The film world lost one of its most colourful and passionate characters this week when Bingham Ray died at the age of 57 after a stroke at the Sundance Film Festival.
A couple of years ago at Toronto, I sat opposite Bingham Ray at dinner and he talked me through the screenplay of The King’s Speech. It was a project he was desperately keen to finance through Sidney Kimmel Entertainment (SKE), the company he worked for at the time, but SKE had just decided to refocus on genre product and, despite Ray’s enthusiasm, it fell through the cracks.
There are two things I want to stress about that dinner. When I say, he talked me through the screenplay, I mean he walked me through it scene by scene to the point where I lived the entire movie. I hardly got a word in edgewise and barely spoke to anyone else at the dinner. And when I say enthusiasm, I mean giant-sized enthusiasm, childlike enthusiasm, Bingham Ray-style enthusiasm. Boy, did he love this script.
But in the many years I knew Bingham, he was always full of beans about a project, a director, a festival, a film he had seen. He loved critics and journalists, and loved chewing the fat with us. For three years, he and I sat together on the foreign language committee of the Independent Spirit Awards and had such fun watching the films and analysing them. His passion was legendary because it was so heartfelt and genuine. His love of film was, after all, what drove him and he combined it with a passion for the business and the people in it. The successful films he steered in his career – Secrets And Lies, The Apostle, Hilary And Jackie, Breaking The Waves, Bowling For Columbine and Hotel Rwanda among them – showed how skillfully he combined his dedication to the art with expertise in marketing and distribution.
The news of his death this week at Sundance, a festival with which he was so closely associated, was a crushingly sad end to a nervous weekend where nobody quite knew the extent of the damage caused by a stroke. The loss of a figure so central to the independent world has left his many, many friends, colleagues and admirers stunned. How could we be deprived of such a charismatic, infectious, mischevious personality, especially since he had just started a new chapter in his career as the executive director of the San Francisco Film Society? He was finally committing to the west coast, although typically not Los Angeles.
He had some hard knocks in recent years. After running October Films and United Artists, he couldn’t find a big production/distribution gig suited to his experience and talent; he consulted for a number of companies but he was itching to be back in the game, finding movies and finding ingenious ways to make them work. Now he was 57, the San Francisco job offered him a new role in charge but it was no less exciting for him to be steering a non-profit. He relished the challenges and immersion back in the programming world where he started at the Bleecker Street Cinema in 1981.
His life was far from drama free – who can forget that near-fatal car accident? – but drama was part of the Bingham character cocktail, along with everything else. He was an authentic film industry “character”, a determined maverick, a sporadically successful comedian and a warm-hearted friend.
Everyone at Screen sends heartfelt condolences to his wife Nancy King and his three children.