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Obit: Indie Veteran Bingham Ray Was a Champion of Indie Cinema UPDATED

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by Anne Thompson
January 23, 2012 3:08 PM
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Bingham Ray

The news that indie veteran Bingham Ray, recently appointed executive director of the San Francisco Film Society and Festival, had suffered a stroke hit the Sundance Film Festival Saturday morning. Sadly, Ray died from complications of the massive stroke on Monday. A group of Sundance attendees and friends visited Ray in the Utah Valley Regional Medical Center in Provo Saturday. He was surrounded by his wife Nancy King and three children, Nick, Annabella and Becca, and close friends until he passed away peacefully late Monday morning. He was 57.

Ray had come to Utah for the pre-Sundance Arthouse Convergence near Provo and suffered a stroke on Thursday. His friend Richard Abramowitz looked for him when he did not come to a scheduled panel, found him in a disoriented state and took him to a hospital; he was moved to the Utah Valley Regional Medical Center on Thursday, where he suffered a second, much more powerful stroke later that night.

As word got out that Ray was hospitalized, friends and well-wishers wrote notes of love, support and encouragement on his Facebook page. Here's the statement from the Sundance Institute:

It is with great sadness that the Sundance Institute acknowledges the passing of Bingham Ray, cherished independent film executive and most recently Executive Director of the San Francisco Film Society.  On behalf of the independent film community here  in Park City for the 2012 Sundance Film Festival and elsewhere, we offer our support and condolences to his family.  Bingham’s many contributions to this community and business are indelible, and his legacy will not be soon forgotten.

Bingham Ray was a treasured friend for some 20 years, and I mourn the loss of his friendship. We both started out our careers working as theater managers at the Bleecker Street Cinema. We hung out at many a Sundance, Telluride, Toronto and Cannes together. My heart breaks for his family. He meant a great deal to the indie film community, who respected, admired, even revered him. He cared deeply about quality film, and did as much to improve the cultural discourse about smart cinema as anyone.

His taste was impeccable. He championed the films of Mike Leigh, David Lynch, Robert Altman, and Lars von Trier, among many many others. Needless to say, these films were not easy to sell or release; Ray never cared about that. It was his job to enlighten us, and that he did. I'll always remember how happy he was the night Leigh's "Secret and Lies" opened the New York Film Festival, and we all celebrated at Tavern on the Green. The movie went on to earn five Oscar nominations, including best picture; while Ray was at United Artists, Michael Moore's "Bowling for Columbine" won the Oscar for best documentary and "No Man's Land" won best foreign film.

In many ways, when Ray was truly independent at October Films, which he co-founded with Jeff Lippsky in 1991, he was able to pursue his erudite passions more than anywhere else he worked. Being put in charge of the San Francisco Film Society seemed like a perfect fit, and it's too bad that we will not see what he had in store.

He will be missed by many people. But also remember: Ray was an entertainer in more ways than one. He loved to regale friends--from John Schmidt, Ray Price, and Sam Kitt to John Pierson and Eammon Bowles-- colleagues, and talent with stories, often hilarious. He not only enjoyed sharing good movies with people, but making them laugh. At one Sundance dinner, Ray was introduced to Tom Rothman, now co-chairman of Twentieth Century Fox. It was the battle of the alpha males. On another late Sundance night, a group of us walking down Main Street after a party during a heavy snowfall started pelting snowballs at each other.

A memorial service is planned in New York. Ray wanted it to be held in a theater. It will have to be a big one.

Here's Indiewire's obit.  Feel free to share any memories.

Here's the obit from the San Francisco Film Society, which is still recovering from the loss of their former executive director, Graham Leggatt, who died of cancer. Ray was trying to help them to move on:

The San Francisco Film Society regrets to announce that Executive Director Bingham Ray passed away on January 23 while attending the 2012 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah.

"The board of directors and staff of the Film Society are stunned and deeply saddened by the untimely death of our executive director Bingham Ray. We at the Film Society and the entire film community have lost far too early an energetic and visionary impact player who has helped shape the independent film industry for decades in so many important and valuable ways," said Pat McBaine, SFFS board president. "He shall be dearly missed. Our deepest sympathies and condolences go out to Bingham's family and his legions of friends and colleagues all over the world who loved and respected him."

Ray brought his well-developed creative and business acumen to the running, reimagining and reinvigorating of a major nonprofit arts organization. Since taking the helm on November 7, 2011 he oversaw and crafted a cohesive plan to strengthen the Film Society's exhibition, education and filmmakers services programs, including its most successful fall season to date; addressed the strenuous financial concerns facing nonprofit arts organizations today; focused particular attention on the operation of SF Film Society Cinema; connected to the local education community; broadened the outreach and impact of the project development and grants programs; and was well into plans for the 55th San Francisco International Film Festival.

He immediately became a part of the SF film world, hosting a reception at Tosca Café to introduce himself to the community; a special screening of California State of Mind: The Legacy of Pat Brown, attended by Governor Jerry Brown and his wife Anne Gust; and a preview of Pina with his old friend Wim Wenders, attended by Francis and Eleanor Coppola, Les Blank, Phil Kaufman and Tom Luddy.

"When Bingham took the job, we were ecstatic," said SFFS board co-vice president and film producer Jen Chaiken. "It was an enormous vote of confidence for the organization that he was compelled to uproot his life to come run the Film Society. Bingham felt this job honored and tapped into the experience he'd garnered over the past 30 years. Bingham was one of those rare few who everyone knew on a first name only basis. He was one of a kind and will be deeply, deeply missed."

Ray came to the San Francisco Film Society from New York City, where he recently served as the first run programming consultant to the Film Society of Lincoln Center, executive consultant to the digital distribution company SnagFilms and adjunct professor at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts.

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.

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.

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.

Bingham 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 is survived by his wife Nancy King, their children Nick, Annabel and Becca, and his sisters Susan Clair and Deb Pope.

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