Skip to main content

Time To Get Ill: Checking Out Oscilloscope Pictures

By Tamara Krinsky

From Kurt Kuenne's <em>Dear Zachary: a letter to a son about his father</em>, which was distributed by Oscilloscope Pictures. Courtesy of Oscilloscope Pictures

According to the American Heritage Science Dictionary, an oscilloscope is an electronic instrument used to observe and measure changing electrical signals. While Oscilloscope Pictures, founded by Beastie Boy Adam Yauch, is focused on tracking film rather than voltage levels, it has proven itself quite adept at navigating the changing world of distribution. In its relatively short lifetime, the company has developed a keenly calibrated aesthetic sensibility, acquiring and releasing a select number of critically acclaimed narrative films and electrifying documentaries including Burma VJ, The Garden and Dear Zachary.

Oscilloscope was formed in February 2008 when Yauch wanted to start a company to distribute Gunnin' for that #1 Spot, his feature documentary about high school basketball players. He invited David Fenkel to run the new venture. The two had gotten to know one another when Fenkel was an executive at THINKFilm, which released Yauch's previous film, Awesome; I Fuckin' Shot That!

"He had a vision for a company that he'd want to be an artist at," Fenkel says. "We came up with this idea of an independent film company that would consist of really good films, transparency with regard to both accounting and creative for the filmmakers, and doing fair deals. That way, when movies do really well, we all share."

The company's mission didn't include a specific mandate to acquire documentaries, but it's been no surprise to Yauch that he's been drawn to so many nonfiction titles. "Growing up, a couple of friends used to make fun of me because I watched documentaries so much," Yauch recalls. "I remember one saying, 'You're probably going to grow up to be a documentary filmmaker.' "

A key element of Yauch and Fenkel's vision for Oscilloscope is theatrical distribution. Some of this has to do with marketing strategy. If a film is perceived as a "theatrical" film, it tends to garner more attention from reviewers and feature writers, even if its run on the big screen is a short one. According to Fenkel, journalistic coverage is still one of the most cost-effective ways to build awareness for a movie. A theatrical release also allows Oscilloscope to create an identity for a film through the campaign, and that branding can later fuel the DVD, broadcast and digital releases.

The push for the big screen is not just a practical matter, though. It has its roots in Yauch and Fenkel's core beliefs about watching movies. Says Yauch, "To me, theatrical is still the ultimate way to see a film-on the big screen, with a powerful sound system, with a group of people in a room that's built for that purpose...and feeling that reaction, feeling the emotion that sweeps through the room."

Yauch and Fenkel recognize that theatrical releases, especially for the smaller, niche titles Oscilloscope tends to pick up, are a huge challenge. They've made it standard operating procedure to be upfront during acquisition talks with filmmakers about what they think is realistically possible for a film, and the resources they are able to put behind it. Their documentaries thus far have taken in a range of $30,000 to $131,000 at the box office, much of that accomplished through platform releases making their way across the country screen by screen.

While Fenkel and Yauch are fully cognizant that few, if any issue-oriented docs they pick up will be huge money-makers, don't think that Oscilloscope is just a rock star's vanity project. Yauch is quite clear about the fact that he's not just the company's sugar daddy. "I think the company has to be-and it is-profitable," he maintains. "We're not running it as a not-for-profit. That being said, everything we do doesn't have to be profitable. But overall, at the end of the year, we can't be operating at a loss."

To that end, the company recently made a deal with Warner Bros. Digital Distribution to bring a number of titles in the company's library to Video-On-Demand and download-to-own across all platforms, including cable, satellite, digital and wireless. The deal gives Oscilloscope the flexibility to take advantage of emerging distribution channels, tailoring each film's release plan to its particular needs.

"The digital side is something I think everyone is just figuring out right now," says Fenkel. "As a growing company, it's important to be part of as many distribution channels as possible. No one knows in five years who's going to be winning out, but in that process, we want to be part of every revenue-generating option."

Oscilloscope hasn't yet had a Michael Moore-style blockbuster, but filmmakers have been personally rewarded by the way they are treated when dealing with the company. Scott Kennedy, director of the Oscar-nominated urban enviro-doc The Garden, praises the company for including him in the distribution process and for their work ethic. A fan not just of the Beastie Boys' music, but also of the band's album covers and the way they've marketed and portrayed themselves, Kennedy was drawn to Oscilloscope's "artist-to-artist" philosophy.

He and the O-Scope team worked closely together on getting the film out to the core audience that Kennedy had already started developing. They retained the publicist that Kennedy had used for his Oscar campaign, thus ensuring continuity with the film's release. And Yauch was hands-on in developing the one-sheet for the film.

"With the poster design, Adam had very specific ideas about the look he wanted to have, and that was exciting," says Kennedy. "It was complicated and we went through a lot of work. The poster design was really ambitious, but then we decided it was not going to work for DVD, so we came up with something different. Now the DVD design is gorgeous-beautiful, unique, eye-catching. It's another piece of art. It's an example of what Adam brought from the Beastie Boys."

Much of this artist-friendly sensibility is rooted in Yauch's experiences as a musician. As someone who's aware of what it's like to be on both sides of the conversation about the presentation of a record, he knows first-hand that the decisions made about a project go beyond just the release period. They become part of an artist's legacy.

"The interesting thing about music and film is this meeting of art and commerce," Yauch notes. "I usually try to be pretty careful that we're presenting films in a way that filmmakers are comfortable with, because ultimately, they're going to have to live with it for a long time."


Oscilloscope is releasing Laura Gabbert and Justin Schein's documentary No Impact Man in theaters September 11, with a DVD and digital release to follow.


Tamara Krinsky is associate editor of Documentary.