Jaw-dropping news came down around noon Park City time Monday, when Sundance issued a press release confirming that Bingham Ray — indie film legend, co-founder of seminal '90s indie distribution outlet October Films and current executive director of the San Francisco Film Society — had died. Ray, who was only 57, had been attending the film festival Saturday when he reportedly suffered a stroke, and had been hospitalized in Salt Lake City ever since. Reports circulating over the weekend listed his condition as “stable,” making today's news even more shocking.
Over the past 25 years, Ray has been as instrumental as anyone in founding and fostering the independent film marketplace, of which Sundance has been a key flagship.
October, which Ray co-founded with Jeff Lipsky and which was eventually acquired by Universal and combined with Ted Hope and James Schamus' Good Machine to create Focus Features, released many of the landmark art house films of the 1990s, including The War Room, Secrets and Lies, Breaking the Waves, High Art and Lost Highway. Ray went on to run United Artists and serve a number of functions in the indie film world, most recently as a programming consultant at the Film Society of Lincoln Center and a lecturer at NYU.
I didn't know Bingham well, but outside of run-of-the-mill film festival encounters, I have two personal memories of him. A little over two years ago, the night after I moved from New York to Los Angeles to take my current job at the L.A. Weekly, I was seated next to Bingham at the L.A. Film Critics awards dinner. I hardly knew anyone in the room, and was actually kind of terrified, until I started talking to Bingham, who was so full of great, juicy stories that he made me forget all my self-conscious bullshit. A few months later, after a Facebook back-and-forth, I sold Bingham my ticket to see Pavement in Central Park (as documented here). He sent a $50 bill as payment, with a hand-written note, which I still have hanging on the bulletin board in my office. It says, “Don't worry, it's not counterfeit!”
News of Bingham's passing spread around the festival this afternoon and cast a palpable pall on the proceedings. Moments after I heard, I wandered in to a screening of a film I knew little about, which turned out to be a painfully conventional romcom, starring a handful of TV actors, about the dating foibles of underemployed 20 somethings living in fabulous lofts. Through the whole film, in the back of my mind I was reeling through the list of films Bingham had a hand in releasing — the above mentioned titles, plus Life is Sweet, Bowling for Columbine, Synecdoche, NY, The Addiction — while here I was, watching Friends: The Movie.
Maybe it's a cliche to say “he will be missed,” but it couldn't be more true.