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DECADE: Bingham Ray "On the Record," Parts 1, 1A, & 2

By Indiewire | Indiewire December 10, 1999 at 2:00AM

DECADE: Bingham Ray "On the Record," Part 1A
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DECADE: Bingham Ray "On the Record," Part 1A

by Eugene Hernandez and Mark Rabinowitz/indieWIRE



[Part two of this interview is linked at the bottom of the page.]

iW: Well, there's a lot more movies being made...

Ray: Well, there's going to be more films. You can cite the examples of
going back to "Chan is Missing," and there was a tidal shift, and then
there was "Clerks," and then Chris Smith's stuff, and there's Tarantino
and all these John Pierson indie icon kind of landmarks that you look
to. But now with digital technology being what it is, it's going to be
much more like, "Mickey and Judy, I've got some costumes in the garage,
let's make a movie." But that doesn't make the movies informed, or it
doesn't make the movies interesting. It doesn't make them valuable,
unless someone who is making that movie really has a searing passion to
say something.

One of the reasons that I loved Chris [Smith]'s film, "American Movie," is here is
this guy in Milwaukee, who's been struggling. He kind of epitomizes the
people that -- how many Mark [Borchardt]'s are there out there?
Countless, hundreds of thousands, who never make it to the IFFM, who
never make it to any kind of market with a 28 minute or 48 minute film
that they've been struggling to finish for four years and cobbled
finances together. They don't have that level of sophistication.
They're still there, they're going to multiply.

If you've seen "Blair Witch" -- and you know what "Blair Witch" is -- what that one film will bring
us will be at least two years of utter crap trying to imitate it, and it won't work, and it will glut the marketplace, and it will be people who will be conned into thinking, "Ah, the next 'Blair Witch.'" We'll see that quote what, in the next two weeks, from some stupid critic out there. And some distributor will be conned into buying it thinking they have
the next "Blair Witch" and then they'll trip and fall over themselves
and they'll lose a lot of money. There's going to be a lot more of
that. And I think that through that you have to separate the wheat
from the chaff, there's going to be some really vital filmmakers that
will emerge.

And I really think that in the first several years of the 80's, from the
late 70's through the mid-80's, we had this explosion of incredible
filmmakers, some of whom were more articulate than others and had a lot
of success, and have gone on maintaining a level of consistency, and
evolved as filmmakers. There's Jim [Jarmusch] and there's Spike [Lee] and there's [John] Sayles
and there's countless others. But if you look at that, that was in the
age of Reagan. Eight years of a Republican, conservative government that
was doing nothing except trying to put all of that down. For me, it's
like a political thing. And now we've had eight years of Clinton, and
he's a liberal democrat. And so I think there's a stasis, there's a
part where it gets stalled out. There's nothing to really fight,
there's no government that's oppressing us as artists, and so we have to
find other means to express ourselves. It kind of gets watered down.
It's not as articulate. It's not as fevered, as passionate, and it
becomes part of the mainstream. And I think it was a natural thing to
look at.

You know, people, as they get older, their needs are going to change.
They can't fight forever. They can't live in a one room flat in the
East Village forever. They're going to fall in love and perhaps want to
make a family. These are artists I'm talking about. So their needs
change as a people. And that informs their artistic side as well. But
as a business, it's matured into the middle. It's become mainstream.
There's no [alternative], well, there is, but it's not viable commercially speaking.
There's still like the fringe side of everything, there always will be.
But in terms of the viable companies and the people who run them, the
philosophies of all views linked together, and I think that's really
unfortunate. And it was also inevitable.

iW: When you look back on it now, when the executives, whether they be
at your level or at some of the studios, started looking at what October
and some of the other companies were doing, what were some of the
moments in the 90's that made it apparent that there was this
consolidation or Hollywoodization happening?

Ray: Right from the very beginning, this business has always been
monkey-see-monkey-do. It has always been a reflex-oriented business.
It is the rare individual or company that is ahead of the curve, ahead
of the reflex. When someone has success, another studio or rival
company has success in a market with individuals, everybody and their
Uncle Harry thinks that they can do it too. Even if they don't share
the same temperament or philosophy that other executives at the
successful studio or successful division did. They want to jump in
because it's something that people are doing and there's potential for
profitability there. But it all stems from that. Now, it's rare.

If you look at [Sony's] John Calley for example, and you can speak to Tom {Bernard] and
Michael [Barker], I think they'll speak volumes about the kind of reinforcement
and support that they've gotten from Calley and other people like Arthur
Krim
in their careers. If you want to talk about anybody that's out
there today that has minded their knitting from way back, it's Tom and Michael. And a
lot of people will say -- because it's fashionable -- that the business
is passing them by and they don't know it. That's horseshit. These guys
have staked out the plan for a very specific niche, and they have their
methods, and they have their approach, and they're not stupid. They see
things shifting and changing, but they haven't tried to be what they're
not.

One of the fatal flaws at October [was that] Universal wanted to turn us
into Miramax. They wanted us to compete, go toe to toe with Harvey [Weinstein].
And there were those of us who said, "Look, that's not going to fly.
October is October, let us grow, help us to grow, give us the financing
to grow, but at the same time, let us maintain our niche."

And that was a constant war that I lost. And it is what it is. When they want to
change you because they don't understand who you are to begin with -- and
you can trace this back to the 80's -- Universal, under different
management, a whole different scheme of executives running the joint,
they created Universal Classics because United Artists was very
successful in the early 80's. And who was running UA Classics? It was
Tom, it was Michael. So Universal started up and there was a flurry of
activity, and then it all burned out in two years, and it all went
away. And then it was time for the really true, passionate, also
business-savvy executives, independently-minded, to set up and to really
give it a go. Of the companies that were dominant in the 80's, there's
only one who is really around in any force, and that's Miramax. And
Miramax wasn't dominant in the 80's; it was Island, Cinecom. Then they
got visions of sugarplums and self-destructed. Island self-destructed.
Samuel Goldwyn Company, where I was for a lot of the 80's, they had the
greatest opportunity to dominate and didn't. And it was one of the
great frustrating things that I've gone through until recently. Hah!

But if you look at 1990 to the year 2000, the early 90's were extended
from the 80's. We were pretty much the same kind of thing. Harvey then
got the Disney money, and then he started to learn how to produce films.
He was always one of the best if not the best at aggressive marketing,
at identifying the audience and then attacking that audience with
ingenious design and aggressive strategies, and in the end, spent a lot
of money. But when it was just his money, he did it as well. And he
would fail and then he would pick himself up, and it would be picture in
and picture out. And he was on death's door countless times. Not just
"The Crying Game" saved his ass. He and Bob were struggling a long time
before that. But what they had was that they hadn't achieved the most
difficult thing, which is consistency, performing consistently. And if
there's any company throughout the 90's -- and look, you know how
competitive I am, you know the work that I've done -- you have to tip your
hat to Miramax through the 90's. And I would even say that the studios
would have to tip their hat to Miramax. Because they have been by far
the most consistent film company of this decade in what they've
achieved. And I salute them.

But at the same time, they are still trying to convince you and me and
every journalist in the country that they are still a little indie,
upstart, underdog company, and that is so incredibly insane that anyone
allows them that in any piece on anything, it just boggles my mind. But
Harvey is such a successful spinmeister, and he works it so hard and so
successfully that people give it to him. He's about as independently
minded now as IBM. He is a major studio with incredible studio clout
and muscle. He's got how many hundreds of people there? They're bigger
than New Line, and New Line is considered a mini-major. Call him a
major, he's a major. Miramax is a major studio. They give Disney a run
for their money. And there are people who for whatever reason, whether
it's the past not being caught up to the present, that still think of
Miramax as an underdog, I mean, please, let's get past that as we get
into the millennium. They're a major studio and their philosophy has
changed. Their philosophy is now the philosophy of a major studio. But
then, so is every other independent company.

I think it even gets down into like Zeitgeist and Kino and Strand and
all those folks. Comes a time when you're struggling and you're making a
few dollars here and there, covering your nut, there's a little bit of
profit, and you're doing it for the love and passion of it, and it's
great. But at some point you're going to sit there and go, "Man, I wish
someone would buy me. They bought Bingham Ray and they buy Jonathan
Dana
and they buy Paul Cohen, how come I can't get a deal like that.
I've been doing this for 15 years, I want to get rich!"

OK, first of all, let's cast the myth aside. I'm a little better off
than I was at the beginning of the 90's when Jeff Lipsky and I were
forking over all this stuff for October out of our pockets. But it's
not like I can sit for the rest of my life on some desert island and
jerk off all day, as much as I'd like to. Harvey can, he's a fucking
multi-millionaire and that's great man, way to go. But that's not what
I'm after, it's never been what I'm after.

The conversation continues on page 2...

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