When Beastie Boy Adam Yauch passed away this spring at the age of 47, obituaries didn’t just mention his musical legacy, or his advocacy for a free Tibet. They also acknowledged the mark he left on the independent film world with the company he founded in 2008, Oscilloscope. Even though he didn’t like using the term “DIY” to describe his company (He told the New York Times that it sounds like “a snappy marketing thing to say”), the independent spirit that Yauch encouraged remains with the company even after his death.
David Laub, one of Oscilloscope’s co-presidents, says that a small staff of 16 and a diffuse hierarchy help to maintain a ragtag feel. “People work very hard, and certain people can do multiple tasks as part of their jobs. It’s definitely not a very corporate structure,” Laub says. This is reflected in the staff’s camaraderie inside and outside the office. “It’s the end of the day, 6 o’clock hits, and [the staff will say] ‘Let’s spend the night here and play a board game!’” Laub adds that the company tries to draw on their staffers’ varied talents, and gives the example of the editor of one of their DVDs also creating a stop-motion animation for Oscilloscope to feature on their website to promote the same film.
The kinds of movies Oscilloscope chooses to release also fulfill one of Yauch’s core missions for the company, which was to create a heaven for filmmakers. Laub’s fellow co-president, Dan Berger, says that Yauch had a unique perspective on the artist/distributor relationship because he had spent so much of his career on the creative, rather than the business side of things. “We’re very collaborative with the people that we work with,” Berger says. The company chooses its roster of films based on quality–not necessarily on the potential to turn a major profit.
Part of the collaborative process with each filmmaker involves coming up with a tailor-made, idiosyncratic approach to a film’s release. One of the company’s recent triumphs was the concert documentary Shut Up and Play the Hits, about the now-defunct band LCD Soundsystem. Oscilloscope released the movie in just a handful of theaters as a one-night only event on July 18. “We created a fleetingness, I suppose, to the theatrical element and built up a demand for it that transcended the standard base who would support a film like this,” Berger says.
They even drummed up publicity for the theatrical release as if it were a live concert: Oscilloscope announced the movie’s release date, then two weeks later, tickets went on sale. Theaters ended up selling out of tickets within minutes, and in one night, Shut Up and Play the Hits grossed more than Cameron Crowe’s Pearl Jam documentary, Pearl Jam Twenty, did, despite the fact that LCD Soundsystem is a lesser known band.
Though Oscilloscope’s collection of releases is varied and deep–this year alone they’ve released a critically acclaimed Sundance darling (Hello I Must Be Going) and a graphically magical documentary shot around the world, (Samsara)–the company is still primarily in the distribution game. Laub and Berger say that the next step in carrying forward Yauch’s vision for the company is to start producing films as well.
With the company’s commitment to nurturing talent, having their hand in a film from start to finish seems like a natural move forward. “It’s something Adam had always wanted to do,” Laub says.