Bingham Ray, 1954-2012

Mike Leigh pays tribute to the late stalwart of the indie scene, who helped launch the British director’s films in the US; 1 October 1954–23 January 2012.

Mike Leigh

from our April 2012 issue

A dark shadow was cast over the Sundance Film Festival in January. That most radical and independent of American independent movie folk, Bingham Ray, suffered two strokes at the festival, and died in a nearby Utah hospital at the age of 57.

The shockwaves were felt by all of us in the independent film community around the world. The memorial gatherings that were held almost immediately – at Sundance itself, in New York, at the Berlinale and elsewhere – were all both profoundly sad and utterly hilarious.

It is tragic that we have lost the most uncompromising and intelligent of fighters for the cause of truth, integrity and unfettered originality in cinema; but we have also been robbed of one of the most outrageously funny men you could ever meet. Programmer, exhibitor, distributor, producer and studio executive, Bingham was totally committed to enabling original voices to be heard without interference – and audiences to have genuine access to them.

In his lifelong execution of this crusade, he was skilful, combative, deeply serious and highly successful. But to know him was to laugh uncontrollably from dawn to dusk – and all night too, invariably, with much lubrication.

From his baseball cap, worn back to front, and his signature short pants (sported even at Berlin each February) to his side-splitting party-piece rendering of ‘Lydia, the Tattooed Lady’, his anarchic naughtiness was endearing and irresistible. But what Bingham Ray didn’t know about movies wasn’t worth knowing. His knowledge was encyclopedic, and by no means limited to the American mainstream. He really knew his world cinema. And his inexhaustible capacity to describe an entire film, scene by scene, could even – if you were lucky – include a detailed celebration of one of your own films. Yet he was never, ever boring.

After attending Simpson College, Iowa, where his Theatre Arts course included an appearance in The Mousetrap, he soon gravitated to New York City, where he became the programmer and manager of the Bleecker Street Cinema in Greenwich Village.

He then worked in marketing and distribution for several companies, including Avenue, and was responsible for promoting cutting-edge films by Héctor Babenco, Bruno Barreto, Alan Rudolph, Alex Cox, Stephen Frears, Donna Deitch, Robert Townsend, Spike Lee, Jim Jarmusch, Gus Van Sant, Jane Campion and Terence Davies.

In 1990 he teamed up with Jeff Lipsky to launch their own independent distribution company, October Films. Initially operating out of Jeff’s Los Angeles garage, they were very keen to kick off with my film Life is Sweet. However, as they were not sufficiently funded, my late producer Simon Channing Williams found them some UK backing, enabling them to release the film in 1991. Thus began a great working and personal relationship. From the outset it was clear that theirs was a hands-on kind of approach such as we had never met before. Nor would we thereafter; what other distributor would cross the Atlantic specifically to stand at the back of London screenings in order to get the hang of how a film worked with an audience?

After the success of Life is Sweet they moved to New York, where Bingham’s heart lay, and where they progressed from strength to strength. Lipsky soon left to direct, and Bingham was joined by John Schmidt and others. In those successful October years, Bingham worked with, among others, David Lynch, Lars von Trier, Michael Moore and Jafar Panahi. He got us five Oscar nominations for Secrets & Lies, and also released our Career Girls.

After the company was bought by Universal, there was a bad moment when the parent company forced him to drop Todd Solondz’s wonderful Happiness. Bingham was furious. But worse was to come. Some would say that it was a kind of generous naivety on his part that now led to Bingham’s shocking ousting from October. It is not appropriate to discuss here the politics of that shameful skulduggery, other than to report that he was stabbed in the back – and many of us know by whom.

Before too long, October ceased to be, and Bingham deeply regretted not having stayed independent. But he did work for United Artists for a few years, during which he released Bowling for Columbine, No Man’s Land, Personal Velocity, Igby Goes Down, 24 Hour Party People and Topsy-Turvy.

He left, disillusioned but never defeated. After a few wilderness years, despite some success at Sidney Kimmel Entertainment, he at last landed the perfect gig – executive director of the San Francisco Film Society, a job which includes running the legendary film festival in that city. We were all jubilant. This was the perfect fit for Bingham. He was to embark on a long and joyous journey, in which his passion and enthusiasm for independent cinema would bear richer fruit than ever.

How sad that this is not to be. Instead, we have only his legacy, and the memory of a great innovator, a natural showman, a loving and loyal friend – and an absolute scream.

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