Why Cohen Media Group's Billionaire Founder Bought a Magazine

Charles S. Cohen and the cover of AVENUE Magazine_Split - Publicity - H 2020
Courtesy of Avenue

"What distinguishes Avenue at this time is to get away from all the politics and all the controversy," Charles S. Cohen, who also owns Landmark Theatres and Curzon Cinemas, says of his purchase of the longtime New York society title.

If you haven't heard of Avenue, you're not alone. Established in 1976, the lifestyle glossy has, for the last few decades, chronicled New York society goings-on and been delivered monthly "to Manhattan’s most exclusive buildings where average household income is $1.7 million," former umbrella company Manhattan Media boasted.

A new owner, however, is looking to broaden the magazine's readership and introduce it to a new generation. In December 2018, Charles S. Cohen, the billionaire real estate and entertainment mogul who owns Cohen Media Group, Landmark Theatres and Curzon Cinemas, bought the title with the intent of redesigning it with the help of a design consulting firm; in February, Cohen laid off most of the former staff. Like he did with the Quad Cinema, Cohen seems to be trying to rehabilitate a New York icon.

On Jan. 23, the new iteration of Avenue, which comprises a bimonthly print edition and a weekly newsletter, launched with American Ballet Theater principal Misty Copeland as its digital cover star. It includes stories on "fashionable Harlem," indie bookstores and movie theaters and "inoculating kids against entitlement." (The new target audience appears to remain moneyed, but perhaps younger, more diverse and hip.) "I think by changing the borders of what [Avenue] calls 'New York' to include the five boroughs and everything that's great within the five boroughs and all the different kinds of people that live and work within those five boroughs, that is what today's reader will respond to," Cohen said Wednesday when reached by phone.

With his purchase, Cohen joins the realm of billionaires — Jeff Bezos, John Henry, Sheldon Adelson — taking a chance on publishing during a tricky time for print and online media. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Cohen explained why he wanted to join their ranks, how he plans on monetizing Avenue, whether he has plans for more theater acquisitions and what he thinks about Netflix's leases of historic theaters.

Right now is, to put it mildly, an extremely difficult time for publishing, particularly in print. Why decide to go into the magazine business in 2020?

Let's take a step back: It's not a new magazine, although I've relaunched it in a new incarnation. Avenue magazine has been around for over 44 years, I believe. It was probably the first social giveaway, New York City-centric magazine of its time, well before all these others came along. There's a list that is a mile long. It always had a great provenance, it always had a great respect for design, photography, for a pulse of the city that people really appreciated and resonated [with].

When the opportunity to acquire it and its archive became available, I was intrigued by the opportunity that it presented to fill a void that I feel really exists in the printed world. I read a lot of magazines and my home is in New York City; I was always an Avenue reader. To me, what distinguishes Avenue at this time is to get away from all the politics and all the controversy and everything else that we are bombarded with all day long on every possible media that you can imagine. Why not have a magazine that is so definitive about New York and what's great about New York and celebrate [that]? And that's really what the point of view is of Avenue. We want it to be a useful guide, a resource, and also be a signpost for quality and for what's great about New York.

You said in one statement about relaunching Avenue that you wanted the magazine to be "inclusive." "Inclusive" isn't usually a word that’s used to describe a lifestyle magazine, particularly one that used to appeal to the New York society set — tell me what you mean by that.

If you know the history of Avenue magazine and some of its competitors that are still in existence, they really seem to me to have been stuck in a little bit of a time warp of what they feel New Yorkers [are]. What I was struck with is that New York is such a huge melting pot. And so I look at Avenue [as an] opportunity to include other groups of people that would never otherwise be covered by the magazine. I made sure that we always celebrate neighborhoods. I thought, why not celebrate Harlem, which is going through such an amazing renaissance? Why not include people of color, restaurants that people would not otherwise think of going to, real estate that people aren't considering? I think by changing the borders of what [Avenue] calls "New York" to include the five boroughs and everything that's great within the five boroughs and all the different kinds of people that live and work within those five boroughs, that is what today's reader will respond to. It also, frankly, opens up the receptivity of all these different kinds of people who were, before, not Avenue readers. Avenue used to be restricted to the Upper East Side, but there are no borders anymore. 

A major hurdle for most media companies these days is how to monetize. What is Avenue's model for becoming sustainable?

Well, we have a digital aspect to it, a newsletter that changes weekly, whereas the magazine is bimonthly. We are very much involved in creating an event-driven business, but we want to be careful how we do that. We did one event in October to celebrate great designers and great design and we did our launch event at Hudson Yards, which was our way of announcing ourselves to the world. So we attempt to be very selective and very careful in spreading the Avenue umbrella over types of businesses and undertakings that are of the quality that deserve the Avenue connection. So that's an emerging business, and we know that that's important to today's advertisers because it's so confusing to navigate the waters of advertising and marketing. No one knows how to connect with the clientele, so you have to a 360-degree outlook.

How are you and Avenue's writers navigating their coverage of areas that you do business in, such as the magazine's recent story highlighting independent theaters in New York including Quad Cinema? Are they planning on providing disclaimers in the future if the magazine covers or mentions other areas of your business?

Well, for the Quad Cinema and for Landmark to be included in a group of independent movie theaters, those are two out of 10. If there are connections, so be it, but the article was not created to promote the two theaters because if that was the case, why would we include anybody else? What I want Avenue to achieve is a utility, a resourcefulness. Most people don't know about independent movie theaters in New York, they're so few and far between. That's a whole other discussion, but if you want to talk about the role that a movie theater plays in today's world, it's similar to the role that a magazine would play. It's not dead, it's very much alive, they have reasons to exist and what's great about the world we live in is that these different forms of entertainment or information can coexist next to each other without one destroying the other or wiping it off of the face of the earth. I like to tell people that, you may have a kitchen at home, but you still go out to eat. You can watch films at home, but you still will go out to a theater. It's a place to go, it's all about the place. I think this magazine has a responsibility to identify what is great about New York and what distinguishes it in a world where people may feel that they have more trouble finding their way. Avenue's tagline is "Where we live." What's great about where we live? Yeah, we've got independent theaters, we've got independent bookstores — I don't own a bookstore. That came out of a discussion and I thought "great." Are we going to feature independent theaters in every issue? Of course not. That's not what it's about.

How would you describe yourself as a boss for a magazine like Avenue — are you a hands-on or hands-off editor?

I think that I am very good at the envisioning and point of view and knowing, having been around long enough and reading magazines and having lived in New York for a long time, what I really think today's leader and today's New Yorker wants to read. I was looking at a well-known magazine the other day, a men's fashion magazine, and it had no advertising, it had no point of view. It's a magazine that's well-known — I don't want to name it — and I just think that so many magazines out there don’t know what to do, they don't know who their audience is, they don't know how to approach it, maybe there's too many cooks in the kitchen, I don't know. But that's why I'm very encouraged by Avenue's reception, Avenue's point of view and where we hope to take Avenue.

I would be remiss if I didn't ask you about the layoffs at Avenue a few months ago. Why was it imperative, in your view, to install a new regime?

Let me tell you what happened. When I bought the magazine, I was certainly very open-minded and retained everyone who worked for the magazine. Part of the process was to totally reimagine the magazine. So I went to my friends at Pentagram and we got started on this journey, and and they turned to me after a couple of weeks and said, "There's no way we're going to meet your June deadline of being able to get this magazine out. As a matter of fact, we think you should think more about September or October." So at that point in time, I sat down with our folks, and we had to make a hard decision. That hard decision was, what are we going to do with all these people for six months while we reimagine what this magazine's going to look like? So it was just a very practical reaction to a very real challenge, and it was a financial challenge. At that point in time, we decided we had to clean house, so to speak. The editor, Michael Gross, decided to leave on his own, I still don't understand why, but that was his prerogative; I certainly wish him well. So it gave us an opportunity to come up with a new design, a new point of view and a new staff. I think that that new staff is doing what they need to do and we thought we were going to be out in June, and then September, and now it's into January. It takes me a long time to get things done, but I think it's worth doing and putting the time in up front.

Shifting gears a little bit, what are your next plans or steps for repertory and art house theater facilities in cities like Miami, Los Angeles and other markets besides New York, particularly in the streaming age?

Well, you know I own Landmark Theatres, and I also own Curzon Cinemas in London, and both theater chains have a very strong repertory and independent film point of view. In particular, Landmark has a series of calendar houses, like the Nuart in L.A., so we are always accessing and promoting and showcasing the very best of filmmaking, no matter what it comes from, so we've been doing that. The Landmark has been doing it for 30, 40 years, and Curzon for about as long. I'm a big believer in the repertory component, that's why when Quad opened, it was a very strong component.

After your purchase of Landmark Theatres, are you interested in buying more theater chains, such as Laemmle or iPic?

No, I just finished acquiring Curzon in London. I'm not looking at anything else in the United States.

Relatedly, what do you think of Netflix’s move to lease New York's Paris Theatre and deal with The Egyptian in L.A.?

Well, I'm not really privy to the details of both of those transactions, but I have a great respect for Netflix and the filmmakers they support and everything they do for the entertainment industry as an industry, all the employment they create, all of the films and longform streaming shows and series they have, I think they're doing a very good job. I think they know what they're doing and that people should respect them for what they're doing.

How are you strategically thinking about putting your companies' media library — such as the Merchant Ivory and Buster Keaton films — on streaming services?

Well, we have always been involved in streaming around the world. We have close to 1,000 films, many of them that we own in perpetuity and others that we've restored and are continuing to restore. We also have our own channel on Amazon Prime called Cohen Media Channel — you should check it out. It's a subscription-based channel, there are over 300 films on there right now.

I think that it's a very interesting world right now, the landscape for SVOD and streaming globally. We are exploring many other avenues and opportunities, not only here but in the U.K. With the Curzon acquisition, that included not only the theaters but Artificial Eye, the highly respected U.K.-based distribution company, and also an online company as well. But we picked up over 400 features in that library alone. So together, between Cohen Media and Curzon, we've got over 1,400 films under license. It's very exciting. I'm a big believer in libraries and content, restoration and preservation. I've restored over 100 films, and we're almost done with the entire Buster Keaton library, which we'll complete in the next 18 months. It's all available, you've just got to work to find it.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.