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From Beastie Boy to Movie Mogul

Adam Yauch chews on three Oscar nominations.
OSCILLOSCOPE LABORATORIES

Adam Yauch — aka Nathaniel Hornblower, aka MCA of the Beastie Boys — has unorthodox plans for the Oscars. "I'm going to distribute sandwiches outside the theater," says the 45-year-old founder of Oscilloscope Laboratories, an indie film–distribution company based in New York. "Maybe Harvey Weinstein will be hungry."

He jests, of course, but not without motivation. Since Yauch officially launched Oscilloscope ("Oscope" for short) in early 2008, more distribution companies have gone out of business than entered into it. "A lot of people said, 'What the hell are you guys doing?' " remembers Yauch. "I said, 'We're small. This isn't going to hurt us.' "

Two years later, the gamble is starting to pay off: just two weeks after Miramax Films closed its doors for good, Oscilloscope landed a fairly prominent role in the upcoming Oscar race. The Messenger, director Oren Moverman's slow-build account of soldiers assigned to notify next of kin about relatives killed in action, which Oscilloscope purchased after the film's Sundance premiere in 2009, garnered nominations for supporting actor Woody Harrelson, as well as screenwriters Moverman and Alessandro Camon. The company also landed a documentary nomination for Burma VJ, a stark portrait of political unrest in Myanmar, incorporating a variety of clandestine footage shot throughout 2007.

Whether or not any of these nominees win, the inclusion of Oscilloscope's films by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences reflects the label's rapid progression to the upper tier of the specialty-film world. Last year, the company was thought to have a shot at Oscar glory with Kelly Reichardt's art-house favorite Wendy and Lucy, but Michelle Williams' nuanced performance ultimately failed to yield a nomination. If Yauch and his team learned from that experience and amended their campaign strategy accordingly, he won't reveal their secret. "The really great thing about the Oscars is that a bunch of people know about these films," he says. "For filmmakers, this is evidence that the staff at Oscilloscope knows what they're doing."

While the company's first release was Yauch's own directorial effort, the Harlem basketball documentary Gunnin' for That #1 Spot, his motives went far beyond personal gratification. "My interest in starting this company was not to distribute my own films," he says. "I was interested in the idea of working with filmmakers."

Oscilloscope's assiduously curated library of festival hits ranges from domestically produced dramas like The Messenger to social-issue documentaries (Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father; No Impact Man) and foreign fare (The Paranoids, from Argentina; Irish flick Kisses), all of which it distributes on DVD as well as theatrically.

"Adam's always wanted to make sure that, as a distributor, we're able to control our own destiny," says David Fenkel, a former vice president at ThinkFilm and Oscilloscope's co-founder. "We're working on films we love. We want to make sure they're released the way we want them released."

Prior to the ascendance of Oscope, Yauch was hardly a newcomer to the distribution game. In the early '90s, he and his fellow Beastie Boys joined forces with Capitol Records to create the music label Grand Royal, which folded in 2001. "Grand Royal had a good run, but it got too top-heavy," Yauch says. "Because of its size, it needed to release records that would sell, and it was having trouble doing that."

As a result, Yauch keeps Oscilloscope's overhead low. The company puts out 10 to 15 films a year, most of them acquired on the festival circuit. Upcoming releases include Michel Gondry's family documentary, The Thorn in the Heart, and The Exploding Girl, the expressionistic story of a seizure-prone college student (Zoe Kazan), directed by Oscope regular Bradley Rust Grey, whose wife and producing partner So Yong Kim's children-in-distress narrative, Treeless Mountain, was released by the company last year.

With its star-filled cast and budget, The Messenger is the biggest project to come out under Oscope's auspices. Moverman says the company's newbie status was part of the appeal. "Adam said he hoped one day to be able to release a movie like The Messenger," the director recalls. "I said, 'Why not now?'"

To date, the only Oscope release to cross the $1 million mark at the box office was Wendy and Lucy, and it just barely stumbled over that hurdle. But the niche qualities of Oscope's films play a key role in the cultivation of its brand. "A lot of times, the movies with greater marketing challenges are the ones that fall to us," says Yauch.

Like a hip, youth-oriented version of the Criterion Collection, Oscope combats those challenges with keen grassroots strategies. Shoppers at Whole Foods and Urban Outfitters may discover Oscope DVDs at the checkout counter, and journalists are often treated to press releases containing Yauch's eccentric plugs for the company's latest acquisitions. A statement pimping the surreal Danish cop drama Terribly Happy, opening this week, bears this blurb from Yauch: "It is just further proof that Danish people are clearly out of their minds."

Yauch positions Oscope's handcrafted approach in opposition to the neglect associated with larger companies. "When I pick up a DVD in a piece-of-shit case, with a piece of paper stuck in it, I feel like the distributor is just throwing it away," he says. "We want to respect our films more than that."

Veterans of the indie world have noticed. "They craft a slate they can manage," says former Tribeca Film Institute CEO Brian Newman. "They don't just buy anything under the sun, and they hire smart people. If they didn't, the Beastie Boy factor wouldn't matter much."

Yauch himself speaks of his famous band as if he, Adam "Ad-Rock" Horovitz, and Michael "Mike D" Diamond just got lucky. "I don't think we ever planned on doing things on the scale we ended up doing them," he says. Hence, while he would like Oscilloscope to explore "larger projects," he remains wary of the commercial realm, where the boundary between substance and sell can be slippery. "Sometimes, it's just somebody's idea of how they can market something, like Matthew McConaughey with his shirt off," he scoffs.

But elements of Yauch's creative output continue to influence the most popular culture: Just last summer, J.J. Abrams' Star Trek reboot contained a scene in which Chris Pine sped down the street blasting the classic Beastie Boys track "Sabotage."

"That," Yauch admits, "was cool."

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