Behind the Screens: Oscilloscope Laboratories’ Underground Movie Model

Director of Acquisitions Aaron Katz on keeping film distribution vital

Welcome to “Behind the Screens”, where we interview the people who decide what the most influential arthouse and indie theaters in New York put on their screens. Along the way, we’ll uncover some of the challenges, thrills, and secrets of the trade and, hopefully, get a sense of what gives the American cinematic landscape its unique identity.

The logo for Oscilloscope Laboratories.
The logo for Oscilloscope Laboratory. Via Oscilloscope Laboratory

It’s been a little over eight years since the late Beastie Boy Adam Yauch (aka MCA) teamed up with THINKFilm executive (and eventual A24 founder) David Fenkel to create Oscilloscope Laboratories, a goofily-titled film distribution company with a serious desire to give under-the-radar films and filmmakers the love and attention they deserve. Any doubts about the “Fight For Your Right to Party” rapper’s ability to appeal to cineastes were quickly silenced with a critically-acclaimed slate of films like Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy and Oren Moverman’s The Messenger. Today, despite the loss of both founders, Oscilloscope continues to put out critical darling after critical darling, ranging from the creepily moving dance team drama, The Fits, to the John Waters-esque feminist sex comedy, The Love Witch. We caught up with Director of Acquisitions Aaron Katz to find out what makes Oscilloscope Laboratories one of the industry’s most vital film distributors.

How long have you been with Oscilloscope?

I’ve been here for six years, but in very different capacities. I started off as David Fenkel and Adam Yauch’s assistant, and after about a year or so, I was promoted and started working in our Acquisitions and Digital Sales departments. Then, David Fenkel left. Adam Yauch passed away. Things changed after that, so my role kept progressing until, about a year and a half ago, I took on the Acquisitions Department basically on my own. Everything gets run up to the President, but it’s mostly my department.

Over those six years, the whole independent film landscape has changed so much thanks to streaming and Video on Demand (VOD). How has that changed your business model?

The model has changed, but it’s constantly changing. The digital strategies we were discussing three months ago are completely different from what they are today. When I first started, digital was just one field to focus on. You’d do a digital campaign to go along with everything you’re doing. Then it became the most profitable field, so you’d have to work on that digital space as much as possible. “Day-and-Date” [simultaneous release of a movie in theaters and VOD] was starting to get really big, so companies like Magnolia, who had a digital focus, were doing very well. We tried our hand at a few titles doing “day-and-date” releases, but the way you would get a movie to be “day-and-date” in the past was a lot easier than it is now. For example, for Comcast to list you in the “New” folder, you needed to prove you were going “day-and-date” with five theaters.

If the movie doesn’t go in the “New” folder, where would it go?

It would just go to the general alphabet, where it would be lost for a very long time. So, when it was just five theaters, it wasn’t so hard. You could try to book those naturally or “four-wall” them, which is basically buying the theater. If you want to get prime placement on a VOD platform, and this is still true, you need to be in theaters. But if you want to be in theaters, you need to give those theaters exclusive rights to the film for 90 days. Clearly, those two things are going head-to-head. So, to book the theater, you need the theater to want to support the film, even though it’s “day-and-date,” or you need to buy the entire theater for a week or two. Then, the VOD companies started to ask for 10 theaters, 15 theaters, and you needed to be in the top markets, like New York, LA, San Fran. So you’re spending a bunch of money upfront to buy these theaters, and you’re not going to see any of that back theatrically; you have to see it back digitally. And what’s different from six years ago is that every Tuesday and Friday, there’s a huge update on iTunes or VOD channels that is so large that it’s very easy to get lost.

Oscilloscope Labratories'  Director of Acquisition, Aaron Katz.
Oscilloscope Labratories’ Director of Acquisition, Aaron Katz. Via Aaron Katz

Is the “day-and-date” designation worth all that trouble?

No. We’re staying away from it. That’s another thing that’s changed. We went to the “day-and-date” platforms for specific films that it made sense for, but for the majority of our releases, we’ve pushed for more theatrical releases. What we’ve been finding from our successes the past couple years is that when we go theatrically, we’re building a real marketing campaign for these films. We’re building great press that we wouldn’t get if the film was looked at as a digitally-driven title. The New York Times doesn’t review every movie that’s being released now. They only review the ones they think deserve it, and a lot of “day-and-date” titles get lost in that. So our goal is to find good movies and build a profile for them through theatrical release followed by the rest of its releases.

Do you have any input into how your films are being presented on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, etc.? 

Um…no. (laughs) If I go to Netflix, a bunch of things are presented to me, and I feel like those things are presented for a reason. I don’t know what those reasons might be, whether it’s an algorithm or they spent a bunch of money to acquire these things and need more people to watch it to make sense. Who knows? Either way, there are plenty of things buried in there that you have to hunt out. You go on Amazon and they say, “Here are the top movies,” but who are those top movies for? We sell movies to those platforms all the time and it’s great to have our movies on there, but as a viewer, I love curation. That’s why we go to a place like the Alamo Drafthouse or the Metrograph. It’s curation that we can trust, and that’s something we’ve always been trying to build for Oscilloscope. When you see an Oscilloscope logo, you know you’re in for something unique and interesting.

Can you think of a specific movie that wound up being a big hit for you that nobody else believed in?

Yeah, Embrace of the Serpent. Black-and-white film that’s over two hours long in 13 different languages that’s about a native helping an explorer travel down the Amazon to find a rare flower. That’s a movie that doesn’t sound like it should work, but we loved it. Because we loved it, we were able to work with that movie in a unique and great way, and it went very, very, very well. We got an Oscar nomination and did over a million dollars in the box office, which made it one of the highest-grossing foreign language movies of the last year.

What is it about this Oscilloscope that allows you to have that freedom to go for it, as opposed to other companies that might worry more about their bottom line?

I think there’s two things at play. One is that, when Adam started this company, he really wanted to give a voice to filmmakers and artists. He always wanted projects that people have been working on for “x” number of years to get the proper care when they were taken out into the world. We’ve always kept true to that, and we work with filmmakers to figure out the way they want to see their films come out. Sometimes our viewpoints don’t align. That happens. The movies that we’ve worked on are the ones where they do align. The other thing that I think helps, as well, is that we’re independently financed. All the money that goes into this company is from what we’ve made. So, without having a corporate backer of sorts, we have the liberty to do whatever we want, which is great. It gives us the freedom to do movies like Embrace of the Serpent, but it also limits the resources we have available, at least financially. We have what we have, and we have to work with that. It makes us say, “Okay, so we don’t have the million dollars to acquire whatever hot movie might be playing at Sundance. But what can we find that works with what we have and the creative minds that we have here to be able to make a good campaign and build a good home for these films?”

When you go to a festival like Cannes or Sundance, do you go in with a strategy of getting a certain number of movies?

That’s another thing. A lot of companies have a slate they need to adhere to, whether it’s 15, 30, 60 films. We don’t. We need to keep the lights on, but we can kind of play it by ear. We don’t want to come into a festival saying, “We need five films.” That puts us in a position where we can’t do what we do best, which is picking films we’re extremely passionate about. So, for Sundance right now, we have our priorities, and our priorities are based on what could potentially work for us and what would make sense in our world.

What is that “priority” designation based on?

Research. We’ve watched a ton of movies. We’ve seen a lot of films these filmmakers have already made. For first-time filmmakers, we can read scripts, we can talk to sales agents, hear what the pitch is. We try to talk to filmmakers as much as we can, as well. We’ve met a lot of people through things like Independent Filmmaker Project (IFP) or Sundance Institute grants. There’s a lot of filmmakers that we’re familiar with or producers we’ve worked with in the past who have new projects. It’s kind of like, “Who’s involved? What do we know? What can we find out?”

How do you decide which movies on your slate you’re going to push for awards?

We’ve had seven Oscar nominations at this company, and those kinds of things don’t really come organically. It’s more about whether we think they have the potential to perform that way and spending the money to make that happen. So, for something like a Foreign Language Oscar nomination, the money needed to make that happen is a lot less than the money needed for Best Picture or Best Actress. Just to get these movies on people’s radar, the amount of time, energy, and finances that go into doing that is very significant. A lot of companies hire out awards season people, just to push those things. That becomes a whole other division of their company. We’re not doing that. When we have Oscar nominations, it’s the staff that’s here in our office pushing Embrace of the Serpent for an Oscar.

What’s an example of something you were considering pushing for this year’s Oscars?

Royalty Highwater from The Fits saw a ton of praise out of Sundance. She gives a terrific performance, she’s won all these awards, and she’s been mentioned in the New York Times as one of the actors to keep an eye on. But if we wanted to do an Oscar campaign for her, and we do, it costs a ton of money, and we’d be competing against companies that have a lot of money to spend on Annette Bening or someone like that. So, as we’re making a decision there, we’re thinking what it’s going to cost us to do this. We need to fly her around, we need to get a ton of people to see this movie, much more than we would for a Foreign Language movie or a documentary. Going into those bigger categories is a lot harder for us to do, just because of the financial spend. It’s not that we wouldn’t do it. We’ve done it before, and we will continue to do it, but it’s just a matter of weighing the odds.

Other than the prestige of winning an Oscar, what is the actual benefit for your company?

It’s the attention. We can get industry attention, but the Oscars let us take that dialogue to a larger scale. So, for example, in the Foreign Language category last year, we had the Oscar nomination before we went to theaters. It gave us more attention because it’s part of this list of five elite films, which are supposedly better than other films. So it gives us the attention, but it’s not a sure shot. If you look at last year’s five nominated Foreign Language films, some of them just didn’t perform at the box office at the same level as Embrace of the Serpent. I can’t give you a reason why.

Even with that Oscar seal of approval?

But you could say the same thing about getting a “Critic’s Pick.” If you get a New York Times Critic’s Pick, it should do great things for the film, but if you’re not seizing the opportunity in the right kinds of ways and still working on putting in the necessary marketing and publicity, then the film may not actually benefit.

How do you go about getting a theatrical release for one of your movies? 

Once we acquire a movie, we have a theatrical booker that focuses on that stuff. Basically, he has the relationships with the venues and their programmers, and he presents them with what we have going on and they see if it might make sense for their audiences. So it’s us doing some persuading sometimes, but it’s mostly us presenting movies that we think could work for them. When we’re bringing a movie out, we’ll talk to the majority, if not all, of the theaters in New York to see who might be the best fit for it. Does this movie go uptown or downtown? Does it go both? Does it go to Brooklyn to the Alamo, where there’s much more of a focus on genre? It’s about figuring out where it might make sense and who would respond to it. We do that across the country.

One thing I noticed is that you have a lot of female filmmakers on your slate. Is that something you’re actively trying to cultivate?

Nope. They’re great filmmakers. We’re looking for great filmmakers, and a lot of them happen to be women.

Are there specific traits that Adam Yauch looked for in movies that are still present in what Oscilloscope looks for today? 

Yeah, definitely. Adam’s taste was really eclectic. He liked everything from comedies to arthouse cinema to documentary, and I think the fact we run the gamut in terms of what we release is very much in line with what Adam saw in film. He was the guy who had the “And-1 Mix Tape,” kung fu movies, and The Godfather all next to each other on the shelf. Things have obviously changed a lot, but his vision is still in our minds and we work towards that as much as we possibly can. When we watched The Fits, one of the things we first said was, “This is the kind of movie we were created for. This is why we exist.”









Behind the Screens: Oscilloscope Laboratories’ Underground Movie Model