This week we spoke to EMPIRE's recently appointed Editor, Nick de Semlyen about his 16 year career at the title, his favourite celeb interview and membership models in the magazine industry.
What made you want to work in magazines?
I can trace the origins back to my early teens, when I used to borrow (okay, steal) my big brother’s perused copies, including issues of EMPIRE (for some reason I vividly remember the cover with Robin Williams wearing a pair of trousers on his head). I was mesmerised as I flicked through them: here were portals into unknown worlds, with vibrant art and fun, candid interviews with big names. Often a magazine like EMPIRE, Neon or Premiere turned out to be more entertaining than whatever movie was adorning its cover. The sense of community I felt as I read them back then, of being part of a big band of like-minded friends, is still something I feel today, working at EMPIRE.
You’ve interviewed some big names in film – who was the best person to interview?
There have been so many unforgettable experiences. Will Smith teaching me how to use a rocket-launcher. Robert De Niro slipping into an impression of an angry Italian hotel manager as he told me an anecdote. Watching reality TV show Say Yes To The Dress with Viola Davis in her trailer on the Warner Bros lot. The most ‘pinch-me’ one, though, has to be spending two days in Shanghai with Jackie Chan. He’s one of my long-time heroes and getting to enter his (frankly very surreal) world for that long was an amazing privilege. He drove me around in his car at a terrifying speed while singing Lionel Richie tunes at a terrifying volume, allowed me to carry his two beloved cuddly panda toys, La and Zy, and explained how he would fight me using objects in his hotel room. It’s pretty hard to top.
As Acting Editor over the pandemic, you were leading a publication focused on an industry that was hit hard by covid restrictions – how did this impact your editorial strategy?
Covid changed everything, almost overnight. Suddenly cinemas were closed, press junkets and photoshoots cancelled, set visits no longer a possibility. Our carefully made plans had to be shelved, while our run of future covers was suddenly obsolete. It was, to put it mildly, a testing time. But oddly enough, looking back, I have so many good memories of that period. The team pulled together amazingly, drawing on our resources to come up with compelling concepts and tapping our contacts books to get access to big names who no longer had anything to promote. Instead of the pandemic crippling EMPIRE, I feel that we became a more passionate, adventurous and vital magazine than ever. And the content we ran — from Tom Hanks writing an essay on the importance of hope, to a collaboration with director Edgar Wright on a campaign to support shuttered cinemas, to a special Zoom film club — really connected with readers, many of whom got in touch to say how much EMPIRE meant to them during lockdown. The sense of community has only increased, and so has our sense of mission.
You’ve been at EMPIRE for your whole career as a journalist, what’s it been like seeing the film industry and journalism change over the last 16 years?
They say the only thing permanent is change, and that’s definitely been borne out by my time at EMPIRE. Hollywood has been rocked by one seismic event after another, from the arrival of Marvel (kicking off the current trend for intricate, interlocking cinematic universes), to TV starting to rival movies for star-power and production value, to the rise of Netflix and subsequent streaming services. As a brand, we’ve had to evolve in step. That’s always a challenge, to keep on top of the latest trends, but it also prevents EMPIRE from getting stale — and makes our jobs so much more exciting. In terms of transformations in journalism, again it’s been invigorating to take advantage of new possibilities and technology. EMPIRE's podcast, for example, has allowed us to turn readers into listeners, and drill deeper into the movies they love with the popular ‘Spoiler Special’ spin-off series.
You’ve recently launched EMPIRE VIP Club with some great perks like a Picturehouse cinema membership and access to exclusive podcast content. How would you define the difference between membership and subscription models in magazines?
They’re both ways to engage with passionate, fired-up readers. While the traditional subscription model is focused on the print experience, though, a membership model allows us to provide a multi-dimensional brand experience. EMPIRE VIP Club gives its members access to live events, exclusive podcast and print content, rewards and more - it’s an exciting new way to connect with loyal EMPIRE readers, allowing them to get closer to the action and us to get to know them better.
What does the next year hold for EMPIRE with the ability to do in-person events again?
2022 promises to be a colossal year for Hollywood, with a cavalcade of huge blockbusters set to arrive now that cinemas are opening again. TV-wise, there are gigantic things on the horizon too, from a new Game Of Thrones series to a billion-dollar adaptation of The Lord Of The Rings. It’s an exciting time for EMPIRE, then, not least as there’s a palpable desire from readers to get out of the house and make up for lost time. There’s lots of potential for buzzy events, be it screenings, live podcasts or Q&As — we’re keen to get back out there and celebrate the return of cinema in style.
What upcoming film release are you most excited for?
As a one-time card-carrying member of the Indiana Jones Fan Club (I was nine; the club folded after two months and I didn’t get my money back), I would be betraying my younger self if I didn’t say Indiana Jones 5. The last film was not so great, but I’ll never not be thrilled by the sight of Harrison Ford in a battered fedora, even if this time he’s pushing 80.
What’s on your radar?
I'm contemplating the question of what our lives as journalists will look like as we bounce back from the pandemic — presumably some mixture of physical and virtual, hopefully drawing on the best aspects of both. And then there are the all-important issues of inclusion and diversity. Thankfully things seem to be moving in the right direction, but there’s a lot more work to be done.
What magazine do you stockpile?
Other than EMPIRE — I’ve still got literal piles of old issues stacked up in my mum’s attic! — the one I horde is Rolling Stone. The dynamic covers, audacious photoshoots, beautiful design and brilliant longform interviews make it too hard to throw them away. It’s a time machine back to pop-culture trends of yore, and I find the boldness of its editorial really inspiring.