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How Interview Magazine Came Back From the Dead

The magazine’s president and chief revenue officer say controversial longtime owner Peter Brant is out, and a new cost-conscious era is in. But can Interview rid itself of its baggage?
Agnès Varda covers Interview | Source: Collier Schorr
By
  • Chantal Fernandez

NEW YORK, United States — Andy Warhol's Interview magazine, owned until last month by the one-time billionaire and art collector Peter Brant, is back on newsstands Thursday, less than four months after filing for bankruptcy.

Thanks to the United States Bankruptcy Code and new, undisclosed investors, Interview returns with a younger Brant at the helm. Peter Brant’s daughter Kelly, its president since 2016, and Jason Nikic, its chief revenue officer since 2016, are its new owners. Kelly insists that her father is no longer a part of Interview in any capacity. Nor is her mother, Sandra Brant, who ran the magazine with Ingrid Sischy in the 1990s and 2000s.

Over nearly 30 years as Interview’s owner, Peter Brant developed a reputation for not paying the bills. The independent magazine, known for pioneering the celebrity-on-celebrity interview format and documenting New York’s high and low culture, struggled financially in recent years. Media consumption shifted online and print advertising revenue declined.

But Interview's May 2018 bankruptcy filings reveal just how bad things had become. The magazine owed over $11 million, had $17,000 in the bank and was valued at a mere $25,000. Former editorial director Fabien Baron alone was owed about half a million dollars in unpaid wages and expenses. Brant claimed to have loaned the business over $8 million, guaranteed by Interview and its parent companies, since 2016. And both he and the magazine were facing multiple lawsuits alleging unpaid wages and wrongful terminations.

“[Peter Brant] holds no position, he is not an investor in the company and he has nothing to do with the magazine,” said Kelly Brant, revealing for the first time how she and her backers formed Crystal Ball Media, Interview’s new parent company, over the last four months.

Peter Brant and his representatives did not respond to requests for comment.

Over the summer, a new team worked overtime to produce the magazine’s September issue without knowing for certain if Crystal Ball Media would be able to acquire Interview’s trademarks after the liquidation, Kelly Brant said. But the gamble seems to have paid off — at least for now.

Agnès Varda in Interview | Source: Collier Schorr

The cover of the jam-packed, Richard Turley-designed issue features the acclaimed 90-year-old filmmaker Agnès Varda wearing a feathery Dries Van Noten coat, photographed by Collier Schorr. (Coincidentally, Varda covers The Gentlewoman magazine this month, too.) Interview's new iteration claims a circulation of 220,000.

The issue marks the arrival of creative director Mel Ottenberg, Rihanna's longtime stylist, who left his role as fashion director of 032c magazine in May to join Interview. Other contributors for September include Ryan McGinley, Petra Collins, Ibrahim Kamara and Pierre-Ange Carlotti.

If Interview’s reincarnation is to succeed, the magazine needs to distance itself from the mismanagement of Peter Brant’s recent era. The creative community must have faith that they will be paid, and many believe Brant orchestrated the bankruptcy filing to maintain control of the company while clearing his debts.

“The press and other places have the lingering rub-off of how the old company operated,” said Kelly Brant. “I know people endlessly find the relationship between me and Peter complicated or bad… but the only thing that we can do [now] is operate differently.”

“There are things that we are trying to do to earn back some of that trust,” added Nikic. “I understand there is a certain amount of baggage that the brand itself brings with it, [but] the brand itself is the thing is worth saving.”

How exactly did Interview magazine bounce back from its very public death so quickly?

Back in March 2018, Interview's editorial director Fabien Baron was at his wit's end. In a letter he wrote to Peter and Kelly Brant, he objected to the fact that the title's creative director Karl Templer might not be allowed to return to the magazine after being named in a Boston Globe article about sexual misconduct in the fashion industry. Plus, Baron said he was owed more than $498,000 in unpaid wages and expenses. (Templer exited shortly after; he was owed $300,000.)

“When I agreed to return [to Interview in 2009], it was with the understanding that the financial cloud hanging over the magazine would be removed and that we would start with a clean slate,” wrote Baron, who was previously hired by Peter Brant when Interview relaunched in 2008. “That never happened.” In his letter, he urged the Brants to keep Templer on staff, warning of wrongful termination, and focus on new revenue opportunities.

Baron resigned ten days later. He and his wife, the stylist Ludivine Poiblanc, sued Interview, its parent companies and Peter Brant’s son Ryan Brant on May 2, alleging the parties owed them over $600,000. (Ryan Brant led Interview when Baron first signed his contract in 2009 and had personally guaranteed his salary at that time.)

Baron wasn’t the only former employee complaining. The magazine’s former chief financial officer Deborah Blassuci and former president Dan Ragone both sued Interview in 2016 over unpaid wages. In 2017, former associate publisher Jane Katz did the same. (Both Blassuci and Katz also alleged wrongful termination).

A wall of Interview magazine covers | Source: Archie Carpenter/Getty Images

Owner Peter Brant sunk a lot of his money into the business, too. Between July 2016 and May 2018, he reported that he personally loaned Interview’s parent company $8.2 million, guaranteed by the magazine and its parent company. (In October 2015, shortly after Peter Brant acquired ARTnews and merged it with his existing art publications, including Art in America, Interview magazine became part of a separate entity, thereby insulating the art titles from Interview’s fate.)

But Interview kept hemorrhaging cash. “The business was set up in a way where it was spending way more than it was bringing in, and there was nothing I could do, even on the cost-cutting side, to ever bring it back,” said Nikic, who joined the company as chief revenue office in the summer of 2016 from Hearst, where he was an associate publisher.

Revenue was starting to grow from custom advertising projects with advertisers such as Lexus and Bulgari, but Nikic said "we had this anchor that was really holding back the old business." Kelly Brant described that anchor as "the big salaries and all of the costs that people have built up when a company was making ten times what it is making today."

When Interview and its parent companies filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy on May 21, the companies owed millions of dollars to a group of 350 photographers, stylists, writers and many others. Agencies such as IMG Models, Art & Commerce and Great Bowery were due tens of thousands of dollars each.

“No matter how much you are aware of financial struggles, it is still a pretty bad day,” said Kelly Brant, remembering the bankruptcy filing.

But in the subsequent days, Kelly Brant said she saw an opening to start fresh with Interview after the liquidation. She partnered with Nikic to form a new company, Crystal Ball Media. They sent out a confident memo vowing to revive Interview by autumn and touting how many Instagram followers the magazine gained in the days following the bankruptcy. It was signed by Nikic and named Kelly Brant, Ottenberg and Nick Haramis, editor-in-chief since 2017, as Interview’s new leaders.

“There was certainly no guarantee that we would be able to get the trademarks,” said Kelly Brant, that were required to keep publishing. She said she made that clear to the staff she and Nikic assembled in June to produce the September issue.

Kicked out of the magazine’s old Greene Street offices after failing to pay the rent earlier in the year, the Crystal Ball Media team worked out of the stylish Tribeca shared workspace and club Spring Place through July and early August.

There was certainly no guarantee that we would be able to get the trademarks.

The staff included Ottenberg and Haramis as well as editorial director Richard Turley; executive editor Thom Bettridge, the former executive editor of 032c until June; editor-at-large Christopher Bollen, who has held that title since 2011; entertainment director Lauren Tabach-Bank, who returned to Interview from the New York Times in June; and photography director Samantha Adler, who left Vogue after more than five years in July.

Crystal Ball Media is funded by private investors whom Brant and Nikic declined to name, but Brant said the operation did not require what she called a significant amount of capital. “This is a huge risk for me and there is risk involved for everyone, but it isn’t a tremendous financial ask,” she said. “We are not asking for a huge runway. We have a plan to try and have this break even very, very quickly.”

“The stakes, for me, were quite low because the magazine didn’t exist,” said Haramis about deciding to return after being laid off. He trusted Brant and Nikic.

Meanwhile, a bankruptcy court appointed a trustee to the bankruptcy case. Baron’s lawyers deposed former employees, trying to delay the process and discover if Peter Brant’s secured loan was legal and if any of the company’s assets were being used to restart the magazine. But the liquidation process was swift.

On August 3, the trustee filed a motion to sell Interview’s assets, free of any claims, at an auction set for three weeks later with a starting price of $1.5 million. The same motion also sought to approve the likely buyer, a company Peter Brant had newly formed called Singleton LLC. He had transferred his secured debt to Singleton the month before Interview filed for bankruptcy. Any other prospective buyer would have had to cover Singleton’s secured debt in addition to the $1.5 million starting price, creating a significant barrier to alternate outcomes.

“That kind of insider type loan is not necessarily uncommon,” said attorney Jordan Myers, a finance lawyer at global law firm Alston & Bird. He added that in over 90 percent of Chapter 7 cases, unsecured creditors (such as Baron in this case) recoup less than 5 percent of what they are owed. But it’s not guaranteed that the insider secured creditor will win the business again at auction. “Once you go into bankruptcy, particularly Chapter 7, you lose control of the company.”

The behavior of the new company is going to have to speak for itself.

Kelly Brant said that despite her personal connection to Singleton, she was aware that the company might not win the auction. “There was never 100 percent security in anything, but waiting for some sort of certainty would have had us dead in the water,” she said, adding that returning to the market with a September issue was critical to net advertisers.

In the end, everything went exactly to Crystal Ball Media’s plan. Peter Brant won the auction on August 28, and a mere $500,000 was set aside by the court to distribute among the other debtors. Brant’s Singleton, in turn, sold Interview’s intellectual property, trademarks, subscription list and archive to Crystal Ball Media, which was ready and waiting to release its first issue.

Interview’s controversial legacy will be hard to shake, however. Brant and Nikic said they will try to combat the negative perception by paying contributors quickly. “The behavior of the new company is going to have to speak for itself and time hopefully will get us back to where we needed to be,” said Brant.

Ottenberg’s involvement lends some credibility to the shift.

“When I got a call to do this, I jumped at it because it’s very rare that you get the chance to take something you love so much — that’s so iconic, that everyone knows and has an opinion about — and… make it your own thing,” he said. To design the magazine’s new Ottenberg-led incarnation, Crystal Ball hired Richard Turley, best known for his work at Bloomberg Businessweek, as editorial director.

"I wanted it to look completely different from what it was before," said Ottenberg, describing the "new Interview" as colourful, "breathing" and humorous. September's pages feature musicians such as King Princess, Dev Hynes and Mason Ramsey, models Ashley Graham and Heejung Park, artists Nadia Lee Cohen and George Condo and many more talents that Ottenberg said represent 2018. "I don't want it to be precious, I want it to be fast and urgent," he said.

Nikic plans to bring that same energy to Interview's "special projects," custom advertising projects that he markets as lending the magazine's cool aura to brands. For example, Interview reprinted a 1985 issue for the opening of Gucci's Soho store last spring, replacing all the ads with Gucci ads and adding 16 new pages of branded content.

“It’s not the type of thing that a lot of brands can do, but we have this heritage and I think we have a certain amount of liberty as Andy Warhol’s book to be more creative,” he said.

“I think we are at our best when we embrace the fact that we are niche,” he said. “We finally with this team put it all together in a way that makes it feel like a page-turner.”

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