Bingham Ray, an icon in the independent film world who was hired as executive director of the San Francisco Film Society just over two months ago, died Monday, January 23 in a Utah hospital. Ray, 57, had suffered a couple of strokes while attending the Sundance Film Festival.
The news was a shocking blow to SFFS staffers and board members who had endured the illness and death last August of popular executive director Graham Leggat after a remarkably successful five-year tenure. For the second time in six months, the organization (the parent of the San Francisco International Film Festival) mourns the loss of its leader and must deal with the transition to a new chief executive.
Reached by phone at Sundance yesterday, a shaken director of programming Rachel Rosen said, "We've been emailing back and forth a lot, and we're looking forward to being together again in a few days when those of us who are here get back in the city. There's been a tremendous amount of support going back and forth going across the wires."
Sundance is the kickoff to the film industry's calendar, and many of Ray's associates from New York, Los Angeles and elsewhere were at the festival when he was stricken.
"This is where all of his friends gathered every year, so everybody's here," said SFFS director of publicity Hilary Hart yesterday. "He's been taken care of and surrounded by family and friends since he first felt poorly and someone suggested he get medical attention."
"I have to say that's one of the most moving things about the past few days," Rosen said, "to see an industry that can be very competitive, and works very hard, come together to show concern and support and sadness and shock."
The 10 or so Film Society staff and board members attending Sundance to scout films and tout the SFIFF to filmmakers had also been preparing for the annual SFFS party at the festival, scheduled for yesterday. In the wake of Ray's unexpected death, an ad hoc, invitation-only memorial took place instead, attended by longtime colleagues such as producer Christine Vachon, Sony Classics topper Tom Bernard and New York MoMA's chief curator of film Rajendra Roy.
"What we decided to do [Sunday] night, because we knew his situation was dire, was cancel the party and invite who we knew to be Bingham's close friends," Hart said last night. "We didn't know he was going to die this morning, but we wanted to give people an opportunity to come together."
It was known in Bay Area film circles that Ray had raised the hackles of at least a few staff members in his brief term at the head of the Film Society. That aspect of his management style was apparently well known to his friends and admirers.
"The party turned into a tribute," Hart said. "People talked about how much they fought with Bingham over the years, how difficult a person he was, and how they still loved him. It was remarkable, and it was really helpful to the [SFFS] staff. Fighting with him didn't mean you weren't friends, which was kind of unusual. We had seen the rough part. We wish we had gotten a bit more experience with him."
With the S.F. International Film Festival rapidly approaching in late April, it is incumbent upon the board to quickly choose Ray's successor.
"We're really not focused on that right now," Rosen said. "Right now is the time to be thinking about Bingham and his family."