We’ve all been indoctrinated—by inside sources, “Entourage” and Harvey Weinstein—into thinking we know how studio heads are supposed to act. Firing people for mis-hearing a lunch order, assaulting bystanders with an inexhaustible stockpile of profanities and barely getting by with blood pressure so high it would make Dick Cheney blush. But Adam Yauch must not have been paying attention.
Speaking with Yauch, the 45-year-old head of Oscilloscope Pictures (not to mention a real, live Beastie Boy) is calm to the point of uneasiness. Sure, the fact that he accepted the serene maxims of Buddhism close to two decades ago may account for some of his tranquility, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less surprising (or refreshing) to hear the raspy, yeoman-like composure of the man in charge of what is one of the most promising indie distributors, and one of the few thriving during this economic downturn.
“I think it is a tricky time for distributors, especially distributors that started during or have been working through what had been a really booming economy and are structured on that,” says Yauch, a moviemaker himself having directed the Rucker Park basketball doc Gunnin’ for That #1 Spot, the Beastie Boys fan-filmed concert project Awesome; I Fuckin’ Shot That! and many of the band’s videos.
“A few months after we started the company, the economy really started collapsing,” says Yauch. “So the way that we are learning to release films is by being pretty conservative in our spending. We’re not just going out and throwing millions and millions of dollars at TV ads out of the gate; we’re figuring out how to roll films out and find their audiences.”
This slow-cooked technique was well executed with Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy. The film is Oscilloscope’s biggest success to date, grossing just under $1 million in the U.S. and enjoying sustained profitability and positive response during its more than four months in theaters.
One of the more recent films to get in line for the Oscilloscope ride is Michel Gondry’s The Thorn in the Heart, a documentary about the French moviemaker’s aunt, which was warmly received at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival. Not a bad purchase for the man whose plan on the eve of his first trip to Cannes was the following: “I’m just gonna kind of wing it when I get there. [Oscilloscope partner] David [Fenkel]’s been looking into what kind of films are there. I’ll probably just look and see what I can find.”
O-Scope, as it’s known, certainly has a soft spot for documentaries. Of the 16 films purchased by the company at press time, 11 have been nonfiction. But in its first year, the company has redefined itself several times over.
Several days prior to the Thorn in the Heart announcement, the company made official its purchase of Jules Dassin’s 1959 pseudo-sexploitation flick The Law (previously released in the U.S. as Where the Hot Wind Blows!). This marked the first purchase of a classic film by O-Scope and yet another direction for the company.
“Mainly I just want to have films that I like and the other guys here like and at some point be able to look back at the whole collection of films and feel good about all of them,” says Yauch.
This is exactly what O-Scope has accomplished in its first year of existence, and perhaps is what makes Yauch’s laidback demeanor so unexpected.
The company’s first acquisition was Irena Salina’s critically, financially (for a doc, at least) and humanely successful Flow, a welcome addition to the quickly growing “activist documentary” canon. The company then embarked on a festival-hopping campaign, snatching up darling after critical darling and amassing an eclectic roster of films that are at once adroitly subtle and boisterously affecting. This includes Kurt Kuenne’s devastating Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father; Treeless Mountain, So Yong Kim’s atmospheric look at Korean life through the eyes of two young sisters; The Paranoids, an Argentinean tale of an unwanted instance of art imitating life; and The Garden, the Oscar-nominated doc about a 14-acre community garden in South Central Los Angeles.
To be clear, there is no mistaking Yauch’s peacefulness for apathy. The man couldn’t be more passionate about the power of cinema and the human touch necessary to nurse an independent film to life. “The little bit of exposure I had to film distributors in the process of some different projects I was working on [in the past]… the distributors just felt kind of stiff and removed from the process,” says Yauch. Not so with O-Scope.
“Every time someone in the business asks who is handling Kisses,” notes director Lance Daly of his Irish coming-of-ager that O-Scope picked up in April for U.S. distribution, “and I tell them Oscilloscope, they inevitably go off on the same rant about what a great operation Adam and David have put together and how ‘they really do give a shit.’”
“Everyone over here really loves what they’re doing and likes getting their hands dirty,” boasts Yauch of his 10-person staff. “Sometimes you meet with these film executives and they might as well be selling toilet paper; like they came from Procter & Gamble or something.”
O-Scope’s tendency to give a shit has also led to gorgeous DVD packages modeled after gatefold LPs and crafted with oodles of care and precision, not to mention a ton of eco-friendly consideration. “All the paper is made by this really great company that uses 80 percent post-consumer recycled materials,” says Yauch, referring to Monadnock Paper Mills. “They get their power from wind and they use mills to make the paper. It’s a really great company so we’re trying to support them and only use their paper.”
Thriving in a broken economy, making indie hits out of largely unseen gems and saving the world one movie at a time? An insanely exciting venture to say the least, right Mr. Yauch? “For us it feels like a good time. I’m enjoying doing it,” coolly understates Yauch. “Definitely no regrets here; it feels like it’s going well.” MM