV- and movie-related content because, as Penna says, “Frolic readers are voracious consumers of not just romance novels but pop culture. They love things like Stranger Things.”

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A recent sampling of Frolic fare includes an essay on “How This Is Us Embodies the Best Qualities of Romance Novels,” a video compilation of “The Five My Chemical Romance Songs That You Still Need in Your Life,” and a guide to “Four Fairy Tale Romances Available on Kindle Unlimited.” As for the site’s biggest hit so far: a think piece on “Magic Mike XXL and Smashing Toxic Masculinity.”

The idea behind the company is to create an online hub for an underserved audience—fans of romance—and then use that hub to build out a bigger business that includes live events and e-commerce. Interested in a Jane Austen T-shirt or a Sassenach soy candle? (Sassenach is a Scottish term for an English person, made famous in Outlander, another TV series beloved by Frolic readers.) Both can be found in Frolic’s online marketplace. 

Currently, all the content on Frolic is free. The company is slowly introducing ads, and more transactional elements, such as merchandise and special videos for purchase, are being added to drive revenue. By early 2020, the plan is to develop a freemium model by introducing a members program that would give users, in exchange for a small fee, access to author meet-ups, discounts to live events, deals on products sold on Frolic, and other exclusives. Another piece of the business that the women are betting on is producing TV shows and movies. The company recently optioned two romance novels is pitching them to studios, networks, and streaming services. 

“We see ourselves as the Blumhouse of romance,” Berger says, referring to Jason Blum’s hugely successful production studio behind horror hits like this year’s Halloween and The Purge. 

The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang

The comparison might seem overblown, considering that Frolic is just getting off the ground. It has been up and running for eight months and underwent a significant redesign just this week. But then again, the company is arriving at a moment when the romance industry is at an inflection point. The stigma once associated with damsel-in-distress, drugstore bodice-rippers is starting to erode as the genre increasingly addresses more contemporary, feminist themes. To wit: The Kiss Quotient—a novel by Helen Hoang about a woman on the spectrum who hires and falls in love with a male escort—became a cultural phenomenon this year. The book is now in its fifth printing and is being made into a movie by Lionsgate. Another popular author and Frolic contributor, Alyssa Cole, is helping redefine what a mainstream romance hit can be by writing about African-American heroines in her Reluctant Royals series. And Priscilla Oliveras writes novels with Latinx subjects. Historically, the genre has focused on white protagonists and has only recently started to come to terms with its diversity problem.

This shift is colliding with the entertainment industry’s own interest in a more diverse approach to romance on the big screen, thanks to the success of last summer’s Crazy Rich Asians. The Hollywood-ending love story that featured an all-Asian cast has grossed $237 million globally on a budget of $30 million. With everyone clamoring for more love stories, Frolic sees itself as ground zero for the movement, as well as a credible curator for those looking to navigate a huge, booming industry in which they might have little experience.

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“It’s a hard category to delve into,” Penna says. “It’s overwhelming. There are a lot of books and a lot of content and a lot of authors. But we’re well poised to take advantage of the frothy market because we know how to separate the wheat from the chaff.” 

[Image: courtesy of Frolic Media]

Filling the gap

Berger and Penna went to work on Frolic soon after their Go90 “aha” moment. (Go90, of course, has since been shut down.) Berger’s contract was almost up at Awesomeness, and the company was undergoing a management shake-up in the wake of founder Brian Robbins’s exit. Penna decided to leave, too.

Over breakfast at a diner on Montana Ave. in Santa Monica, the women discussed what to do next and whether there was actually a business in romance. Penna felt confident about the huge influencer network that they could tap into, but Berger, a lifelong traditional media executive who’s also worked at Comcast, Viacom, and Fox, was nervous about delving into an entirely new field. 

“Sarah is an entrepreneur by nature,” Berger says. “So I was like, ‘How do we go about this?’ And she just looks at me and goes, ‘Lisa. You just plant the flag and go.’ And I looked at her and go, ‘Right!'”  

After raising funds (Frolic wouldn’t disclose how much) through an angel round, they spent the summer of 2017 researching the field: talking to publishers, going to focus groups, holding their own focus groups, attending romance conventions where they met with fans. 

Their findings confirmed that there was indeed a white space for romance fans online. Sites like Romancelandia and Smart Bitches, Trashy Books exist, but they take a more narrow approach, focusing solely on romance books and readers without incorporating other media. Live events didn’t exist for romance geeks the way they do for fanboys or BookTubers and Bookstagrammers (yes, book lovers who have their own YouTube and Instagram followings). Another takeaway: “This audience buys,” says Penna, who estimates that Frolic’s target demo spends $1.7 billion a year on merchandise and ancillary products. Hence those Jane Austen T-shirts. 

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“They’re filling a gap,” says romance author Chanel Cleeton. “There have been some romance sites, but they’re operated more like review sites and discussion communities. I think Frolic is really catering toward all aspects of media. They’re responding to what their audience wants.”  

The original plan for Frolic was to spend the first year building up an online community and forging brand partnerships: engaging some of those Bookstagrammers to write for the site (and promote it organically) and creating a “safe place,” Penna says, for fans to congregate and share their love of love. E-commerce was also on the agenda. But when Crazy Rich Asians became the breakout hit of the summer, the entertainment executive in Berger couldn’t help but see another opportunity. Using their expertise in romance to seek out “IP”—aka intellectual property, or the industry catchphrase for properties with built-in fans—and sell it to Hollywood.  

Next Year in Havana by Chanel Cleeton (left) and A Princess in Theory by Alyssa Cole

A few months ago, Frolic optioned A Princess in Theory, the first of six novels in Alyssa Cole’s Reluctant Royals series, which Berger describes as “Coming to America meets The Princess Diaries.” The book is a New York Times Notable Book of 2018. The company also optioned Cleeton’s novel Next Year in Havana, about a Cuban-American writer who travels back to Havana upon her grandmother’s death. Last summer, Reese Witherspoon selected it for her book club. 

Cole says she felt immediately comfortable when she met the Frolic cofounders because of their expertise. “Romance is starting to become more popular. People are saying, ‘Oh, you can make money from romance,'” she says. “But a lot of people don’t particularly care or understand [the category]. Of course, your dream is to get your book optioned into a movie, but I’ve also seen where it doesn’t work out in the end. Things can go sideways. I like to take a chance with people who already inherently understand the genre and the book itself—people who are not going to say, ‘Hey, why don’t you make one of the characters white?'” 

Now Berger and Penna are pitching both projects to media buyers, using their ability to directly target romance fans as a selling point. “We have this community built-in, so when we go to a studio or network or streaming service, we can say, ‘Look, here’s a piece of IP. Here’s the writer. Here’s the vision. And here’s the reach that you can get in terms of marketing,'” Berger says. 

“We’re not beholden to the studio model,” Penna adds. “We have an audience that we can really have a direct relationship with and translate them into paying customers, whether that’s buying a T-shirt from us or buying a movie ticket.”

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Good morning and Happy Monday! Because I’m not quite on top of my game, I missed UK #BookShopDay on Saturday. Did anyone stop into their local bookshop on Saturday and get their “Books Are My Bag” tote? Which books did you get? . ✨ This year there were TWO totes! This one (pictured) designed by iconic pop artist, Sir Peter Blake, and a limited edition children’s bag inspired by Philip Pullman’s new “The Book of Dust” trilogy! These are available in UK bookshops while supplies last! (I’ll show font and back of both totes in my stories today!) I love the bags they put out every year and huge thanks to @booksaremybag for sending me this year’s bags. . ✨ My favorite thing about shopping at bookstores is the personal experience. Over the years, after stopping into bookstores so often, I’ve had the pleasure of making friends with many different booksellers. I can’t tell you how many awesome books I’ve purchased and read because a bookseller physically put it into my hands and was like, “Hikari, you have to try this one.” This was how we came to find the “Princess in Black” series, and it’s my daughter’s favorite. . ✨ What are some of your favorite book shops? What are some books that you’ve discovered because an awesome book seller pointed you in the right direction? #booksaremybag #philippullman #thebookofdust #sirpeterblake

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Spreading the love on social

The revamped Frolic website features a forum where readers can chat, recommend books and articles, or simply discuss why “Mr. Darcy is the man of our dreams” (a real thread). There’s also a calendar of events, and in the new year there will be the Frolic Expert Series, tutorial videos that fans can download for a still-to-be-determined fee.

Hikari Loftus, the Bookstagrammer behind FoldedPagesDistillery, created one of the first Expert videos, about how to start a Bookstagram account. In an interview last month, she said the “really fun” experience was “less about me; it falls into their curriculum. But when that goes live, they’ll be tagging my name. Hopefully, I’ll get some exposure.” 

The founders hope that Frolic will too. With more than 125,000 followers on Instagram, Loftus represents the organic way Frolic is scaling. Anytime Loftus references Frolic or links to content from the site, the Frolic brand grows a little bit bigger. And when it comes time to promote Frolic movies and TV shows, the company can reach out to people like Loftus directly with promotions or events.

In the meantime, the company is engaging with its audience nonstop. “Once we we hear about something, we’re on Twitter pretty much within 30 seconds, talking to the community about who was cast in a movie or what’s coming out or anything that’s happening in pop culture and romance,” Berger says. 

The lead-up to Crazy Rich Asians, naturally, caused a flurry of social posts, as did the premiere for the new season of Outlander in early November. 

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“We did a whole countdown to that coming,” Berger says. “November 4th was a very big day for us.”

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About the author

Nicole LaPorte is an LA-based writer for Fast Company who writes about where technology and entertainment intersect. She previously was a columnist for The New York Times and a staff writer for Newsweek/The Daily Beast and Variety

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