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Bingham Ray is Remembered By the Friends and Industry Family Who Loved Him

By Indiewire Staff | Indiewire January 23, 2012 at 3:48PM

We're devastated by the death of Bingham Ray. And it's unbelievable that his passing happened during the Sundance Film Festival: This was his stomping ground, a place he held court and, at an event that can overwhelm even the most passionate film lover, Ray was a reliable source of joy.
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Magnolia Pictures' Eamonn Bowles, producer/exhibitor Ben Barenholtz, October Films co-founder Bingham Ray and FilmDistrict president Bob Berney at the 2010 Hamptons Film Festival.
Brian Brooks Magnolia Pictures' Eamonn Bowles, producer/exhibitor Ben Barenholtz, October Films co-founder Bingham Ray and FilmDistrict president Bob Berney at the 2010 Hamptons Film Festival.

We're devastated by the death of Bingham Ray. And it's unbelievable that his passing happened during the Sundance Film Festival: This was his stomping ground, a place he held court and, at an event that can overwhelm even the most passionate film lover, Ray was a reliable source of joy.

Indiewire is collecting the thoughts and memories -- from the web, Twitter, Facebook and email -- from some of those who loved him. There's a lot of us who fit that description, so we'll keep adding to it. If you'd like to be included, please add your comments or email us at editors@indiewire.com.

Rachael Horovitz: I met Bingham in the fall of 1996 when I went to the Toronto Film Festival as vp of acquisitions for Fine Line Features. Having previously been an independent producer of low-budget movies, I'd heard of this legendary figure, but had never gotten close enough to introduce myself. It was in the middle of the night at my first Dart Party (a Bingham tradition) that I got my chance and we began the conversation that continued until just a few weeks ago (see lesson #4).  Our friendship spanned some pretty rough times for each of us but, also, as was clear to me while his great life ended this past Monday, many of my best times were in his company: watching the sun burst into being on early May mornings in Cannes, closing Michael Stipe's annual New Year's party with a dance in the middle of a Soho sidewalk, brushing off the bitter chill of Park City winds, laughing out loud about unfaithful bosses and colleagues and their inanity, taking in the deeply nourishing air of a Telluride afternoon...

 Bingham taught me much of what I know about life and the film world. Here are a few of the basic lessons I learned from the man:

 Lesson # 1: Is it distinctive?
 There was one and only gauge in his barometer when acquiring an art house film to distribute: was it different from everything else? I know of no other single piece of criteria that has been a better guide to me as an executive and a producer than those three words:  Is. It. Distinctive.  I hear him saying this in my head almost every day I do my job. Would we have seen "Breaking the Waves" in this country has he not articulated that argument? Doubtful.

 Lesson # 2: Who's the director?
 This one was simple but hard to pull off. Do not work with mediocre filmmakers. Believe you are working with the best there is or don't take on the movie.

 Lesson # 3: Have a sense of humor.
 Aforementioned bosses and fatheads: he had no tolerance for them and when they infuriated him, he tried to laugh. I always went to him to help me find the humor in a difficult situation and it never failed to soothe. If I could get him to laugh at the story, then I would laugh with him, and I could move forward.

 Lesson # 4: Stop worrying, it's a good film.
 Many times I have lost faith in marketing and distribution, as all producers do during the course of their movie's release. Bingham had God-given talent in both of those areas (he took "Secrets and Lies" all the way to a Best Picture nomination) so he would often look over a campaign for me and invariably he would say, "it's good, kid, stop worrying." I remember him delighting in New Line's proposed one sheet for "About Schmidt" - particularly the cloud above Jack Nicholson's head -  which I hadn't even noticed I was so distracted and fearful of the looming opening weekend. Now I know I'll never look at that cloud without thinking of Bingham. He said the same thing about "Moneyball" this winter and learning of the film's six Oscar nominations while mourning the fresh news of his death, I knew he was right.

 Lesson # 5: Only love and movies will break your heart.
 A Neil Young fan for as long as I can remember, he cautioned me time and again to resist the temptation of what he called "the heart-breaker." When my Fine Line colleague Paul Federbush and I (and many) fell in love with the Spanish film "The Lovers of the Arctic Circle" in the final hours of a Toronto festival, we naively thought we were sweeping a hit off the table by buying it for high five figures. I called Bingham, as he had also fallen for the movie, to tell him what I thought was exciting news. "Oh kid," he said, "what a mistake. It'll break your heart. Oh, well. You have to learn sometime."

 Indeed, I am learning now how much a heart can break.

@cassianelwes: When I started at wma there were 2 key figures running the business independent distribution business weinstein at miramax & ray at october. Weinstein dominated the business and ray was the upstart. Harvey was hard to get to know at the beginning for me and we had many run-ins. Bingham ray on the other hand was very approachable and took a shine to me which I will be forever grateful for.

Ray & I spent a lot of time together in those early days & famously we got into a night of insanity in toronto over the sale of the apostle. You can read the full story about the sale of the apostle in down and dirty pictures and it's all true. But a lot was not in there.

At four am after I had famously run away from bingham and co to try to close a 10m deal with weinstein that blew up I finally found him. Of course at 4m after I had tried this fast one the easiest thing would have been for bingham to blow me off and let me dwindle in the wind. But we had become friends and knew that this was bad for me. More importantly he loved the movie and saw how to fix it. We hugged and closed. And he took the movie for the price he originally wanted to pay and made the movie a big oscar winning hit and saved my life.

Rest in peace my dear friend bingham you were a fighter a believer a lover of independent cinema and our world is small without you.

One last thing about bingham. He was a pretty good darts player & we all looked forward to his annual toronto game. Can't believe he's gone.

@MMFlint: I will deeply miss Bingham Ray who died today. He bought & distributed BowlingforColumbine when no one else would. He stood by me all the way.

Jack Turner/Facebook: Jack Turner: A lion of a man, a man who was loved by so many people, a mentor, a true lover of film, one who brought so many incredible people...these are only a few of things that could be said about the wonderful Bingham Ray.

Please take a moment to watch the final scene of one of his favorite films. Bingham, I will never forget you, I love you with all of my heart.

Rick Allen, CEO, SnagFilms and Indiewire: We want to express our sense of overwhelming shock and deep grief at the passing of our friend and former colleague Bingham Ray. The film world knew him as a fierce champion of artists, always looking for new ways to spotlight their work, and increasing their freedom to create it. At SnagFilms and Indiewire, we knew this track record when we asked Bingham to join us and help chart the next phase of our growth. What I did not know until we had the chance to work together was how brilliant, honorable and hysterically funny Bingham Ray was. He taught all of us the context for our efforts – the history of independent film in and before our time, lived and learned across his decades of leadership. He infused everything with his unquenchable passion for film, filmmakers and the audiences who love them. And he made us laugh – very, very hard and often. None of us can imagine a world without his involvement, but in addition to conveying our deepest condolences to Nancy and their children and extended family, we should and must carry on the work of his lifetime – and mourn Bingham and miss his irreplaceable grace.

Thom Powers: I first met Bingham Ray when I took over a monthly film club that he hosted in Westchester, NY. A key attraction to the gig was to say, "I took over from Bingham Ray." For years, I'd followed his distinctive name in coverage of independent films. I was just getting my feet wet as a programmer and I would have welcomed a master/student relationship. Instead Bingham treated me like an equal, welcoming me on my first trip to Cannes into the veterans circle at the Grand Hotel. He encouraged me to not play it safe with audiences. Our suburban film club had a sweet spot for Jane Austen-style costume dramas. But Bingham had shown them two suicide bomber films in a row ("Paradise Now" and "Day Night Day Night"). I can picture him laughing about it with a drink in his hand. But, of course, he took very seriously what kind of films you should put in front of an audience. In his absence, the best we can do is follow his coda: don't play it safe.

Sydney Levine: When I first met Bingham, he was known as the former manager of the Bleecker Street Theater, a legend to me, a non-native New Yorker. I had moved from L.A. to New York and was managing Films Inc/ PMI's Social Issue Documentary Division, founded by Marge Benton who was also Chairman of the Sundance Institute at the time and active with the Democratic campaign to elect Carter. She felt that such a documentary division would help further the causes she loved and election time was an important time to do so.

All the "guys" in the business were very intimidating at the time: Bingham, John Pierson, Douglas Green, Tom Bernard... and I was struggling to hold my own. Last Berlin, as Bingham and I were talking, he admitted to knowing how intimidating he was and we laughed as I admitted to always wanting to cry after having "conversations" with these guys. Bingham had grown; he had already had two near-death experiences -- one during the London Screenings, when stepping off a curb in London, he was pulled back by Mark Ordesky as a car rushed toward him, and the other in an auto accident in Connecticut. Bingham knew the value of life and he lived it fully. His much-too-early death should remind us all to be mindful of how we are living. I myself almost did not want to take the time to write this, but the thoughts of Bingham and our common histories would not let go of me.

He himself was about to start a whole new chapter in his life at the San Francisco Film Society, already marred by the premature death of its beloved director Graham Leggett. This alone should be a reminder to us all that no matter what our age, there is always a new chapter to begin if we live creatively.

@janetpierson: Grieving for dear old friend Bingham Ray. Beloved the world over. A unique powerhouse. Devastated. My sympathies to his family & film family.

Greg Mottola: R.I.P. Bingham Ray, who helped many filmmakers, including myself. Very sad.

Kim Voynar: Deepest condolences to Bingham Ray's family on the loss of a good man, husband and father. Devastating, tragic news for our community.

John Wildman/Facebook: I can't express how saddened I am about Bingham Ray passing. In comparison to so many, I knew him a fraction of that time and yet it is tearing me up.

@MJMcKean: RIP Bingham Ray, San Francisco Film Society director and nice man.

@JamesGunn: RIP Bingham Ray - a man who made me laugh a lot in this life & meant a lot to my brother. So, so sad. Rest well, Bingham. We'll miss you.

@DanaDelany: Very sad to hear of Bingham Ray's death at Sundance of all places. Met him in Cannes 24 yrs ago. A man who truly loved movies.

Jenny Cowperthwaite, Executive Director, Little Art Theatre Association: I first spoke with Bingham in the late 70s – he championed small art houses and could be counted on to always treat you with deep compassion and respect. The industry and world has lost a great, great man.

Nadia Litz, actress and filmmaker: Sometimes you meet someone who just sticks with you.  Any hopeful artist felt genuinely encouraged in his presence. You also felt a little mischievous.  He was the guy you'd want to sit beside at a dinner party: smart, funny, generous, a classy rule-breaker. Met him when I was 19 when he awarded the first film I was in as an actress (Jeremy Podeswa's "The Five Senses") a top prize at TIFF. Last May -- 15 years later -- I had the most incredible serendipitous walk with him in Cannes when I was there with my first short film as a director in the market. Only months later I was lucky enough to get to spend quality time with him, learning, laughing, debating film and being introduced to other indie heroes of mine like James Schamus as a student in the TIFF Talent Lab where he was a Governor. Friendly, impish, lion:  the very beloved Bingham Ray.

Nick James, Editor, Sight & Sound: Everyone I knew that knew him loved Bingham Ray. I met him in the Central bar in Rotterdam (I would usually be there now but I'm not) and we hit it off over a few verbal jousts, fake punches (and drinks) and were firm friends from then on. He gave up the booze soon after we met but sobriety never put a drag on his ranconteur delivery. Just warm, always warm, and always challenging in gentle way. I never had any film business to do with him so there was never any doubt about why we knew each other – it was because we liked to talk film on a human level, nothing too formal and never anything posey, and always in good company because good company gathered itself around him.

Rio Hernandez, Head of Feature/TV Devolopment, Tool: I am so shocked and saddened by the news.  When I was an agent at UTA, SK Films optioned one of my writer's scripts.  I remember the frequent calls from Bingham berating me about the progress on the deal. The more exasperated I became, the more amused he became.  He was bombastic, vibrant, brilliant and devilishly funny.  As someone who has put in more than a few years toiling in the service of Indie cinema, I also admired the hell out of him.  I was excited about his new post and was hoping to re-connect in person sometime soon.  I am sad I won't get to have that drink with him.  He was one of a kind.

Randy Ostrow, Producer: I want to thank Richard Abramowitz, Steve Apkon, Eamonn Bowles, John Schmidt, Tim Jensen, John Celeste and the others who were there for Bing and Nancy at the hospital. Those of us who loved Bing will be forever grateful for the support you provided. Thank you, Nancy, for helping Bing live a wonderful life. Thank you Nick, Annabel and Becca for bringing such great joy into your father's life. He loved film, he loved his friends, but he loved you most of all, and he was always proudest of you. And thank you, Bing, for a lifetime of friendship and memories. Goodbye.

Ben Robbins: It was only when Universal told him that it wasn't OK for a big-shot studio head to answer his own phone -- already some twenty-odd years into his storied career -- that Bingham finally buckled and took on his first-ever assistant. I was lucky enough to be he guy he hired, and it changed my life. He showed me -- and scores of other young people year after year -- how hard you had to fight for the films you loved to get them made or seen. And if you weren't in it for films you loved, you were wasting everyone's time -- most importantly, your own.

We all know that Bing got himself into plenty of trouble of all kinds, but it was never out of greed, or pandering or vanity. No, the trouble came out of his passion, his exuberance or more often than not, his infamous refusal to compromise. Even when he knew the bastards were gonna win, he just couldn't find it in himself to put down the sword. And he never, ever backed down from calling, "bullshit." How many people can you say that about in this industry? Any?

After a decade and a half of friendship, what I always remember about Bingham from those first years was how he'd introduce me at screenings or parties. He WAS a studio-head big-shot. I was a confused and naive 22-year-old. Not once did he introduce me as his assistant. From the day I started working for him, without exception he would say, "This is Ben. We work together."

It was my great honor to have worked together, an even greater one to have been his friend. I will miss him sorely.

It's staggering how many of us loved him. Lots of hearts broke today. Get some rest, Ray Bigma. You've earned it.

Mark Lipsky: Outside of my immediate family, no one has influenced my life in a more fateful or enduring way than Bingham Ray.

One evening in 1986, Bingham phoned me in Dallas where I was living at the time and told me about a chance meeting he’d just had. Bob Weinstein had accosted him in the back of a darkened movie theater and tried to hire him as Miramax Films’ head of distribution. Bingham said he’d agreed to meet with Bob the following day but that he was going to turn down the position and suggest Bob call me.

What little I knew – or at least had heard – about Bob and his brother Harvey was that they were worth avoiding. Possibly at all cost. Crazy brothers who didn’t really know anything about the independent film business and impossible to deal with. Under the circumstances, I asked Bingham to please take the meeting and find out all he could about the company and the job before throwing my hat in the ring. He said he would. The next morning he phoned and said he’d turned down the job and Bob would be calling momentarily. Bob wasn’t as bad as his rep, he explained, and I should take the call and hear what he had to say.

Bob phoned soon thereafter and I was struck by how normal he seemed. He wanted to meet but wouldn’t fly me in. If I could get to New York, he’d make time.

I’d left New York in early 1982 where I’d worked for Cinema 5 and New Yorker Films. I’d moved to LA where I thought I’d break into the bigs and get a studio job. Long story short, my plan didn’t fit the timeframe. The studios were in the throes of their worst downturn in many years and it was just before the release of “ET” changed their fortunes in a big way. I’d retreated to Dallas where my family had relocated and landed a sales job with Paramount Pictures. But Dallas wasn’t LA (or NY) and the robotic nature of booking studio films into commercial screens left me feeling, well, like a robot.

I flew to NY where I stayed with Bingham and Nancy during the interview process. I met with Bob and he offered me the job. (Harvey was in LA where he was supervising post on the brothers’ co-written, co-produced, co-directed “Playing for Keeps”.) That afternoon and evening I called everyone I knew in the business and nearly all of them suggested running away as fast as I could. Such was the Weinsteins’ reputation at the time and that of Miramax. Bingham, though, along with my brother Jeff, was more philosophical. They knew that I missed both NYC and the independent film business and so why not.

I took the job and the course of my life was changed forever by that call from Bingham and by his confidence in my ability to handle the Weinsteins and strengthen Miramax.

When brother Jeff phoned me from Sundance the other day to let me know that Bingham had suffered a stroke I was upset but not overly concerned. Bingham was not only one of the community’s most respected, charming and beloved personalities, he was also one of the most irrepressible. I had no doubt that he would survive this inconvenient speedbump.

When word came today that Bingham had passed, I was unprepared for the flood of emotions I felt. We’d not had much contact over the past several years but anytime our paths did cross, the kinship and warmth we’d always had for each other remained undiminished.

We lost a good friend and a very bright light today, but that light lives on in the many he’s touched and influenced over the years and it will live on in my life.

Thanks for everything Bingham. Wherever you go from here, I know you’ll be lighting hopeful and empowering fires for us all.

Gary Meyer, Telluride Film Festival: I first came to know Bingham in the early 1980s. We shared ideas and print sources for the Bleecker Street Cinema in New York that he programmed and the Landmark Theatres I was doing. Upon moving into distribution he both learned from his new boss Dan Talbot and contributed exciting concepts at New Yorker Films. At Samuel Goldywn and Avenue, Bingham had creative ideas to expand audiences for independent and foreign films. I will always remember his passion to help launch the career of Gus Van Sant and his radical plan to break previous release patterns by having DRUGSTORE COWBOY platform in Los Angeles at the Nuart, a calendared theater. The initial industry criticism quickly turned to raves for his bold move when the film was a huge success.

Bingham and his cohorts regularly took on controversial and challenging movies, making them successes against the odds. Audiences, filmmakers, the media and cinemas were all the beneficiaries.

When he switched back to exhibition working with the New York Film Society on their new theaters last year, it was a welcome return. For years Bingham had told me he would like to move to San Francisco and take over a movie theater. And then, in the fall it was announced that he would be coming to “the city by the bay” to run the San Francisco Film Society which included their own newly opened cinema. The past few months have been so much fun for his friends here. We had been able to see him hard at work and play---synonymous terms for Bingham.

There was no way the shock waves of this weekend could have been predicted. Our lives have been enriched by Bingham Ray and we shall always be thankful to have been affected by his energy, creativity, sense of humor and friendship.







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