In Oscars race, scrappy film company roots for the underdog

Dan Berger was a little nervous that he’d miss the whole thing: when the Academy Awards announced the nominees for Best Foreign Language Film at 8:38 AM.

“I tend to be a late riser, so I set my alarm to make sure I was up,” says Berger, the president of the New York City-based film distribution company Oscilloscope Laboratories. “But I woke up at 7 o’clock without the alarm.”

It was worth losing a little sleep, since one of the films his company is representing, the Colombian drama Embrace of the Serpent, snagged a nomination. Hearing actor John Krasinski make the announcement caused a little pandemonium in his household.

“Before the name of the film was announced, a picture from the film popped up behind him,” says Berger. “My wife started jumping up and down on the bed. I had to ask her to stop because I was trying to draft an email about it!”

It was a sweet moment for Oscilloscope, even though this is the seventh time one of its films has earned an Oscar nod. It was a movie that his 12-person staff felt strongly about.

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“I don’t know why, but there’s something about this nomination that feels sweeter,” he says. “It was very much an underdog. For a lot of the prognosticators, the movie wasn’t even one of the top contenders.”

And it was the first time Colombia earned an Oscar nomination in 24 years of submitting—quite a feat for a moody drama about a couple of explorers scouring the Amazon for years in search of a certain psychedelic plant.

“When the filmmakers found out they won, there was lots of hugs and shouting,” Berger says. “It couldn’t have happened to better people.”

The company, which handles marketing and distribution for a lot of smaller budget films from around the world, was co-founded by Adam Yauch, one of the original members of the Beastie Boys. Yauch’s film about high school basketball players, Gunnin’ For That #1 Spot, was one of the first films the company handled.

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Since then, it’s represented dozens of films that otherwise might never be seen in the U.S. Take Embrace of the Serpent, for example. Berger says he and his staff were blown away the first time they saw it. But they knew it would be a tough sell.

“A lot of other companies were scared to get involved,” he says. “It’s very challenging. It’s shot in black and white. It uses native Amazonian languages. It’s dark and arty. It’s a beautiful, brilliant film, but it has a lot of things working against it.”

But that’s the kind of challenge that Oscilloscope regularly takes on. They’ve released films like Howl, a feature film starring James Franco as Beat Generation poet Allen Ginsberg, and Exit Through the Gift Shop, a documentary (or perhaps a mockumentary) by Banksy about a man obsessed with street art.

Don’t see the wide commercial appeal in these offerings? That doesn’t deter the folks at Oscilloscope, who hit the film festival circuit in search of movies that deserve a chance to be seen.

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The team just returned from the Sundance Film Festival, where they picked up a new film called The Fits, a thriller about an adolescent girl in a dance troupe whose members suffer from a mysterious ailment.

Films like this often don’t have a big marketing budget, which makes them a challenge.

“We’ve released films with budgets in the four digits,” Berger says. “That would be rare, but five digits is definitely not rare.”

As excited as the company is about releasing interesting films, it’s still a for-profit venture. Berger says the challenge is to balance the passion projects with those that will support the rest.

“We have to keep the lights on,” Berger says. “We don’t have any patron saints or angel investors. We’re a self-sufficient company, and have been for many years. So we have to be smart about the way we approach films. We’re very strategic about it, and it’s a level of efficiency that often doesn’t exist in the movie industry.”

Embrace of the Serpent is being released on February 17 at Film Forum and Lincoln Plaza in New York and February 19 at the Nuart Theater in Los Angeles.

Photos: Katelyn Perry

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