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Oscilloscope’s future hangs in the air

Loss of owner Adam Yauch brings questions

One of the biggest question marks at this year’s Toronto fest is the future of arthouse distrib Oscilloscope Pictures.

On May 4, just a day after promoting Dan Berger and David Laub to head the outfit, and announcing that co-founder David Fenkel would leave to launch new distrib A24, owner Adam Yauch succumbed to throat cancer, making his widow Dechen Wangdu the company’s sole owner.

Right now the company plans to continue releasing eight to 10 features a year, and its team is in Toronto scouting potential acquisitions.

But will Wangdu seek a financial partner, additional leadership or — given the acclaimed shingle’s frequently low box office returns — sell the company entirely? Will Oscilloscope’s summer acquisitions (including the comedy “It’s a Disaster,” the Italian satire “Reality” and the docs “Only the Young” and “Tchoupitoulas”) simply fatten up its catalog for the right buyer?

These are crucial questions for sellers and others who do business with the distrib, ones that only Wangdu can answer definitively. An Oscilloscope rep agreed she could address emailed questions about the distrib’s future on background for a Toronto-timed story, yet Wangdu didn’t respond to repeated emails by press time.

“We talk to her often,” Berger says. “She’s a huge proponent of the company, and because of the way the chronology happened, everybody — maybe her even moreso — knew how important it was to Adam to keep this going.”

But several red flags have surrounded Oscilloscope’s distribution arm since its 2008 launch. Just two of its 30-odd features have broken the $1 million B.O. ceiling: the 2009 drama “The Messenger,” with $1.1 million domestic; and its biggest hit to date, last year’s Cannes pickup “We Need to Talk About Kevin.” The latter earned $1.7 million, but according to one of the film’s producers, the distrib paid around $1 million-$1.25 million for North American rights, not leaving much room for profit. Only four other Oscilloscope releases cracked the half-million mark at the box office, and its average feature has made less than $280,000 in B.O.

Unlike specialty indies such as Roadside and Magnolia, which have deep-pocketed backers and partners, Oscilloscope (which Berger and Laub claim is “financially self-sufficient” based on income from its releases) is owned solely by Yauch’s estimated $6.4 million estate. The former Beastie Boy reportedly left instructions in his will prohibiting his music to be used in advertising, a potential cash cow the distrib may not be able to access.

Fenkel’s departure and the exec promotions were in the works two months before Yauch’s death. “We didn’t know — and I don’t think Adam or his family knew — what was about to happen,” Laub says. “The hope and belief was that Adam was going to be around, even if he wasn’t always available.”

Though he was more hands-off in later years due to health issues, Yauch approved all acquisitions, something Wangdu won’t be doing. “Creatively, she’s leaving that to us,” Laub says.

Laub notes that Oscilloscope toppers had several conversations about what Yauch saw for the future of the company. “Because David was leaving, and decisions had to be made, we had a very clear sense of his vision. … A lot of it was making sure we kept (the quality of our brand), and figuring out how to get even bigger films, more films and more of the filmmakers we admire.”

Laub says that while Oscilloscope may join with other companies on individual projects, it doesn’t plan to seek a corporate partner. “Part of what makes us special is that we have autonomy,” he says.

Ultimately, that will be Wangdu’s call, something that — like many issues involving Yauch’s estate at the moment — is very much up in the air.

“It’s still pretty soon after Adam’s death,” Laub says. “In general, what she’s said to us is (that) she wants to be supportive, but in a hands-off kind of manner. We’ve had a lot of lengthy discussions, but quite frankly, she’s dealing with so much. There’s a lot going on right now.”

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