R.I.P. Bingham Ray

EXCLUSIVE: As the Sundance Film Festival ponders how it will honor indie icon Bingham Ray — word is festival director John Cooper will read a eulogy penned by some of Ray’s friends during Saturday’s awards ceremony — Oscar-nominated Moneyball producer Rachael Horovitz has written a remembrance of her longtime friend and colleague. Ray died Monday after falling ill unexpectedly just before he was due in Park City.

What I learned from Bingham Ray

I met Bingham in the fall of 1996 when I went to the Toronto Film Festival as vp of acquisitions for Fine Line Features. Having previously been an independent producer of low-budget movies, I’d heard of this legendary figure, but had never gotten close enough to introduce myself. It was in the middle of the night at my first Dart Party (a Bingham tradition) that I got my chance and we began the conversation that continued until just a few weeks ago (see Lesson #4). Our friendship spanned some pretty rough times for each of us but, also, as was clear to me while his great life ended this past Monday, many of my best times were in his company: watching the sun burst into being on early May mornings in Cannes, closing Michael Stipe’s annual New Year’s party with a dance in the middle of a Soho sidewalk, brushing off the bitter chill of Park City winds, laughing out loud about unfaithful bosses and colleagues and their inanity, taking in the deeply nourishing air of a Telluride afternoon.

Bingham taught me much of what I know about life and the film world. Here are a few of the basic lessons I learned from the man:

Lesson #1: Is it distinctive?

There was one and only gauge in his barometer when acquiring an art house film to distribute: was it different from everything else? I know of no other single piece of criteria that has been a better guide to me as an executive and a producer than those three words: Is. It. Distinctive. I hear him saying this in my head almost every day I do my job. Would we have seen “Breaking the Waves” in this country has he not articulated that argument? Doubtful.

Lesson #2: Who’s the director?

This one was simple but hard to pull off. Do not work with mediocre filmmakers. Believe you are working with the best there is or don’t take on the movie.

Lesson #3: Have a sense of humor.

Aforementioned bosses and fatheads: he had no tolerance for them and when they infuriated him, he tried to laugh. I always went to him to help me find the humor in a difficult situation and it never failed to soothe. If I could get him to laugh at the story, then I would laugh with him, and I could move forward.

Lesson #4: Stop worrying, it’s a good film.

Many times I have lost faith in marketing and distribution, as all producers do during the course of their movie’s release. Bingham had God-given talent in both of those areas (he took “Secrets and Lies” all the way to a Best Picture nomination) so he would often look over a campaign for me and invariably he would say, “it’s good, kid, stop worrying.” I remember him delighting in New Line’s proposed one sheet for “About Schmidt” – particularly the cloud above Jack Nicholson’s head – which I hadn’t even noticed I was so distracted and fearful of the looming opening weekend. Now I know I’ll never look at that cloud without thinking of Bingham. He said the same thing about “Moneyball” this winter and learning of the film’s six Oscar nominations while mourning the fresh news of his death, I knew he was right.

Lesson #5: Only love and movies will break your heart.

A Neil Young fan for as long as I can remember, he cautioned me time and again to resist the temptation of what he called “the heart-breaker.” When my Fine Line colleague Paul Federbush and I (and many) fell in love with the Spanish film “The Lovers of the Arctic Circle” in the final hours of a Toronto festival, we naively thought we were sweeping a hit off the table by buying it for high five figures. I called Bingham, as he had also fallen for the movie, to tell him what I thought was exciting news. “Oh kid,” he said, “what a mistake. It’ll break your heart. Oh well. You have to learn sometime.”

Indeed, I am learning now how much a heart can break.