Bingham Ray, one of the leading forces in bringing indie film to mainstream attention, died yesterday while attending the Sundance Film Festival where he had made such a lasting influence. According to the San Francisco Film Society, where Ray had just recently been appointed as executive director, he suffered a series of strokes on Saturday, dying in a Provo, Utah hospital two days later. He was 57.
Ray got his start in film in the early ’80s while working as a programmer at New York’s legendary Bleecker Street Cinema, the Greenwich Village art house that was one of the country’s cultural centers for foreign and offbeat film. In 1991, he co-founded October Films with partner Jeff Lipsky specifically to distribute Mike Leigh’s Life Is Sweet, thus beginning a decade that would see October Films become a powerful leader in independent cinema and, thanks in no small part to October’s influence, independent cinema become a viable force in the entertainment world. Ray and Lipsky would go on to distribute films such as Breaking The Waves, Secrets And Lies, Lost Highway, The Apostle, and Ruby In Paradise, buying them up at festivals such as Sundance and then boldly throwing them out to the masses. As they flourished into word-of-mouth cult hits and even snapped up Oscar nominations, indie film began to look like a viable business model, and Ray became regarded as one of its shepherds.
Ray left October Films behind in 1999 (it lives on today as Focus Features), eventually moving into the studio world as the president of MGM’s specialty films division United Artists from 2001 to 2004. There he continued his commitment to championing festival darlings and risky investments, and his track record included such films as the Oscar-winning Bowling For Columbine and No Man’s Land, Hotel Rwanda, and Pieces Of April. Ray eventually resigned from MGM—with some sources saying he repeatedly fought with executives, who found his taste “too esoteric and artsy”—and eventually moved on to working for production company Sidney Kimmel Entertainment before doing consulting work at the Film Society of Lincoln Center and teaching at NYU. Ray leaves behind a legacy of sticking up for the little guy, rooting for lost causes, and believing that it’s more important for a film to be meaningful than profitable. In short, he will be missed.