The Fighter: Bingham Ray (1954 - 2012)

It all happened so fast. Bingham Ray was taken far too soon. He was just 57 years old, but his impact on international cinema was pronounced.

One week ago a group of us were at Sundance's Art House Convergence in nearby Midway, UT. The annual pre-festival gathering draws folks who run film societies and independent art house theaters around the country and gives attendees a chance to ponder the state of indie and international art house cinema. How do we get more movies to a wider local audience? How do we do our jobs better? And what is the future for the kinds of movies we all care about so deeply? Attendance jumped to more than 300 people this year and, for the first time, among those in the room was Bingham Ray, new head of the San Francisco Film Society.

I ran into Bingham the moment I stepped out of the shuttle from Salt Lake City airport last week. We'd been good friends for many years and, as usual, he gave me a slap on the back as he bellowed my name. Bingham was excited to be at the conference. It was his debut in a new role within the film community and as the week wore on from panel discussions to parties, Bingham was engaged, entertaining, acerbic and opinionated. As he always was.

An Early Cinephile

Born October 1, 1954, Bingham Ray grew up just north of Manhattan, developing a love for movies at a young age, taking a film class at Scarsdale High School before heading to Simpson College in Iowa.

A man who's worn a few hats over the years—he ran New York's Bleecker Street Cinema in the 80s, co-founded pioneering distribution company October Films in the 90s and led United Artists in the next decade—Bingham Ray was always a champion of challenging independent cinema, shepherding films by Lars Von Trier, Jim Jarmusch, David Lynch, Jafar Panahi, Robert Altman, Mike Leigh and so many others to smart moviegoers. A passion for film was a defining characteristic that he carried with him everywhere. In fact, if you worked for him, he apparently gave you a long list of movies you had to watch, without fail. Last year, Bingham joined us at the Film Society of Lincoln Center to open the new Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center and told me many times how much it meant to him that he was helping guide his hometown film society. I got to know him even better and that's what makes his passing even tougher.

Bingham was thrilled to be in San Francisco for this next chapter of his life, a city where he'd yearned to live for a job that he told The San Francisco Chronicle was "too good to be true." When he made the move a couple of months ago, we were sad to see him leave the Film Society but excited about the impact he would have in the Bay Area. There were bound to be challenges in his new adventure, but he pulled me aside at one point a few days ago and told me that he was ready for battle.

A Warrior

"We lost a true warrior," praised Sundance founder Robert Redford in a statement read yesterday during an impromptu memorial service for Bingham Ray, as a couple hundred people took a break from the festival to pack a local bar and remember their competitor, colleague and friend.

Warrior. The description fits because Bingham always seemed to be girding for battle. Sometimes a debate about a singular film would unleash the fighter. He tangled with others, often playfully, sometimes aggressively and always enthusiastically. Bingham would engage anyone—filmmakers, celebrities, interns and executives—and the price of admission to the conversation was an opinion.

"Volatile and blunt, Mr. Ray championed stylized, intellectually challenging films, buying distribution rights to movies that few believed had a box-office prayer," wrote the New York Times in an obituary. “The words ‘fearless’ and ‘brave’ are tossed around a lot in our world, but that’s the only way to describe Bingham,” said Eamonn Bowles, head of Magnolia Pictures. He should know; he's been one of Bingham's closest friends for decades.

Bingham didn't always win—in fact he hated to lose—but he wasn't afraid of the fight because it usually involved what he cared about most: movies.

"He was a man whose passion for film just embodied everything good about our industry," John Schimdt, who ran October Films with Bingham Ray, told the Los Angeles Times. "He did it with tremendous drive and passion, not because he wanted to become a millionaire and not because he wanted to be a big shot, but because it was in his heart and soul."

Rise and Fall

Bingham Ray championed indie and international cinema all the way to the big screen at October Films, winning Oscars and awards at festivals everywhere. Then he rolled the dice in a precarious gamble. Universal Studios acquired October Films and he faced a moment in which the merger of art and commerce nearly caused a collapse, as Hollywood imagined specialty films generating more and more money (and Oscars).

"The invasion of studio thinking has come perilously close to destroying the spirit of the independents," Bingham Ray warned in a 2000 interview with Variety. The rise and fall was documented in Peter Biskind's widely read book, Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance and the Rise of Independent Film. There's even a screenplay circulating based on the book and Bingham Ray is a lead character.

"Bingham was the hero of my book, Down and Dirty Pictures, one of the few in a brutal game who truly loved films, noted Biskind, in a comment at Indiewire yesterday. "The more I learned about and from Bingham, the more I appreciated him and the larger he loomed in the story. He was very funny, and had that quality that was rare in the film business: he was fearless, never hesitated to say what he felt. I can't believe he won't be there any more to put me on the floor with his scabrous stories. What a shame, and a loss for everyone."

In time, that bloated Indiewood business model shifted and was injected with new ideas and energy as the 80s pioneers began to rethink their business approaches. Like his friends Eamonn Bowles at Magnolia or Ira Deutchman at Emerging Pictures, Bingham evolved. He spent time at IFC Films as they developed a new hybrid theatrical and VOD model for distributing art house cinema. He later consulted for SnagFilms as they launched a more aggressive push to bring unseen indie and documentary films to new platforms like the Internet, iPads and TV set-top boxes.

How sadly fitting that Bingham died in the midst of the Sundance Film Festival, the annual showcase for new American independent filmmaking where art and commerce collide each January. However, as many have noted in recent days, at least the film community was together to both mourn and celebrate one of its own. A few of us even had a chance to see him one last time over the weekend as Bingham held on for life in a nearby hospital room. It was so hard to see the fighter down for the count, but we conveyed the love and support of an entire community of people, and he heard us loud and clear.

Heart & Soul

"Bingham was the heart and soul of the whole independent movement," Jeanne Berney, a former head of PR and marketing at the Film Society, told Variety yesterday.

Because his career has been so varied—distributor, exhibitor, producer and executive—Bingham Ray has probably done more for independent and international cinema in this country than anyone else. Only the many filmmakers themselves can be credited with having a greater singular impact on our overall film culture.

Imagine what he might have achieved in this next chapter of his life. 

"Give me five years," he told people last week at the Art House Convergence. Little did we know we only had him for about five more days.

Indeed, the most painful part of losing Bingham Ray is knowing that, despite his tremendous impact on international cinema, he was simply taken too soon. We expected him to be fighting for many more decades. There are so many more movies to make, market and debate. And now the conversation, the battle, has to continue without Bingham in there slugging it out. Without one of cinema's great warriors.

"I'd like to be able to do this in whatever form, and over a wide array of areas, until I drop," Bingham said last summer at the Film Society's Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, "whether that's in an hour and a half or 30 years from now."

As one industry insider told me after yesterday's tearful but entertaining Sundance memorial service, "He went out with his boots on."

Eugene Hernandez is the Director of Digital Strategy for the Film Society of Lincoln Center and a co-founder of Indiewire. Follow on Twitter: @eug.

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