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Bingham Ray Remembered: Film World Mourns Loss of a Pioneer (Updated)

James Schamus, Chris McGurk and Roger Ebert among those paying tribute to the indie veteran, who died Monday at 57

The film community mourned on Monday the sudden death of indie veteran Bingham Ray.

Ray, 57, died Monday after suffering a stroke at the Sundance Film Festival.

Focus Features CEO James Schamus, filmmakers Michael Moore and Greg Mottola and critic Roger Ebert were among those who shared their memories of Ray with TheWrap on Monday.

At the Sundance Film Festival Monday afternoon, a Who's Who of the independent film world gathered to remember Ray (pictured at left during the memorial).

In attendance was Ray's partner in October Films Jeff Lipsky; producer Christine Vachon (below right); Jeanne and Bob Berney; former MGM chairman Chris McGurk; Sony Pictures Classics co-chairman Tom Bernard; Sundance execs John Cooper and Keri Putnam; former Sundance director Geoff Gilmore; lawyer Andrew Hurwitz and many others.

Also read: Laughing, Crying, the Sundance Elite Drinks to Bingham Ray

The memorial, ironically, had been originally planned by Ray as a party for the San Francisco Film Society, which he had just joined as executive director in the fall.

Moore credited Ray with igniting "a golden decade for documentaries," telling TheWrap that Ray wanted to buy the documentary "Roger & Me," but was outbid. He subsequently bought "Bowling for Columbine" for United Artists. Ray, Moore said, was ready to buy the film before watching it.

"I said, 'You haven't seen it,'" Moore recalled Monday. "And he said, 'I trust you.'"

Also read: Bingham Ray, Indie Film Veteran, Dies at Sundance

Moore made him watch the movie. And Ray bought it.

"Bowling" ultimately grossed $21.6 million — three times the previous record for a documentary.

"With 'Bowling for Columbine,' because of the incredible box office it did and then winning the Oscar, it kind of opened the gates for documentaries," Moore said. "I always gave him credit for being the visionary who saw the potential of feature-length documentaries that were made not for television, but for movie theaters."

He called Ray's death "a huge loss for his family and his friends, but it's also a loss for our art form and for independent film."

Head of the San Francisco Film Festival when he died, Ray was a co-founder of October Films, which was folded into USA Films, and later became Focus Features.

"All of us at Focus are blessed to know that Bingham — the very definition of an independent spirit — is part of our DNA," Schamus said a statement to TheWrap. "If anyone could claim paternity of us, it would be he.

"I wish, on behalf of all my colleagues here, I had something meaningful and resonant to say, but the loss is too sudden and too great – I simply refuse, at least for this one day, to speak of Bingham in the past tense."

One of Ray's closest friends, Tom Prassis, told TheWrap that "everything about him was unique."

Ray was the best man at Prassis's wedding, and Prassis remembered his friend as smart, funny and passionate.

"He was brilliant in so many areas — film being one of them," Prassis, a senior vice president of sales at Sony Pictures Classics, said. "But he brought in so much more — I mean his humanity, his knowledge about literature, the arts, everything. And most importantly his sense of humor."

He said that his friend taught him much.

"I learned a lot of film history from him. I thought I knew it all until I met Bingham. But secondly … I learned how to navigate better in this business. How to talk to people, how to deal with people in a humane way. And to keep a sense of humor. Always keep a sense of humor."

Longtime friend Arnie Sawyer, of the entertainment advertising firm Sawyer Studios, called Ray "one of the handful of giants in our cozy corner of the film world that grew out of the efforts of these pioneers."

In an email to TheWrap, Sawyer said that above everything else, "I knew Bing as a loyal and warm and honest friend. He would light up a room when he arrived. Suck up the oxygen around you and beguile with his tales in the trenches. Tales of triumphs, and struggles, with incredible detail, bringing you into HIS world.

"All the highs and lows he experienced. Even as Bingham was telling the lamest joke, one we've heard so many times before, we'd break up, seeing him rippling in laughter, tears in his eyes, enjoying his punchline."

Greg Mottola, the director of "Superbad" and "Adventureland," told TheWrap, "When I was younger and pretty pessimistic about ever getting my foot in the door as a filmmaker, my conversations with Bingha always left me feeling that pursuing a life in movies might not be a delusional waste of time."

He said that Ray "had a strong point of view and it came from the best place: a deep love of movies — of artists, really — paired with a first-rate bullshit detector."

Joe Pichirallo, a former producer who is now undergraduate chair of the Maurice Kanbar Institute of Film & Television at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, told TheWrap that Ray "will be remembered for his charm, wicked humor and his passion for films. No one was more passionate about films than Bingham."

One of the first things Pichirallo did upon joining NYU was ask Bingham to teach strategies for independent film producing.

"I knew he'd be a great teacher because he has been a great mentor, and I'm so glad he had that opportunity," Pichirallo said.

Eddie Schmidt, the Academy Award-nominated producer of the 2006 "This Film Is Not Yet Rated," remembered Ray as "a protector and defender of artists and their visions."

He said that Ray was "tenacious and adaptable to the times as things change in the industry — and those are qualities that are rare."

Ray appeared in "This Film Is Not Yet Rated," in which he said, describing the MPAA ratings board, "I'm going to use the F-word. It's a fascist system. I believe it's a fascist organization."

Schmidt recalled the movie's premiere — at, in fact, the Sundance Film Festival.

"He was there," Schmidt said, "and he slapped me on the back and said, 'Way to go,' and that was actually very meaningful."

In an email to TheWrap, the critic Roger Ebert said that "at every festival I attended, Bingham was always there, always friendly, never rushed, always curious, always searching for good films. He had good taste, and sometimes was more optimistic about a film's box office prospects than its makers were. Outside the business, people like Bingham Ray are below the radar, but any movie lover checking his credits at IMDb would realize they had many reasons to be thankful to him."

"I am shocked and heartbroken by his passing," said Chris McGurk, who knew Ray for 20 years. "He was a brilliant, supportive voice for independent film and we will all miss him dearly," he told TheWrap. "His passion, fire and spirit will live on inside all of us who knew him and whose lives he touched. My heart goes out to his wife, Nancy, and his family.

McGurk, now the CEO of Cinedigm Corp., is the former vice chair and COO of MGM and the former president and COO of Universal Pictures. While at MGM, he brought Ray on as president of United Artists. When he was at Universal, that company bought Bingham's October Films.

Also read: The New Normal at Sundance -– Strong Films, Cautious But Steady Buying

Rick Allen, the CEO of SnagFilms and Indiewire — where Ray was a consultant — said in a statement that "the film world knew him as a fierce champion of artists, always looking for new ways to spotlight their work, and increasing their freedom to create it. At SnagFilms and Indiewire, we knew this track record when we asked Bingham to join us and help chart the next phase of our growth."

He added, "What I did not know until we had the chance to work together was how brilliant, honorable and hysterically funny Bingham Ray was."

Allen said that Ray "taught all of us the context for our efforts — the history of independent film in and before our time. … He infused everything with his unquenchable passion for film, filmmakers and the audiences who love them. And he made us laugh — very, very hard and often."

Teri Schwartz, dean of the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, called Ray "a true visionary" who was "universally respected by the entire filmmaking community. He was a friend, supporter and mentor to so many filmmakers. His remarkable intellect, generous spirit and passion for films will be sorely missed."

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