Brow Beat

How MCA Became an Indie Film Mogul

Adam Yauch (center), with The Messenger screenwriter Alessandro Camon (left), The Messenger writer-director Oren Moverman (right), and their guests at the 82nd Annual Academy Awards in 2010.

Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

Adam Yauch, who died today at 47, may have been best known as MCA from the Beastie Boys, but in recent years he became a crucial player in indie film. After rapping and rocking with the Beastie Boys, lending his voice to the cause of Tibetan independence, and throwing down tomahawk slams in NBA Jam, Yauch spent much of his last four years getting up every morning, heading into his office at Oscilloscope Laboratories, and putting out some of the best films of the year.

Oscilloscope’s independent film division has only been putting out features for about four years, but during that short time they’ve earned six Oscar nominations and garnered a host of other plaudits. Several of their movies have been among Slate’s favorites of the last few years, including 2008’s Wendy and Lucy, 2010’s Exit Through the Gift Shop, and 2011’s Meek’s Cutoff. Other notable features include Howl, The Messenger, We Need to Talk About Kevin, Bellflower, Kisses, and the dark Finnish fantasy Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale. (Most of which you can now stream on Netflix.)

Yauch’s self-described “D.I.Y. approach” to distribution was essential to the success and integrity of each of these films. From the beginning, Yauch and Oscilloscope co-founder David Fenkel decided that, rather than outsource things like marketing and DVD production through the usual Hollywood channels, Oscilloscope’s small New York City-based staff would handle everything in-house—while inviting filmmakers to take part in every step of the process. Yauch was fond of comparing the venture to an indie record label: By staying small, they could maintain an artist-friendly environment and continue to promote work they really cared about. Every once in a while, a movie like Gift Shop might just become a crossover hit. To Yauch, Oscilloscope was his cinematic Sub Pop.

Yauch’s welcoming, no-B.S. approach attracted talented artists. So Yong Kim, who released Treeless Mountain with the company, explained to Movieline why she liked working with Oscilloscope: “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.” While many big Hollywood studios continue to largely ignore female directors, Oscilloscope provided crucial help to some of the best, including both Kim and Meek’s Cutoff director Kelly Reichardt (who Slate’s Elbert Ventura placed “among the best American filmmakers“). In 2008, Reichardt explained to The New York Times why she felt comfortable with Yauch:


“It seemed like a lot of ways that they were working was similar to how I’ve been making films,” Ms. Reichardt said. “I know I can get David or Adam on the phone at any time; they’re so accessible and into us being part of it.”

Part of the reason Yauch was able to connect with directors is that he was one himself. Under the pseudonym Nathanial Hörnblowér, MCA directed many of the Beastie Boys’ most famous videos—along with the Hoop Dreams-style documentary Gunnin’ for that #1 Spot and the concert documentary Awesome; I Fuckin’ Shot That! (which anticipated crowd-sourced documentaries like Life in a Day by several years). Neither of these films became big hits, but Yauch has said that they helped him understand how to work with directors. His rapport and currency with Hollywood talent was on full display in his short film “Fight For Your Right (Revisited),” one of the most star-studded music videos in memory: The cast included Will Ferrell, John C. Reilly, Steve Buscemi, Jason Schwartzman, Laura Dern, Stanley Tucci, Seth Rogen, Mike Mills, Susan Sarandon, and many more.

The resignation of Oscilloscope co-founder David Fenkel as president was reported just yesterday, so, after today’s news, it appears the company will go forward without either of its founders at the helm. Still, with upcoming releases like Fish Tank-director Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights, Ron Fricke’s Samsara, and the LCD Soundsyem documentary Shut Up and Play the Hits, it’s clear Yauch’s cinematic legacy will linger on for a while yet.

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