Cover Story: Reanimating Omni Magazine
Earlier this month at the Toronto International Film Festival, a feature-length documentary called Filthy Gorgeous: The Extraordinary World of Bob Guccione premiered. The film tells the story of the adventurous and provocative Penthouse magazine founder and aims to go beyond the common image of Guccione—that of a gold-chain wearing pornographer—and discover a more complex figure.
After building a media empire and amassing a fortune, Guccione died nearly penniless. His wild investments—one in a nuclear-fusion reactor—ultimately led to his financial ruin, but also reveal an untold side of the man: a man who explored the arts and sciences with abandon and one desperate to know more about the mysteries of the world around him. This interest led Guccione and his business partner and future wife Kathy Keeton to co-found Omni, a science fiction magazine published from 1978 to 1996.
Omni was much more than just sci-fi, exploring real science, technology, computing, UFOs, robotics, medicine and astronomy and boasting among its contributors Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov and Joyce Carol Oates. In fact, the term "cyberspace" was coined by William Gibson in his novelette Burning Chrome, published in a 1982 issue of Omni.
The magazine left a lasting impression on readers. Many see it as a precursor to Wired. And though Omni's circulation grew as high as 850,000 and for a period went from 6 to 12 issues per year, it ceased publication abruptly when Keeton died.
But now, 35 years after Omni was first published and against the forces of nature, the magazine is being reanimated. The defunct publication is being revived by Jeremy Frommer, the same New Jersey entrepreneur who financed Filthy Gorgeous. Christened Omni Reboot, the project aims to connect a rich publishing legacy to future triumphs.
Frommer is a man with a varied background himself. Currently he's CEO of Jerrick Ventures, the company behind the Omni re-launch. He's also spent time on Wall Street, founded a financial software development firm, and owns a trucking company. Yet, how Frommer got involved with Omni's second life has nothing to do with finance, trucking or software, but rather a chance encounter with a storage locker and an opportunity to realize his inner nerd.
Frommer says his daughter, a fan of the Storage Wars television program, asked him to take her to a storage locker auction, where he then bought every available locker. The lockers happened to be in Bergen County, NJ, where Guccione grew up and owned a house, and in one of the lockers was a small cache of his archives. "My gut told me that there was a significant and important archive to be located. The locker gave me perspective on a man that was a very meticulous person—that this was the tip of the iceberg and I wanted to find the rest of the stuff."
Frommer traced the rest of the archives to a creditor in Phoenix, bought them out, and had the archives curated over the next six months.
So why did Frommer dive into the world of publishing, no less to reboot a pre-internet sci-fi magazine? "I'm a proud and happy geek. As we speak I'm wearing a Wolverine sweatshirt. I was a Trekkie when I was a kid. I was a huge fan of Omni. I used to get it delivered to the house. I'm pretty sure my bar mitzvah was in 1981 and someone got me a subscription to Omni."
Frommer's experience is actually similar to a lot of other former Omni readers and shows just how much Omni is a product of a bygone era. Much of the internet buzz around the re-launch has a common theme: fond memories of getting a subscription to Omni as a gift or waiting for the next issue to arrive in the mailbox. A time when fantastic and subversive thinking wasn't as widely available as it is today on the internet, gratification wasn't as instant and physicality counted for something.
This sentimentality, like digging through a box in your parent's attic to find a coveted toy, is surely something Frommer knows will add value to Omni Reboot. But for a businessman, the sentimental alone doesn't drive a project. Frommer thinks Omni Reboot will be a culturally relevant and viable publication in the future. One reason, he says, is the editor he hired to helm the project, editor Claire Evans, formerly a writer for Motherboard, part of Vice Media. In Evans he found "someone who could execute and share the same vision I had to make public the archives of Omni and at the same time reboot the vibe and energy that Omni created."
Building on Guccione's Vision
The plan to re-launch Omni has garnered a massive positive response, says Frommer, because Omni was ahead of its time, well before sci-fi and nerd culture became mainstream. "Omni really pioneered a mix of science fiction and science fact. The market is calling for that. There are a lot of sites that reflect that zeitgeist."
Claire Evans believes that Omni Reboot will carve out its own niche in the science fiction techie-sphere. "We're different from other sci-fi sites in that we are not wedded to genre," says Evans. "Ben Bova, a science-fiction legend and original editor of Omni, told me that Omni wasn't a science magazine or a science-fiction magazine: it was a magazine about the future. The idea with Omni Reboot is to talk about the future with whatever tools are at hand. That might be fiction, it might be a personal essay, photographs, music or pop-culture criticism."
And though sci-fi and nerd culture have gone from niche interests to popular culture forces, (think Big Bang Theory, Comic Con, TRON: Legacy), Frommer feels no one is really doing the unique blend Omni did or Omni Reboot will do. "Omni was very predictive. A lot of the predictions as fiction have become fact: global warming, stem cell research…"
It can all be tied back to the original vision of Guiccione, who often hired real scientists to write articles. "Guccione believed in informing and entertaining," says Frommer. "He did the same thing with Penthouse."
It's true. Guccione often goes uncredited for his intellectual pursuits. A monthly series on the treatment of Vietnam veterans featured in Penthouse prompted Brandeis University to name Guccione Publisher of the Year in 1975. He also hired a young Anna Wintour as fashion editor of Viva, a women's adult magazine he co-founded with Keeton.
The same went for the design of Omni: "Guccione came at science fiction from the point of view of design," says Evans. "He was enchanted by images, delighted by art, and approached Omni visually as well as philosophically. As such, it was a very evocative magazine. We're trying to maintain that spirit by really showcasing the rich archive of visual material he accumulated over his lifetime."
A painter and photographer himself, Guccione commissioned artists to create original paintings for Omni. The walls of his Manhattan mansion were hung with Van Gogh, Matisse and Renoir. And like it or not, he revolutionized pornography. "The art of Omni—no one can hold a candle to that," says Frommer.
Omni Reboot aims to continue that dedication to quality, and will recruit well-known authors and journalists. "Guccione valued working with talented people," says Evans. "The list of luminaries involved with Omni over the years is truly astounding—and that's something we take seriously."
Reboot will also continue the dialogue on sci-fi topics Omni raised thirty years ago, says Frommer. "It really is one of the few areas that can inform and entertain at the same time. It can act as eye candy but also stimulate the intellect. I don't know of too many intellectual properties that can do that."
"The fact that science fiction becomes science reality is a really unique concept. The reason why it's such a popular genre is that imagine for 20 or 30 years people—you wanna call them nerds, geeks, engineers, scientists, surrealist painters—for decade after decade they would have these conversations. For the last two decades the world has made those a reality."
In a twist, Omni's previous life actually foretold some of the changes that would ripple through the publishing industry: in 1996 it became the first major newsstand title to be online-only (though, that only lasted one year before total shutdown).
Omni was in fact a pioneer in web publishing. It first went online in 1986 as part of Compuserve. It later experimented with other web components, such as forums, chats, blogs, real-time coverage of science events and online collaborative writing between sci-fi authors and readers. Omni also attempted a syndicated TV show and series of newsstand comics.
Back to the future, OmniReboot.com is already up and running, featuring archived and original content. Frommer says that whether the magazine itself will take print, digital or both forms when it's released mid-2014 is still under consideration. "Right now we're in talks to potentially try to put out a physical issue, but it's a real endeavor, to say the least. We'd probably do that six times a year."
It seems only fitting to speculate on the future of Omni Reboot—to wonder whether it will be a success in the 21st century. The attention the project is getting already affirms it will, says Frommer. Time will only tell if that prediction will come true.
Denis Wilson was previously content director for Target Marketing, Publishing Executive, and Book Business, as well as the FUSE Media and BRAND United summits. In this role, he analyzed and reported on the fundamental changes affecting the media and marketing industries and aimed to serve content-driven businesses with practical and strategic insight. As a writer, Denis’ work has been published by Fast Company, Rolling Stone, Fortune, and The New York Times.