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“It’s a work of genius,” is how Oscilloscope Laboratories’ Dan Berger describes the 95-second short film Tim and Susan Have Matching Handguns. Oscilloscope bought the film in December, which on the surface would appear to be an unusual acquisition for a company that theatrically releases 10 feature-length films a year. So what are Oscilloscope’s plans for distributing a 95-second short? “We haven’t a clue,” replies Berger’s fellow co-head David Laub, “but it’s going to be fun figuring out how to get people to see this film.”
Chalk it up to what Berger and Laub refer to as Oscilloscope’s “reverse-engineering” approach to distribution. The idea is that while most distributors pick films based on how they fit an established model for marketing an indie to success, Oscilloscope actively seeks out films that require a nontraditional rollout.
It’s a philosophy that began with Oscilloscope’s co-founder, Beastie Boys member Adam Yauch, who died in 2012. “Adam came from this mindset of if you don’t see it happening but you want to get it done, go do it and forge ahead,” explains Laub. Berger, who was Yauch and co-founder David Fenkel‘s first hire, adds, “The idea from the beginning was that these films can have a wider audience if you found a unique way to bring them out that’s appropriate and respectful of the film itself.”
“Drop it Low, BITCHES.” That’s not a promotional tweet you’d normally see in conjunction with the ad campaign for a documentary, but 12 O’Clock Boys is not like any documentary you’ve seen before. In the first 15 minutes, you are immersed in the slow-motion poetry of dirt bikes popping wheelies and a helicopter chase that’s part of the Baltimore Police Department’s effort to get the notorious bike crew (the 12 O’Clock Boys of the title) off the streets. Soon after, we’re introduced to the film’s 12-year-old protagonist Pug in cinema verite/voice over scenes that feel like they’re straight out of a Terrence Malick movie.
The film focuses on the allure of the 12 O’Clock Boys through the eyes of Pug, rather than delving into social-issue-doc terrain and openly asking why these kids are drawn to something so dangerous and illegal. In marketing the film, Oscilloscope mirrored this approach by tapping into the 12 O’Clock Boys’ well-established street cred, complete with the bikers’ jaw-dropping GIFs and YouTube videos that already have a sizable social media presence. The campaign feels like it’s coming directly from the 12 O’Clock Boys themselves because, in part, it is. “The voice of the ad campaign is the voice of the riders,” admires 12 O’Clock Boys director Lotfy Nathan, who admits that he’s shocked his doc opened in over 20 theaters this weekend. “It captures what is punk and counterculture about the riders, which is also what people find sexy about the film.”
Oscilloscope’s challenge in acquiring different types of movies is then finding different ways to deliver these movies to the general public. Berger explains: “You can’t just put [a film like 12 O’Clock Boys] into a one-size-fits-all distribution machine, spit it out the other end and hope it works. There’s no blueprint for the films we distribute, which is often why we were drawn to them in the first place.” It’s a process that often has Oscilloscope reinventing themselves with each release. Last year, for example, when Twitter launched Vine, Oscilloscope announced they’d release their new black comedy It’s a Disaster in its entirety, through the 6-second-video social media app.
“We didn’t actually think anybody was going to watch this film on Vine. That’s insane — that’s over a thousand Vines,” Berger says. “Knowing no one is going to watch this, knowing no one is going to enjoy it this way, we said let’s make this an even better story and let’s do it really poorly. We had an intern go into our screening room and film it on her iPhone while it played from a projector. The camera’s shaky and shit is passing in front of [the lens].”
Berger and Laub laugh remembering the stunt. They issued a tongue-in-cheek press release, which much to their amazement many in media covered seriously — and not just the film press but tech press as well. “It was more about creating something around the film. We had to find a way to make this movie travel the furthest,” explains Laub. For Laub, the reason the stunt worked for this particular film is that it fit the absurdist tone of a movie about a couples’ brunch that turns terribly wrong when the city falls under a mysterious attack.
In looking at the eclectic catalog of Oscilloscope releases over its six-year history, it’s hard to pinpoint its exact house style. So what is an Oscilloscope film?
“What is it the Supreme Court said about pornography? ‘I’ll know it when I see it,’ ” replies Berger.
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