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Still from "The Driller Killer"

Oscilloscope's manifesto for independent film

‘We always wanted to be a company that was primarily driven by the quality of the film, the filmmakers, and the people behind it’

As part of our new summer US project States of Independence we've invited our favourite 30 American curators, magazines, creatives and institutions to takeover Dazed for a day. 

Oscilloscope – the independent film distributor, started by Beastie Boy Adam Yauch, behind some of the past decade's coolest indie releases like Teenage & 12 O'Clock Boys – is taking over! They share their wealth of knowledge in a creative manifesto, take a look at a batch of new talent, and pen some love letters to the hottest directors…

The story of the film distributor Oscilloscope Laboratories began when Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys collaborated with US distribution company TH!NKFilm in 2005 to release his first film Awesome: I Fuckin’ Shot That! A couple of years later, Yauch completed another documentary about high school basketball players called Gunnin’ For That #1 Spot and reconnected with David Fenkel of TH!NKFilm to talk about self-distributing and self-releasing films.

Dan Berger left TH!NKfilm with Fenkel in 2008 and they used the film as a launching pad to found Oscilloscope with Adam Yauch. Oscilloscope is based on a shared ethos of collaborating with filmmakers to find their audiences, as opposed to using films purely as a commodity. They have since released indie features such as Wendy and Lucy, Howl, Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale, and Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights; and a cannon of documentaries including Beautiful Losers, Dark DaysAfter Tiller and most recently Teenage by Matt Wolf.


Art and money

"Adam Yauch had a long history of being an artist, of creating and working within an environment where you want to be able to create the things that you love and put them out into the world, but there needs to be a mechanism to do that. For lack of a better word ‘suits’ need to be involved, you know, people who decide how that happens and I think throughout his career, his personal experience of that really set the shape of what this company was to be.

Oscilloscope was founded with a certain ethos of being a place where filmmakers and artists could have their films treated in a way that was smart, respectable, and appreciative of where they came from."


Rule of thumb: don't be shady

"We’re a very collaborative company in the way that we work with filmmakers through the process of releasing movies, and that sort of underlying structure or sensibility was extremely important to Adam – not just on the creative side, but also financially. I think at one point in his recording career they had a major legal battle with one of their labels about getting out of their contract because they were getting screwed.

As a filmmaker, you hear horror stories about how distributors are shady or you never see any money and so much of it is just about being a place where filmmakers could feel comfortable. These films are things that they’ve spent incredibly long amounts of time on, and put blood and sweat and tears and all of that in to it, and to then turn that over to have it mishandled is such an awful thought. We wanted to be the company that didn’t do that and so that is and was the backbone of how we wanted to approach things." 

“We are looking at films that have something that is maybe a little unappealing from a commercial stand point, that we want to overcome” - Dan Berger


Strive for variety

"We’re not looking at films necessarily as commercial opportunities. We always wanted to be a company that was primarily driven by the quality of the film, the filmmakers, and the people behind it. The nice thing about having that as your primary focus is you aren’t limited to a certain type of movie.

There’s a huge diversity in the things that we release, which is part of what we really love about doing what we do, so we’re looking for good films that are different. They all generally have an element that can be perceived as challenging, at least from a commercial perspective, and I think that we really enjoy the idea of figuring out how to release these movies in spite of that."


Embrace the challenge

"You look at a movie like We Need To Talk About Kevin – that’s a movie we bought at Cannes a few years ago. We saw it at the first screening and it was well received, but everyone was calling it the school-shooting movie, which is not something a distribution company wants their film to be pegged as from the outset. We didn’t see the film that way – it’s frankly not what the film is – so part of our job was to figure out a way to get past that.

Seeing that challenge was something that was very appealing, so we are looking at films that have something that is maybe a little unappealing from a commercial standpoint, that we want to overcome. Sometimes those things that at face value may seem harmful for the prospects of the film, can actually be helpful if they’re embraced and put forward in the right way."


The theatrical experience

"We are still primarily a theatrical distributor, and believe that there is a theatrical audience out there. I think everybody that works here is a fan of cinema and likes the experience of going to the movies. I don’t want to call it nostalgic because that makes it sound of the past, but there is something about that experience that we don’t want to lose, and there is still enough of an audience out there that it’s totally viable to release films in that way.

I don’t think that that’s going to go away in the same way that you’re seeing a resurgence of vinyl sales maybe at the expense of CDs or something like that. There’s always going to be an audience that holds a place for that. We basically want to figure out how to fit in to that space. We’re not out there throwing money at problems and we can’t compete with big studio films so we have to figure out ways of getting them in front of audiences and then utilising those audiences to continue to spread the word."


Each film is a special snowflake

"We have done day-and-date releasing where it’s going digitally and theatrically at the same time, and will continue to do it on the right films, but I think that’s also something that is not so novel, or working in the same way that it used to anymore. Some companies took advantage of this being a new thing and figured out a way to make it work with bad films or films that didn’t really have life anywhere.

I think audiences have caught on to that a little bit at this point, so now there’s somewhat of, not necessarily a backlash, but at least a cognisance that bad movies are maybe being buried in this method of releasing. Not all the movies that come out that way are bad by any means, but they have to be the right film, handled in the right way. We’re not against that type of releasing but it has to make sense for the film itself."


Turn to face the strange 

"Things are changing so fast and so drastically that this could literally be a different conversation six months from now. Perhaps mostly due to technology, viewers's habits are changing. What used to work in the past doesn’t necessarily work anymore and what works now didn’t even exist in the past, so we do have to figure out how that ties in to each specific film that we are releasing in the current landscape.

So we’re looking at that and trying to think about non-traditional ways of embracing these platforms and doing something new; releasing films in a way that might have been the totally wrong way for the last ten movies we released, but on this particular one it makes sense. There’s a movie that we have coming out that’s currently scheduled for early next year for which we haven’t solidified our release plan yet, but are having conversations about releasing this movie in a completely unorthodox way."

“(Piracy's) almost something that you want to happen, that you strive for, because that’s when you know you’ve made it!” – Dan Berger


Here be pirates

"What we have to figure out how to combat is probably similar to what affected the music industry. The film industry has been very fortunate in all this having happened to the music industry first, and us being able to see how it has affected them. We need to be cognisant of the fact that viewing habits have changed and people expect to have things available to them when and where they want them, which predominantly at this point is at home.

More people are consuming movies at home now than ever before. Piracy exists very much, and from our perspective, hasn’t really been a problem. It’s almost something that you want to happen, that you strive for, because that’s when you know you’ve made it (laughs) – but at the same time, it is a thing that will grow and we have to figure out a way to combat that. Not everyone is going to pirate a movie and people are inherently willing to pay money for a product that they genuinely want and believe is good.   

As an industry we need to recognise that these things exist, adapt and make films available to people in ways that they expect them to be, because if they’re not then they are just going to find them some other way. We need to be working with audiences because fighting it is not going to help us in the end. I think that’s kind of what did the music industry in, they battled against it and in hindsight it’s had such a drastic effect on record sales and album sales, we don’t want to repeat that."


What they want and how they want it

"We want to work with new trends of consuming films, and create new trends if possible. There are a lot of direct consumer platforms that are popping up now as well; sometimes they’re competition for us in that filmmakers are often choosing to put their films up themselves, but sometimes they’re things that we can actually work with and embrace and make the film available to people how they want it, which is maybe not through their cable box or downloading it on iTunes.

They may not want it to have copy protection because any one person might have six devices that they want to watch it on… just being amenable to peoples needs is so crucial now because they do have other options and can probably find a torrent of your film and download a pirated version."


Adapt to exist

"We don’t necessarily want to be the company that is just making everything available to audiences in the same way. So much of what we love doing is the diversity in doing it and if ultimately it ends up getting to a space where everything feels very monotonous, that’s not really fun. I do think that there will continue to be a place for us to bring films to theatres or to maybe make events out of them or other types of releases where we are doing something interesting. We’re giving moviegoers something they want, and we are a place where filmmakers feel like their film was treated well.

I think that we can continue to adapt and exist in that space, it’s just going to be a matter of continuing to carve our way and figuring out what films make sense and how can we be a brand that people go to because they know that we are going to provide something to them in an interesting way. The more that we as a brand can be better, the better it’s going to be for all of our films."