Bingham Ray was in Utah to attend the Sundance Film Festival in his role as executive director of the San Francisco Film Society when he suffered the strokes that led to his death on Jan. 23, 2012, at the age of 57. Ray had just taken the San Francisco job in November, but he’d been pursuing and promoting independent cinema for decades. He was an expansive, gregarious man — one so passionate and powerful that obituaries referred to him as a ”beloved titan of the indie film world” and an ”indie film god.” (Ray also declared his independence with his fondness for wearing Bermuda shorts whenever possible.)
After early gigs booking movies into theaters in the 1980s, Ray, along with Jeff Lipsky, cofounded October Films in 1991, with Mike Leigh’s soon-to-be award-winning Life Is Sweet as their auspicious first offering. And throughout the great flowering of commercial-grade American independent film culture in the 1990s, Ray was in the thick of what was good and interesting on screen. October gave the world Breaking the Waves by Lars von Trier, Lost Highway by David Lynch, Robert Duvall’s The Apostle, and Thomas Vinterberg’s The Celebration. Later, as president of United Artists, Ray backed Michael Moore’s Oscar-winning documentary Bowling for Columbine and Terry George’s drama about genocide, Hotel Rwanda. Peter Biskind, in his indispensable book Down and Dirty Pictures, notes that Ray ”didn’t have much in the way of a firewall between thought and speech.” His transparency — and good taste — is what made the man a treasure.