EXCLUSIVE: Beastie Boy Adam Yauch on the Fine Art of Indie Moguldom

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On the day Oscilloscope Pictures announced its acquisition of Irish coming-of-age hit Kisses, the company's president Adam Yauch slumped on a sofa and considered the news. "Did that just come out?" he asked his distribution chief, David Fenkel.

"It did," Fenkel replied. "Getting lots of e-mails about it."

Yauch paused again, now seeming to consider the movie itself. A sweet film, he thought. The kids are great in it. Likes the director, Lance Daly, a lot, despite that awkward first meeting at last year's Toronto Film Festival. Then he laughed. "We had actually gotten an illegal screener of it somehow," Yauch recalled. "And so we met him at this party, and I was like, 'Hey! I loved the film.' And he was like, 'How did you see the film? It hasn't screened yet.' And I said, 'Hmm. I don't know.' And then he said, 'Where did you get a screener?'" Yauch laughed. "'I can't tell you you that.'"

Indeed, in his company's fifth-floor loft overlooking Tribeca, Yauch may possess the most esoteric bootleg-DVD taste on Canal Street. Which is saying a lot considering the neighborhood, but it's in his job description. Or one of them anyway: Better known as MCA of the Beastie Boys (and himself a seasoned filmmaker, who first got to know his partner when Fenkel distributed the Beasties' concert film Awesome; I Fuckin' Shot That at ThinkFilm), Yauch's distribution venture recently celebrated its first anniversary with about as much forward momentum as any pure indie in the business. In little more than a calendar year, Oscilloscope had a moneymaker in the tiny Michelle Williams drama Wendy and Lucy, a lightning rod in the devastating doc Dear Zachary, and conspicuous festival buys out of Cannes, Sundance and the aforementioned Toronto. Oscilloscope is packing two more new releases into this week alone: So Yong Kim's acclaimed Treeless Mountain opens today at New York's Film Forum, and the NuArt will host the South Central community-vs.-corporations doc The Garden starting Friday.

The Garden bears special distinction as Oscilloscope's first Oscar nominee. Though that acquisition occurred after its nomination was announced, Yauch and Fenkel also worked to position Williams, Dear Zachary and another 2008 doc, FLOW: For Love of Water as viable awards-season candidates. The message was clear: This is not a vanity project. This is more like a filmmaker's dream.

"There were always labels like Sub Pop or whatever, which could be an indie label and get out to a mainstream audience if things worked," Yauch told Movieline. "And I thought it would be interesting to try that with a lot of good films that weren't getting seen."

That philosophy greatly appealed to Garden director Scott Hamilton Kennedy. Beyond sharing the the political sensibilities that inform his film (and beyond the director's long-standing Beasties fandom), Kennedy said Yauch and Fenkel particularly related to exploring issues while upholding both creative energy and entertainment value. "David had a great reputation coming from ThinkFilm, and then artist-to-artist between Adam and myself, I just felt very safe in his hands," he said. "He obviously understands the process, and that was a big part of it. They're just a smart, hungry boutique company. And I guess it sounds like I'm tooting my own horn, but they have good taste."

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(L-R) Oscilloscope entries Wendy and Lucy, Dear Zachary and Treeless Mountain

"Good taste" is one way to put it. "Microbudget precision" is another -- and perhaps more appropriate considering the punishing economic climate in which Yauch launched his self-financed venture. On one hand, the timing couldn't have been better: Starting with Yauch's own high-school basketball chronicle, Gunnin' For That #1 Spot, he and Fenkel invoked a pinpoint, slow-build release strategy just as financial instability gripped the marketplace. They weren't left scrambling to regroup, overstaffed and overstuffed with shelves full of unreleasable films, unable to acquire new ones. Yauch immediately sensed an advantage. "These other companies are built on a different time and a different structure," he said. "They're figuring out how to react."

On the other hand, those companies' anchors in the corporate firmament have made the adjustment somewhat easier for them -- and perhaps even more challenging for Oscilloscope. For starters, Yauch and Fenkel know they can't match the vertical integration of a Magnolia Pictures or IFC Films, who've reinforced their operations with multi-platform, day-and-date releasing. Not that they necessarily want to, though; despite some success in major markets, those new-media models haven't produced reliable audiences or revenue streams for films that have otherwise shown strong foreign or festival promise. And away they go to the library.

"It's tricky, because some of our competitors can throw down more money up front for a film because they're not putting it in a theater," said Yauch, who knows the value of his catalog but is unapologetically pro-theatrical. "Or they'll put it in for a minute and then it'll go to TV and run it through their mill. That's hard to compete with if agents want to take that quick advance. So a lot of what we do is talk to filmmakers just to find out if theatrical is important to them."

That was precisely the conversation that director So Yong Kim wanted to have about Treeless Mountain, her stirring sophomore film about two girls, ages 4 and 6, abandoned by their mother in South Korea. "They're realistic," she told me. "They're not saying, 'Your film is going to do amazing!' They're saying, 'Let's be realistic and focus on what can be most effective.' For me, that's the thing I want to hear. I don't want to hear a distributor say, 'Oh, it's going to be a blockbuster!' I know the film, and I know what kind of film it is, so I like people who are straightforward."

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Moreover, both Kim and Kennedy credit Oscilloscope with unusually high levels of filmmaker involvement, from publicity decisions to festival strategies to poster and DVD design and local outreach. Community-garden activists have arrived in force to not only view but also discuss Kennedy's film in post-screening panels. Treeless Mountain targeted word-of-mouth among Asian-American viewers and festivalgoers before trickling out in limited release. Both films have expansions planned in the months ahead, recalling the gradual roll-out that established such a welcoming marketplace for Wendy and Lucy last December.

"For us, we do a lot of work before the film is released," Fenkel said. "We were working on Wendy and Lucy for four or five months with publicity and marketing and a lot of different ways. That way, when the movie opens, it's not just advertising-based whether it's going to work or not. Spending the money wisely, strategically -- and early -- is really important."

Even more important, but not as obvious as it sounds (ask Fenkel, who hit the eject-button at ThinkFilm mere seconds before it slammed into the side of Mount Insolvency): spending less money than the other guys. That's where Oscilloscope's biggest advantage often comes into play. "In terms of businessmen working with artists, Adam has been an artist for 25 years," Fenkel said. "So we get a more complete idea of how everyone sees a deal, and how to make the fairest deal possible so that we're in partnership with filmmakers."

Yauch agreed. "I want to feel like I would be comfortable on both sides of the deal," he said. "That's another thing that's been happening with the film industry for way too long: We've got lawyers and agents fighting to get the best deal possible for their client -- beating each other down -- instead of just sitting in a room and saying, 'OK, what's really fair? How can we structure this?' "

Sounds rational enough. Just don't make him tell you where he found that DVD of your film.

[Photo credits: Adam Yauch, WireImage; film stills, Oscilloscope Pictures]



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