In 1999, when Bingham Ray sold his stake in October Films - the company he co-founded with Jeff Lipsky - he came to several conclusions. One was that he was keen to produce. Another that he would think twice about getting into any more partnerships. The other was that maybe it wasn't such a smart idea to "throw the rulebook out," as he considers he did then.
Appointed last week as president of MGM specialty label United Artists(UA), Ray says he has learnt from past experience. This time, he says, he plans to be more politic. But he has also had two years away from the fray to look at the business objectively and thinks UA has a chance to make a big impression on the beleagured US specialised marketplace. "I've been on the outside for two years," he says. "The independent world is in confusion.
"When I was negotiating with Chris McGurk [vice chairman and COO of MGM], I threw a little history at him and suggested we move UA back to New York and give it definition. There are film-makers there I feel we can work with who wouldn't necessarily go with the other specialty divisions."
Ray's formula is to keep rigidly within his under-$10m alternative niche. "It's about getting original voices out there. We're dealing with a select audience and the idea is to maintain that niche. That's what I wanted to create [when we sold October to] Universal, but the studio compromised it.
"At UA, I want to make films which are consistently successful with material which is not the normal connect-the-dot formula. Hopefully, occasionally, we'll trip over lightning in a bottle."
One of the film world's most colourful and erudite characters, Ray has earned the loyalty and friendship of film-makers around the world. In October's heyday, he was bringing in contemporary classics from established masters like Mike Leigh (Secrets And Lies) and Lars Von Trier (Breaking The Waves) as well as exciting newcomers like Thomas Vinterberg (The Celebration). Many believe his UA move could well reinvigorate a playing field which has seen a downturn in taking risks on "original voices" and a corporatisation of the indie world.
"I wish Bingham had been my film professor at college," says Jeff Lipsky, his old boss at The Samuel Goldwyn Co who invited him to set up a new company to handle Leigh's Life Is Sweet in 1991. "We all have a sense of film history, but his greatest talent is imparting that to others and inspiring them to make their own contribution to it."
"UA was being run on a part-time basis by people who had other responsibilities," says McGurk, referring to his former distribution and marketing chieftans Larry Gleason and Gerry Rich. "I needed someone to devote 100% of his or her time to the label and Bingham fitted the bill perfectly. He's got such great relationships and the ability to leverage the UA name to establish new ones."
At UA, he has inherited a slate of films from the Gleason and Rich regime which includes current hit Ghost World directed by Terry Zwigoff and production alliances with Francis Ford Coppola's American Zoetrope, John Penotti, Fisher Stevens and Brad Yonover's Greene Street Films, Michael Stipe's Self Timer, Michael Winterbottom and Andrew Eaton's Revolution Films and Crossroads Films, the New York-based production company which Ray leaves to join UA. "The films we have there are in good shape and Leon Falk at Crossroads will take over the overseeing of them," he says.
Ray, whose career began in non-theatrical sales at UA in 1981, is currently negotiating how the new New York UA will be structured. "We're going to be lean, mean and aggressive, but will probably have our own staff as well as working closely with Bob Levin (MGM's newly appointed worldwide marketing and distribution head) on release campaigns."
For McGurk, the Ray appointment continues a personal passion for specialised films which started when he negotiated the acquisition of Miramax Films while at Disney, then continued with the acquisition of October when at Universal and the remolding of United Artists as a specialised label when he took control at MGM. "Smaller independent films have a lot of benefits," he explains. "There are potentially great financial returns from that business and it can also operate as a farm for talent. You put yourself into relationships with new film-making talent and actors whom you can then hopefully use for other films. Operating in that world is a good thing if you do it right."
He has certainly been trying hard to get it right. Last year he closed down the London-based sales and production arm United Artists Films under Wendy Palmer and Fiona Mitchell which he inherited on joining the studio. "It was meant to be primarily focused on acquisition and production but ended up being 80% sales," he says. He then brought in Levin over Gleason and Rich, and went to Ray with whom he had become close during the October negotiations and with whom he signed the Crossroads deal earlier this year.
"This is a great marriage between the goals of MGM and Bingham's skills and talents," says Amir Malin, the CEO of Artisan Entertainment who joined Lipsky and Ray as a partner in October a few months after they formed it and left during the Universal negotiations in 1997. "Bingham is one of the best executives I've ever had the privilege of working with."
Whether Ray will be able to make "provocative and profitable" pictures unfettered by the compromises of a studio environment remains to be seen. Jeff Lipsky, who quit October in 1995 because "we were compromising the original purity", has teamed with his two brothers in Lot 47 Films and prides himself in the company's ability "not to be married to any kind of system." And if Bingham Ray is also at heart the same fierce independent spirit, he is more sanguine than he was in the October days. "I've learnt that film is truly a collaborative process and you can't do it by yourself. This time it's about not throwing the rule book out."