By Brian Brooks | Indiewire October 19, 2011 at 11:00AM
Specialty film veteran Bingham Ray has been named the new executive director of the San Francisco Film Society, effective November 7, the organization announced Wednesday.
Ray most recently served as the first-run programming consultant to the Film Society of Lincoln Center, executive consultant to the digital distribution company SnagFilms (parent company of indieWIRE) and as adjunct professor at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.
Ray said he became aware about SFFS search for Leggat's replacement while visiting Los Angeles in September. During a meeting with William Morris Independent agent Liesl Copland, she suggested he inquire about the job.
"I thought, wow... Absolutely I'd be interested in that," Ray told iW. "It was one of those things that clicks and I thought, 'I'd really, really be interested.' I know Rachel Rosen very well and had a lot of respect for Graham, who had turned the organization into really something."
Ray also said that he had long been talking to his wife about how they could live in San Francisco and still make a living in film and the opportunity worked perfectly on a personal level.
Ray noted that his work with the Film Society of Lincoln Center and SnagFilms had been a "great fit for me," but said he had nevertheless been keeping an eye out for the next opportunity both in New York and outside the city.
He said that the job came together following what he described as a "rigorous process" that first began during the recent Toronto International Film Festival.
"I looked at what Graham had done and saw that it would be an amazing job," he said. "My passion for exhibition is known. They are involved in the development and finance of low-budget films for Bay Area filmmakers, which is an area I've long had a passion for professionally. Plus [SFFS has] an educational program that's been articulated by Graham and the staff, including [SFIFF head programmer] Rachel Rosen. Plus there are all these other components within the organization, including the San Francisco International Film Festival, which is an area I'm highly comfortable in... And as it blossomed out, I thought, 'Holy cow, this is truly an extraordinary opportunity!'"
Ray noted that Leggat will be a hard act to follow.
"Coming in behind a gentleman like Graham who went there and rejuvenated the organization with a new breath of elevation and life -- [it's not like I'll] be coming in from someone who crashed and burned in a train wreck.That is obviously not the reality for me, so what I can do is come in and study the overall program and learn why they worked so well and guide them to other levels of growth and success. I know that you don't go to a place and fix what is not broken. You make it your own over time and there are areas I have a deep intimacy, knowledge and passion for, but there are other areas I'll have to learn too."
Ray also said there are other ideas he'd like to build on with SFFS, including using his digital knowledge and grow the organization's nascent initiatives in the space. "It's an area I've come to know and would like to affect an articulated digital initiative for the whole Film Society," he said. "I believe this was part of Graham's true vision, so I think this will complement what he had planned to do."
"I've had a lot of experience during my time in distribution with all of San Francisco's film festivals like the San Francisco International Film Festival, Mill Valley and others," he said. "It's a deep and rich film culture and one that is a major market for films I have great passion for. From the filmmaker services' perspective, there's an amazing opportunity to reach out into the community and developing from a low-budget independent production side, emerging talent. I'd love to find through this program at the Film Society, with the amazing staff there, an emerging talent like a Lena Dunham ('Tiny Furniture')."
Ending his conversation with iW, Ray said: "Coming into San Francisco - which let's face it, is one of the world's great cities - it's crazy great!"
Acting SFFS executive director Steven Jenkins noted, "I think it's tremendously exciting for the organization. We have had a chance to meet a few times and to have someone of his caliber and experience at this point bodes extremely well for us. It's tough with any transition. It was of course hard losing Graham so tragically, and it has been daunting. But with Bingham coming, it points us again toward honing in on the vision that Graham had, which I think he respects -- it's dynamic for us. He's enormously intelligent, but also laid back. He's culturally a perfect fit for us."
"I am very excited for Bingham. He worked with us during a crucial period of transition and did a wonderful job of helping the FIlm Society launch our new Film Center," Rose Kuo, Executive Director of the Film Society of Lincoln Center commented to indieWIRE by email. "I know that he will bring the same enthusiasm and expertise to the San Francisco FIlm Society. We wish him all the best in his new endeavor."
"We have been delighted to work closely with Bingham over the last year, adding top narrative indies to our library and continuing our leadership in distributing docs," SnagFilms CEO Rick Allen told iW today via email. "As a former board member of the festival, I know well the importance the SFFS has played in our industry and for its community and I look forward to Bingham taking Graham’s significant legacy to new heights. We look forward to continuing to work with Bingham and the Film Society."
"The board of directors and staff of the San Francisco Film Society are honored, thrilled and extremely fortunate to have Bingham Ray join the organization to succeed Graham Leggat as our executive director," said Pat McBaine, SFFS board president in a statement. "Few veteran industry professionals are more highly regarded, have broader experience or a better track record of success in all facets of the film world than Bingham. With his extensive background as a major studio executive, founder of October Films, adjunct professor at NYU and consultant to numerous film societies, festivals and companies, Bingham is a perfect and timely fit to carry on Graham's legacy and build on the foundation of our year-round exhibition, education and filmmaker services programs."
More history on Bingham Ray and reaction to his appointment courtesy of a SFFS release follows:
In 2007 Ray joined the Los Angeles-based production company Sidney Kimmel Entertainment and held two posts during his three-year tenure, president of Kimmel Distribution and president of creative affairs. In the first post Ray supervised all marketing and distribution plans for the original Death at a Funeral, Talk to Me, Lars and the Real Girl and Synecdoche, N.Y., among others. In the latter he was responsible for the development and production activities of the remake of Death at a Funeral, as well as supervising the development of a seven-film production slate.
In September 2001, Ray assumed the post of president of United Artists. During his tenure at UA, the company acquired and/or produced many highly acclaimed films such as No Man's Land, winner of the 2001 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine, winner of the 2002 Academy Award for Best Feature Documentary and the 2004 Academy Award-nominated Hotel Rwanda. Other United Artists films successfully released during Ray's tenure include Jeepers Creepers 1 & 2, Nicholas Nickleby, Ghost World, Igby Goes Down and Pieces of April.
"Bingham's coming on board is fantastic news for the Film Society. He is well known and well loved by filmmakers and studio executives alike, with a wide reach both domestically and internationally. He's as at ease and knowledgeable in a conversation about the qualities of a screenplay as he is about the distribution pattern of a new film in Europe or Asia. We couldn't ask for a more full service addition to SFFS," said Film Society board member and former AMPAS President Sid Ganis.
Prior to running United Artists, Ray cofounded October Films in 1991 and served as its copresident until its sale to USA Networks in 1999. October was one of the foremost independent film companies of the 1990s, winning two Oscars and garnering 13 Oscar nominations and top prizes at the Cannes Film Festival on three occasions. Some of October Films' credits include the internationally acclaimed Secrets & Lies, The Apostle, Cookie's Fortune, The Celebration, Lost Highway, The Last Seduction and Breaking the Waves.
Ray began his career in 1981 as manager/programmer of the Bleecker Street Cinema. He has been on the juries of the Sundance Film Festival, Rotterdam Film Festival, Edinburgh Film Festival and the Film Independent Spirit Awards. He has lectured on film production and development at the City College of New York's Graduate Film School, Columbia University and New York University.
Ray succeeds Graham Leggat, who served as the San Francisco Film Society's executive director from October 2005 to June 2011 before his untimely death from cancer in August 2011. In five short years Leggat transformed the organization from an annual fifteen-day film festival producer into a year-round cultural institution with an increasingly national impact, providing programs and services in three key areas of activity: exhibition, education and filmmaker services. He strengthened SFFS with a valuable legacy and left it in the best shape--artistically, organizationally and financially--in its 54-year history.
"Graham's death was difficult for all of us, both professionally and personally, and left very big shoes to fill. Having followed Bingham's dynamic career for years and witnessed his passion for film, I can think of no one better to lead us into a new era and I'm thrilled that he'll be bringing his tremendous experience, fresh energy and ideas to the Film Society," said Director of Programming Rachel Rosen.
"The Film Society became an incredibly unique institution under Graham Leggat's tenure," said SFFS board co-vice president Jen Chaiken. Co-vice president Todd Traina and I spearheaded the search for our new director, as we wanted potential candidates to fully understand what a special opportunity this is. After interviewing candidates from across the country and abroad, there is no one we're more excited about to take us into the future than Bingham Ray. He's a one-of-a-kind, seminal figure in the film world and we couldn't be luckier to have him."
The Film Society's expanded year-round programming includes daily screenings and events at San Francisco Film Society | New People Cinema, highlighted by the Fall Season of seven specialized festivals. The crown jewel of the exhibition program is the San Francisco International Film Festival (April 19-May 3, 2012). The education department offers year-round media literacy programs to over 10,000 K-12 students, college and university programs to help students transition into the professional filmmaking arena, and more than 120 classes and workshops per year in film craft and film studies for filmmakers, filmgoers and cinephiles of all ages and skill levels. Filmmaker services offers a full suite of programs and activities designed to foster creativity and further the careers of independent filmmakers and oversees one of the largest film grant programs in the country, which will have dispersed more than $3.5 million to filmmakers by 2013. Hundreds of filmmakers have benefited from a vibrant fiscal sponsorship program, which provides production and development assistance.
"I firmly believe in the adage 'don't fix what's not broken,'" said Ray. "My initial mission will be to carefully study and evaluate the existing programs of the Film Society, aiming to guide them to further growth and articulation. I'm particularly excited to begin an exploration into creating a dynamic digital initiative for the organization which could eventually expand the reaches of the education programs and SFIFF."