NEW YORK, NY: JANUARY 22, 2016 -- Vice magazine founder Suroosh Alvi in his company's Brooklyn, New York offices Friday, January 22, 2016. (Katja Heinemann / MONTREAL GAZETTE) cutline for publication: FIRST PHOTO, LEFT PAGE: Founder Suroosh Alvi in the Brooklyn offices, where he works. VICE has more than 30 offices around the world, all churning out content for the the brand's many platforms. | Photograph by: Katja Heinemann, Montreal Gazette
It was 4 p.m. on a Monday, and it was already gridlock on the Williamsburg Bridge — heading out of Manhattan. Heading into Manhattan, it was smooth sailing.
“I like the reverse commute a lot,” Suroosh Alvi, 46, said, ashing his cigarette out the window of his Audi. “Living in the city, working in Brooklyn, you’re always going against traffic.”
The observation could be Alvi’s career motto. We had just left the Brooklyn offices of VICE Media, the company he founded as a Montreal magazine in 1994 through a welfare pay program, currently valued at more than $4 billion.
It’s been a wild ride, filled with ups, downs, reversals of fortune and dramatic twists. Around the corner is VICE’s biggest coup yet: On Monday, it launches its own TV channel, Viceland, as part of Walt Disney Co. and Hearst Corp.’s A&E Network in the U.S., and on Rogers in Canada.
Money has been raining down on VICE for the past few years: Rupert Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox put up $70 million for five per cent of the company in 2013; A&E and Technology Crossover Ventures contributed $250 million each for 10-per-cent portions in 2014, and A&E has since upped its share to approximately 15 per cent. In the fall, Disney pumped in $400 million for a reported 10-per-cent share.
Viceland is being marketed as a cultural counterpart to the reportage-powered VICE show and forthcoming daily VICE News program on HBO (on City in Canada), promising the TV equivalent of the subversively cool content found in VICE magazine and its online offshoots — or, in VICE parlance, “verticals,” i.e. demographically focused platforms targeting music fans (Noisey), the electronic music scene (Thump), women(Broadly), tech geeks (Motherboard), foodies (Munchies), jocks (VICE Sports), news junkies (VICE News), the art world (The Creators Project), fashionistas (i-D) and pugilism proponents (Fightland).
“It’s the next phase in our evolution,” Alvi said, explaining how the TV station is a natural extension of the thousands of hours of video content VICE has been making for its website since 2006.
Overseen by American indie film auteur Spike Jonze, Viceland’s programming comprises 30 VICE-produced series, including: Gaycation, in which Canadian actress/host Ellen Page travels the world tackling issues of gay rights; F–k, That’s Delicious!, a food show starring rapper Action Bronson; and Weediquette, looking at all things marijuana.
VICE has been in full boom in the ramp-up to the Viceland launch. The company’s Brooklyn office recently moved to expansive new digs in a 75,000-square-foot, multi-storey loft complex to contain its rapidly expanding staff of 750 writers, editors, designers, producers, salespeople and so on — all necessary to feed the voracious content beast it has created.
“It’s crazy,” Alvi said, surveying the bustling complex the next day. “It allows us to have scale. Combined with (our offices in) L.A., Toronto, the U.K., Germany, Mexico and (more than 25) other ones, we can really churn it out.”
The station will launch simultaneously in the U.S., Canada, with more countries slated to follow. In the States alone, Viceland will reach a potential 70 million homes.
“If the network succeeds, I don’t mean to sound immodest, but it will be a global cultural phenomenon,” Alvi said. “It will be a lot of people consuming and involved in our content, being affected by it, informed and entertained by it, laughing, crying because of it. That’s pretty insane.”
VICE Canada will play a major role in the new network, creating 10 of the above-mentioned 30 programs, among them: the Alvi-hosted Terror, visiting jihadi hotbeds throughout the Middle East; Cyberwar, examining online threats; Rise, looking at issues facing aboriginal communities; and B.C. skateboarder Rick McCrank’s Abandoned, shining a light on deserted sites, from strip malls to fishing villages.
VICE’S Toronto branch has grown from 22 to 150 employees in 12 months, setting up shop in a 25,000-square-foot industrial space in the southwest end of the city.
Michael Kronish was plucked from his executive producer gig at Quebec TV production company Zone 3 to become Vice Canada’s VP in charge of television. He worked with the company once before, in 2009, on a Canadian version of the VICE Guide to Film for IFC Canada — the concept is being revived as a Montreal-produced series for Viceland — and that kind of history goes a long way at VICE.
Kronish recalls the phone call from the company’s chief content officer, Eddy Moretti, beckoning him to Toronto for a mysterious meeting, and the job offer that followed.
“It was one of those moments in life where you’ve got to make a decision, a big one, that involves moving around a lot of people (close to you),” he said, sitting in his glass-walled office looking out on VICE’s bustling, open-concept Canadian headquarters, built last year with a $100 million investment from Rogers. “But there was never going to be another opportunity like this… an opportunity to make amazing content with really smart people who have a really specific vision that is aligned with what I like and consume.
“In my old world, I would try to develop things — I always wanted to take an immersive approach to what I was doing, going into unique worlds not explored before. But there are not a lot of opportunities out there to make that kind of TV in North America. … It didn’t seem like there would ever be a better thing to do in my life, frankly.”
Viceland Canada’s programming, like that of its American counterpart, will be powered by strong personalities. Exhibit A: Matty Matheson, host of Dead Set on Life. The tattooed Toronto chef and reformed party animal had a proven hit with his online VICE Munchies series, Keep It Canada, in which he travelled the country doing crazy things with his foodie friends.
“My show is almost like an anti-food show,” Matheson said, recently returned from a Vietnam shoot for the second season of Dead Set on Life. “I always spurned the Food Network. That’s not real TV. I make TV for people who think and act like me. I’m just trying to have fun. I’m not trying to make a serious show.”
Matheson’s polar opposite, personality-wise, could be soft-spoken Montreal author Adam Gollner (The Fruit Hunters, The Book of Immortality), whose VICE career began in 1994, when he was barely 18, and has included a stint as editor-in-chief of the magazine in 1999.
Gollner left the company years ago and began writing for the New York Times and Wall Street Journal. But he recently returned to work on four documentaries, two for VICE’s Munchies and two for Viceland. His nerdy hipster demeanour provides an entertaining counterpoint to muddy B.C. fungus scavengers in Shroom Boom (or Bust), which premiered a few weeks ago on HBO. He also travelled to Iqaluit for a feature-length documentary on seal meat.
“The fact we’ve been able to keep working together is something I’m really proud of,” Gollner said, reflecting on his erratic VICE career. “A lot of it is because of Suroosh, who is a very loyal, supportive person. He supports people who support him.”
Loyalty is one of VICE’s defining traits. VICE Canada’s head of content, Patrick McGuire, joined the four-person Toronto office as an intern in 2008, and found himself interviewing rappers and bands before moving over to sales, then resettling in editorial. He oversees 10 original series for Viceland as well as VICE Canada’s News and other online verticals, the company’s digital documentary programming and more.
“It’s the kind of place where, if you’ve been around and you have a creative sensibility and a particular voice, they keep throwing stuff at you,” he said. “If you can keep surfing that wave, it pays off.”
For more than two decades, VICE has fearlessly bucked the status quo. It speaks directly to its coveted millennial audience without condescension or filters. A decisive 64 per cent of that audience is men — though the proportion varies across verticals and platforms.
Gonzo bravado runs through everything VICE does, from the brass on down. But the brand’s greatest feat may be in maturing from juvenile, boys’-club pranksterism to a heavyweight, global news/culture alternative that’s splashing its way into the mainstream.
VICE’s inherent edge allowed Alvi to interview U2’s Bono in December about the AIDS crisis in Africa; and saw VICE CEO Shane Smith sit down with U.S. President Barack Obama last March without sacrificing the company’s effortlessly cultivated street cred. (Side note: VICE’s chief operating officer is former Obama aide Alyssa Mastromonaco.)
That cred is credit in the bank of VICE’s all-conquering empire. The HBO show and the new Viceland channel can be seen as pinnacles of the company’s crossover success, but what if they form not the summit but a mere midpoint in the company’s astonishing trajectory?
It didn’t begin as VICE at all, but as Voice of Montreal, a flimsy, roughly laid-out, free monthly cultural magazine in a city that already had two free English-language weeklies (Mirror and Hour) and one French one (Voir). There simply wasn’t room for more.
“We launched at the worst possible time,” Alvi admitted, “in a shrinking English market in an economically depressed city. We were laughed at by Mirror and Hour.”
Then, with a flicker of mischief, he added, “Who’s getting the last laugh now? I’d love to name names, but I’m not going to.”
(Mirror and Hour have folded.)
Creating a magazine was beyond the scope of Alvi’s wildest ambitions. He was a recovering heroin addict with a BA in philosophy from McGill followed by a truncated attempt at grad school in Toronto. (“I was completely strung out; I dropped out.”) He went on welfare, enrolled in Narcotics Anonymous and began pulling himself together.
Born in Toronto to immigrant Pakistani professors, Alvi spent his teen years in Minnesota before settling in Montreal, when his mother, Sajida Alvi, began teaching at McGill’s Institute of Islamic Studies; his father, Sabir Alvi, taught education at the University of Toronto.
“In treatment, we had a writing exercise: What do you want to do when you’re out?” Alvi recalled. “I actually wrote, ‘I’d like to work for a magazine along the lines of the Mirror or Hour, but they would never give me a job because I’ve never done it before.”
He emerged from the program, found a tiny apartment in the McGill ghetto and attended daily Narcotics Anonymous meetings. But there were two hitches: He didn’t have a sponsor, and had no idea what he was going to do with his life.
Next came an inexplicable moment of serendipity.
“I was at a meeting … and this guy came up to me and he was like, ‘Do you have a sponsor?'” Alvi recounted.
“I said, ‘No.’ He was like, ‘Well, I’ll be your sponsor.’
“Then, he’s like, ‘So, what are you doing now?’ I was like, ‘Nothing. I tried to get a job volunteering at Sun Youth and they wouldn’t even hire me.’
“He said, ‘Have you ever thought about writing?’ I was like, ‘Actually, yeah, but there’s nowhere to write.’ And he was like, ‘Oh, I know a place.’ The next day he took me to the Images interculturelles office on St. Pierre, and they were the guys who hired me to start Voice of Montreal.”
Images interculturelles was a not-for-profit organization looking to start a community magazine; it was small potatoes, but to Alvi it was a feast. He began rounding up every aspiring writer he could find and created a publication that reflected his outsider worldview. (Full disclosure: My first post-university writing gig, a rap-album review, was for Voice of Montreal, which led me to write for Hour and the Montreal Gazette.)
He recruited cartoonist Gavin McInnes as comics editor, then assistant editor. Desperately seeking advertising, he hired McInnes’s old Ottawa pal Shane Smith as head of sales.
“He was the missing link,” Alvi said of Smith. “He could sell. … He was able to take us to a whole other level, and he has continued to do that throughout our 21-year history. We became best buds overnight.”
So was born the triumvirate that took VICE through its first decade. A name change, from Voice to the edgier VICE, foreshadowed the magazine’s increasingly provocative tone, while a switch to glossy opened the floodgates for the stylized skateboard and hip-hop fashion ads that began pouring in.
The magazine continued to grow, but by the late’90s, it had hit a plateau in the Canadian market. Enter Montreal tech millionaire Richard Szalwinski, who valued the company at $1 million and wrote a “big fat cheque” (Alvi’s words) for 25 per cent ownership, convinced the trio to move operations to New York City in 1999 and planted the idea for a multi-platform, e-commerce empire with plans to take VICE public.
“You have to credit him,” Alvi said. “He was the guy who said, ‘You guys should be more than a magazine. You should be a multichannel brand that has TV, film, music, clothing.’ We were like, ‘OK, great.’ We opened stores, started a clothing line, a film division, all this s–t.”
Alvi, Smith and McInnes soon sold their remaining 75 per cent to Szalwinski to increase capital for all the projects, keeping creative control. But everything came tumbling down with the dot-com crash, leading the three to seek out Szalwinski at his Nantucket residence.
“He was like, ‘The money’s gone. It’s over,'” Alvi said. “We drove back, depressed, then did a deal over the next month to buy it back from him… for pennies on the dollar.”
All was not well within the VICE nucleus, however. McInnes’s cocaine use and loose-cannon rants (including pseudo-ironic sexist/racist statements) may have contributed to a growing rift in the partnership; after a protracted negotiation, he left for good in early 2008.
“We went our separate ways,” Alvi said. “We cite creative differences.”
Since then, VICE has been on a rampage of reinvention.
“The company that existed when Gavin was here — this place is unrecognizable many times over compared to what VICE was then. We’ve grown up, transformed, changed, evolved. There’s very little apart from the original core mission of wanting to tell good stories.”
In the absence of its most juvenile partner, VICE’s focus broadened from raunchy toilet humour to an irreverent curiosity about life around the globe. Smith’s insatiable drive for new partnership opportunities led to the multimedia focus that would define the company’s future.
The turning point came in 2006, when a deal with MTV spawned the VICE Guide to Travel DVD, containing an array of short videos including a segment by Alvi called Gun Markets of Pakistan, in which he travelled to a remote village where knockoff weapons are churned out around the clock.
“I wrote an article about it for the magazine, and 150,000 people read it,” Alvi said. “Then we put it online, it went viral and millions of people saw it. I was like, ‘Aha, this is interesting; the Internet’s pretty cool.”
The company inked a deal to share online content with CNN.com in 2010, which led to the renegade-style Gun Markets of Pakistan being posted on the site’s homepage for an entire day.
“That was a revelation,” Alvi said. “Holy f–k — they see it as news!”
That stamp of approval from a mainstream media company was but a hint of things to come. Fast-forward a half-decade, and VICE has an Emmy-winning HBO show that recently kicked off a fourth season. It has a TV channel and a growing arsenal of award-winning online platforms.
The connecting thread is content, primarily of the video variety — a format that newspapers and magazines have been scrambling to monetize for years but that VICE mastered early, opening doors for the company.
Meanwhile, against all odds, VICE magazine continues not only to exist but be profitable. Reflecting its newfound maturity, last February the publication named Ellis Jones as the first female editor-in-chief in its two-decade history.
VICE magazine has suspended publication for January and February as it undergoes a redesign coinciding with the launch of Viceland. But while the look may change, the approach will be familiar. “We take the best of what VICE is and put it into magazine form,” said Jones, a Georgia State print journalism grad. She strives to strike a balance between attitude and inquisitiveness.
The June edition featured a profile of author David Sedaris, while December’s had interviews with filmmaker Michael Moore and comedian Aziz Ansari, photo essays on Appalachia and Belarus, a piece on Colombian guerrillas and a story on Las Vegas strippers protesting exploitative work conditions.
“For me, a good VICE story is a long-form investigative feature that is part of a larger story,” Jones said. “Maybe it’s what’s happening in immigration, or about racial tensions or health epidemics — things any other major news outlet is covering, but we’ll go find a story beyond what everyone else is doing.”
The company has reached cruising altitude, allowing Alvi to delegate the around-the-clock duties of helming the ship to concentrate on his first passion.
“I used to deal with all the construction and expansion,” he said. “We didn’t have the resources to hire people to do things… so a lot of that stuff fell into my lap. I had a vision of myself becoming deeply unhappy in 10 years if I kept that up. So, I took a step back and began to focus on making content.”
That decision, paired with VICE’s infiltration of the TV market, leaves Alvi’s partner Smith to run things as the international face of the operation.
“He’s done such a fantastic job of driving the business,” Alvi said. “He keeps pushing all of us to step up our game and take it to the next level. He’s the leader. It’s a big company, and we’re all doing our thing; I feel great about it. He does things I can’t do, I do things he can’t do. … Everybody wins.”
Smith has relocated to L.A., working out of VICE’s Venice, CA, office. “His biggest clients are there,” Alvi said, adding that he is considering following suit:
“There’s much less stress there. I don’t know what it is, something in the air.”
He has options. Alvi and Smith both bought property in Manhattan right after the stock-market crash of 2008 — there’s that reverse commute again — and Alvi just bought a place in Toronto to spend more time with his parents. Then again, recently married, he fantasizes about spending summers in Montreal.
“I have such fond memories of the place,” he said. “It had a huge impact on my life. It’s where I went into the depths of despair, and where I had my rebirth and started this whole business.”
Alvi retells the “VICE origins story,” as he calls it, several times a year in Narcotics Anonymous meetings, which he still attends. It’s important, he emphasized, to never lose sight of how far you’ve come, and to remember that a fresh start can be just one fateful conversation away.
“It’s easy to get caught up in the minutiae, putting out fires, and to forget what’s actually important in life. Whenever I do that, I stop and have a reset moment, and I’m awash with happiness and relief. Wow, this is an amazing life we’ve made for ourselves.”