The rebirth of Omni—and its vibe

Glenn Fleishman on the imminent reboot of the legendary science and science fiction magazine.

A few weeks ago, I posed the question here, "Who Owns Omni?", about the beloved, defunct magazine of the future created and run by Kathy Keeton with significant involvement by her husband Bob Guccione, the founder of Penthouse. The best answer I was able to come up with after talking to past Omni editors and writers, contacting potential current copyright owners, and researching Guccione's personal bankruptcy and General Media's more complicated bond default was: nobody.

Almost all of the authors, photographers, and artists whose work appeared in the magazine had signed contracts that granted only short-term rights. The staff writing and other work for hire — owned by the magazine itself — was relatively minimal, and the owner of those rights is to my best efforts currently still unknown.

Next week, however, Omni will be reborn. Not the original, but Omni Reboot: a new online publication that takes its inspiration and direction from the magazine that so many of us grew up on and loved.

This new publication is the brainchild of Jeremy Frommer, a wealthy financier who has now invested a substantial amount of time and money into what is clearly a labor of love. The day before our story appeared in early July, he had revealed to Motherboard that he had acquired a vast amount of Guccione's personal work and the production assets of many of his magazines, including Omni. It was previously reported that he had bought a storage locker of Guccione's stuff. But that's not the extent, Frommer tells me.

Frommer says he and his staff went through "a lengthy process tracking down the assets that were left from the bankruptcy of General Media and Bob's personal bankruptcy." The 8-by-8 foot storage locker was a tiny portion of what he's purchased. He has filled a warehouse with material through negotiations with the creditors of Guccione's personal bankruptcy.

"When I purchased those assets, a tremendous amount of those assets came with copyright reference," he says. "A great deal of documentation refers to ownership issues in the numerous documents I acquired."

I asked him point blank, "Who owns Omni?" Frommer never gave me a complete answer. He says that, as I reported, virtually all of the material's rights reside in the original creators. "I've reached out to a significant number of the authors who have written for Omni, and, again, their material is owned by them. Much of what was in Omni was simply one-time usage of the stories," he says.

Neither he nor anyone else could simply reprint or post the content from older issues. But it's clear Frommer hasn't obtained the residual rights to the rest of the magazine, nor is he particularly compelled to do so, as those bits aren't the important ones. "The implication that at this stage Omni is a monopolized property that is owned by a single individual — that is certainly not the case that I claim."

He says the old magazine is well represented online by fan sites (some of which have scanned issues) and that he has no intent, even if he had the right, to subvert any of that. "I claim that I own the material that I own. I know that I have copyright on the materials that I have copyrights on. And I don't on those that I don't."

Frommer notes that once his efforts to acquire Omni and Guccione material became clear, "Often in these kinds of circumstances when real business people are trying to get something done in a productive and respectable fashion you will find people who try to lay claim to it because they're trying to be opportunistic." He indicated that the name "Omni" and its trademark as "really in a bit of a state of limbo." He didn't elaborate further on those points.

Instead, Frommer has a much richer set of plans around preserving and extending both Guccione's artistic legacy and building on the foundation that Omni created. Before researching Omni, I didn't understand quite how wide-ranging Guccione's and Keeton's interests and intellects were. One of the reasons for General Media's downfall and his own bankruptcy were their significant investments in scientific research, such as cold fusion — on the order of tens of millions of dollars — and running Omni and Longevity at a loss. (Keeton died in 1997 before the downfall of the company and her husband's fortunes, and her loss contributed to that.)

Frommer says Guccione's life showed the "rise and fall of a real modern-day Medici. At some levels he was a Da Vinci. He was an artist himself. He had an eye for talent, art, the written word, prose." Frommer backed the film Filthy Gorgeous about Guccione's life, directed by Barry Avrich. It premiers in September at the Toronto Film Festival.

The Guccione Collection is also up and running, selling original works of art that Frommer acquired from the archives, mint-condition copies of Guccione publications, and prints. This includes original copies of Omni magazine of which Frommer says he has thousands. He also over 1,000 "cover comps," the mock-ups of potential covers for each issue, some of which have handwritten notes by Guccione or Keeton. A staff of ten has been sorting and digitizing material.

Frommer says he's spent the last year buying hundreds of the original oil and acrylic paintings from estates and agents of John Burkey, Chris Moore, Colin Hay (who gave up sci-fi art in 1980 and records music under the name Boris Boogaloo), and others.

He is also interested in reissuing Omni's far-ahead-of-its-time comics collections, and has been talking to the artists who appeared in the three editions produced. If he can get the rights worked out, he may republish those and then commission a fourth book along the same lines.

The best news, however, isn't about the past, but about next week. Omni Reboot is a new publication, edited by Claire L. Evans, a writer and artist. It goes live next week. Frommer says they have hired writers and artists to bring what he calls the "Omni vibe" to 2013, and they want fresh blood, not just established practitioners. To all happy mutants, Frommer says, come aboard. "Those visionary writers who believe in that Omni vibe, they should reach out to me."

Frommer is a businessman, and he hopes to make this all a going concern, but, like many of us, he never lost the optimism of childhood, when reading Omni made us hope we'd be living in colonies on Mars by now and have personal jetpacks. (Soon. Just wait.) "When you sort of reach that point in your career when you can really pursue the passion projects and you get the opportunity to do something like this with Omni," he says.

"I was quite the geek, and I love the magazine and the opportunity to bring it back to life along with so many interesting people who I have spoken to, both professionals who were involved in Omni and people today from all walks of life and in all professions who were real fans of the magazine."

I asked Frommer in a few variations my previous question, "Who owns Omni?" He wasn't evasive; he's an expansive talker, and excited about this project. But he finally gave me the closest thing to an answer any of us may ever get.

"Who owns Omni right now? That's like to some extent, if Omni is synonymous with that blending of the science fiction, the science fact, and the fantasy worlds, delivered through the visuals of incredible artists from that period or the prose from the incredible writers — if that's what Omni is today, it's no different than saying, who owns a particular genre."

He says that's not the important question. He asks, instead, "Who is going to help rebuild Omni? Who owns Omni — that we're never going to resolve."

Published 5:00 am Fri, Aug 2, 2013

About the Author

Glenn Fleishman, @glennf, is the editor and publisher of The Magazine, a fortnightly electronic periodical for curious people with a technical bent. Glenn hosts The New Disruptors, a podcast about connecting creators and makers to their audiences, and writes as “G.F.” at the Economist's Babbage blog. He is a regular panel member on the geeky media podcast The Incomparable. In October 2012, Glenn won Jeopardy! twice.

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