Monday, January 23, 2012


Bingham Ray, 57, movie executive, specialty film distributor and champion of independent film, who died Monday morning while attending the Sundance Film Festival.


Dear denizens of Dennis's arboreal dwelling:

My head is swimming after that last round. (Seriously -- try the rope swing and you can drop right into the L.A. River, not too far from the Driver's favorite picnic spot.) I'm a little dizzy, but let me see if I can organize some thoughts...

Boone: "… I'm less concerned with what individual filmmakers manage to push through the system than in what the system wants."

I feel you (as they used to say on The Wire, a great cinematic work that was nominated for only two Emmys in five seasons -- for writing -- and managed to win but a single WGA award for its fourth season). What the system wants, of course, is money. And power. And when a movie like Margaret -- not at all a "difficult" movie but a tough sell, because it doesn't have much in the way of marketing hooks -- can't get a decent theatrical release, you have to look at the marketplace.

What you see is that, with its legendarily troubled post-production history, it has probably already been written off Fox Searchlight's books. One more lawsuit remains to be settled (brought by producer Gary Gilbert against Lonergan) and, at this late date, nobody is going to want to sink any more money into it (whether that means giving it a theatrical release in most of the country or, as it turns out, even screening it for critics). Fox Searchlight has other things on its agenda now -- like trying to squeeze as much theatrical and post-theatrical revenue out of this year's crop of awards contenders: The Descendants, The Tree of Life, and Shame.

This kind of thing has always happened, and still happens all the time -- though never in quite the same way. Christopher Guest's 1987 directorial debut, The Big Picture (still the truest and funniest movie made about post-modern Hollywood I've ever seen, given my own experiences in the early 1990s) fell between the cracks of two Columbia Pictures administrations -- the one that produced it (headed by David Puttnam) and the one that was therefore not at all interested in releasing it (headed by Dawn Steele). There were even unconfirmed rumors that Steele was trying to quash the film because she thought a certain female studio executive character was based on her. (A few years ago, Guest told me that in some ways things are worse now than they were 20-something years ago: The next generation of execs are just as clueless as the previous one, but now they pretend like they "get it." See Jake Kasdan's 2006 The TV Set and Showtime's often inspired series, Episodes.) Margaret is, simply, old (expired?) product as far as the Fox Searchlight of today is concerned.

In 1984, I was a programmer for the Seattle International Film Festival. We'd seen an interesting review in Variety of a movie called Repo Man that had opened in LA, died, and disappeared. I couldn't even persuade Universal to send us a print for the festival or to screen the movie for theater owners. Washington has anti-blind-bidding laws, so we made Universal a deal: We would invite theater owners/bookers to the festival showing and that would serve as the film's exhibitor screening. It worked, and the movie became a cult hit, playing for months in Seattle at the Broadway on Capitol Hill (a theater that was gutted and is now a drug store). It was resurrected by Universal's "classics" division, made the midnight movie rounds and eventually achieved a cult reputation on cable and VHS. (This, by the way, is just one reason why Emilio Estevez will always be cooler than his little brother.)

Which leads me to one of those moments that Changed My Way of Looking at Everything. It was in the early 1990s, not long after the collapse of the Soviet Empire. The great director Krzysztof Zanussi (a friend since we had played his masterpiece A Year of the Quite Sun at the Market Theater in 1985) had become... a studio head -- of Poland's TOR Film Studio -- and was somewhat apprehensive about his new role. He didn't exactly make "commercial" movies (Quarterly Balance/A Woman's Decision, Camouflage, The Constant Factor, Contact, Imperativ, Weekend Stories) but, under the old system, he knew how to get his movies past the state censors, into international film festivals and released in much of the world. (He had the worst luck in the U.S., where his distributors had a tendency to go bankrupt.)

"I'm now a businessman!" Krzysztof announced, with an appreciation of the irony and absurdity of his new position. And then: "I don't know how my movies will survive the tyranny of the marketplace." That shook me, because I immediately realized he was right. We don't have official government censors, as in the Soviet bloc or today's Canadian provinces, but the so-called "free market" is a self-limiting, not necessarily benign, force. (Whatever the other flaws in her teenaged vision, Lisa Cohen in Margaret is absolutely right in her understanding of what censorship is, and is not.) A society based on "the marketplace" assumes that the primary goal of any given enterprise (and of human life itself) is to generate and accumulate wealth and power, and it tends to define "happiness" not only in quantifiable material terms, but that it is a state that can be achieved and maintained like a bank balance, rather than an elusive, unpredictable emotion that ebbs and flows. (Do you find that many of the most precious moments of your life -- and in movies -- are not peak experiences, but little moments of happiness or contentment that you never planned or expected to remember at the time? I do.)

Sheila: "One of the most obnoxious things that happens constantly when talking about film is that you are accused of being an 'elitist' if you like something no one has heard of. Or, worse yet, your motives are called into question. 'You only like such-and-such because EVERYONE likes it.'"

Or the flip-side of that: "You only dislike it because it's popular!" Yeah, right -- as if that's even possible most of the time. Critics on the daily or weekly beat usually see movies at pre-release screenings before anybody knows for sure whether audiences will go for them (even the focus groups and test screening campaigns are not infallible predictors). But attacking somebody's motives for "liking" or "not liking" something is ludicrous and completely without merit as a legitimate argument. (I realize I was guilty of this when I flipped around the phrase "knee-jerk careerism" to apply to A----- W----'s writing. Charges of hypocrisy don't make for legitimate rebuttals, either; an argument stands or falls on its merits, not because somebody also made a contradictory argument somewhere -- even if it's with regard to the same movie or the same filmmaker.)

Okay, so let's say somebody does praise or criticize a movie because it is or is not popular. What then? All that matters is what the critic has to say about the movie. Everything else is irrelevant and/or speculation. On the other hand, if a critic can't articulate why he/she loves or hates or is ambivalent about something, then how can his/her opinion possibly matter? It doesn't. Opinions are a dime a dozen, but they have to be tested to find out whose carries any weight.

I'm all for "elitism" in every sphere of human endeavor -- because the term usually implies that somebody is knowledgeable enough, and cares enough, to have developed a worthwhile opinion. That's not to say I'll "agree" (I try to banish the terms "agree" and "disagree" from my writing, because the terms are often so vaguely applied that they have no meaning).

For example, I usually don't fill in the "Worst Movie" slot in my critic poll ballots because, although I still see plenty of bad movies, I don't have to see anything starring, say, Adam Sandler or Rob Schneider. And for that I am grateful. But in the snarky Vulture poll for Worst Movies of 2011, I decided to explain why I would nominate We Need to Talk About Kevin for the dishonor, while it also appeared on some critics' list of the year's best. I have my reasons, which you can read by following the link. I also noticed that the only other critic to cite We Need to Euthanize Kevin was none other than A----- W---- himself, who wrote: "We Need to Talk About Kevin. Must we?" So, do I "agree" with AW? There's no way of telling. I gave my reasons. He didn't. We may hold entirely different views about the movie, even though we both, evidently, don't think very highly of it.

Which brings me back to the thought experiment Jason proposed in his first Tree House missive:

Jason: "Steven, I think you’re right that critics (and other engaged cinephiles) are as susceptible to the Hollywood hype machine as the average moviegoer. The hype factory affects not just which movies win awards but, long before that, which movies enter the discussion forum to begin with, en route to being entered into countless Netflix queues later on. And while this unfortunate reality inspires you to dream of a world without the ballyhoo and the “bargain” matinee prices that are anything but, it inspires me to think of something just as unrealistic: What would our cinematic discussions look like if movies were released anonymously?"

I'm not sure they'd look that much different, but it's hard not to notice how showbiz pundits who handicap the (mostly imagined) ups and downs, ins and outs of the Oscar "race" the same way the mainstream press does the campaign for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination wind up reinforcing a certain sameness in year-end awards contenders. (I wrote about that here, recently: "The Artist, Shame and hype-season backlash.")

And now, of course, we have blogs and Twitter creating another kind of hype -- that of critics for other critics. I saw more coverage of Uncle Boonmee, Certified Copy, Tree of Life and other critical blockbusters when they made their first festival appearances (Cannes, Berlin, Venice, Telluride, Toronto, New York) than when they were eventually released in theaters. The critics and bloggers I follow shot their wad long before members of the general public could see these films. I found myself feeling a tinge of guilt when I looked at my best-of-2011 list and found it so full of "mainstream" titles like the Cannes award-winners above. I guess there are elitists even among elitists.

And that reminds me: I'm all for "bias" as much as I am for "elitism":

Simon: "When I write, I like to think (when I do think about this stuff, that is) that I'm sharing my interests, curiosities and shortcomings as a critical viewer. ‘Critical’ does not necessarily mean ‘negative,’ though for some reason, people assume being critical means I have an axe to grind with whatever film or TV program I'm not automatically all upon to review. But the bottom line in this profession/hobby/art/whatever-the-fuck is that I'm addressing the work as I see it. Bias is irrelevant: if I respond to something in a film, that's what I'm writing about, ideally. Conveying why I responded to what I feel is important in a work of art is my goal.

Yes! Now, of course, I treasure those rare opportunities to see a movie "cold," without knowing much of anything about it except, maybe, for a few names of those involved. Sometimes (at screenings or film festivals) I've known even less than that. But what some people call "bias" is really better described as experience, intelligence, passion. I am reminded of my old friend Bingham Ray, the master specialty film distributor, who I just learned today has died of a stroke at Sundance (he was only 57). I booked our first film at Seattle's Market Theater from Bingham in 1984 (Zanussi's Contract -- for a two-week ramp-up before we opened Jonathan Demme's Stop Making Sense) and when we talked about movies, as we often did, it was sometimes about business, but always about the movies as movies. (After he and I both moved to LA, we would "do lunch" -- not at any chic expense-account place, but at Pink's Hot Dogs on LaBrea. I always loved him for his lack of pretense. I have spent much of today working and writing through teary eyes.)

Bingham (he and his wife Nancy named their son Nick, after the director of They Live By Night, In a Lonely Place, Johnny Guitar and Bigger Than Life) cared about movies as much as I do (he was greatly responsible for importing Mike Leigh, Jane Campion, Lars Von Trier and others to these shores), and he was one of the few "art house" distributors of the day who understood our philosophy at the Market Theater, which was that, as the owner/operators of a 250-seat independent cinema, our taste, judgment and commitment were our most valuable assets. We didn't want to show anything we didn't believe in, because we had to live with it, and it alone, for as long as it played. We built an audience by showing movies we liked; if we chose it, people knew it was something we wanted to share with them, and we would work our butts off getting the word out.

Many times we were pitched movies my partner Ann Browder and I didn't particularly care for, and we were told that we were foolish not to bid on something that was sure to be an art-house moneymaker. But we had our niche (roughly defined as Movies We Liked/Loved) and we figured movies we didn't could go ahead and make money for someone else, but we weren't interested. Some people thought we were silly and naive (and maybe we were), but Bingham understood and respected our position.

October Films, the company operated by Bingham Ray and Jeff Lipsky, made and distributed David Lynch's Lost Highway and created this ad to promote it.

Many years later, Bingham was widely quoted giving his opinion of The Blair Witch Project, which he had not chosen to pursue at Sundance. When others claimed he had been proven "wrong" after it became a monster one-off hit, he was quoted saying he didn't care how much money it made; that didn't change the fact that it was still a piece of shit. I don't care of you "agree" with him or not, I admire him for saying that. Here's something I found from another friend and colleague I first met around that time, John Pierson (from whom, when he was at Films Inc., we used to book the newly struck 35mm Looney Tunes we showed before each feature):

I think the other thing -- sort of the trademark of independent, specialized art film - was that nobody was shy about having opinions about what they liked, and what they thought was good. And in those days, anyway, you could really get behind something you believed in -- you didn't have to draw a line between, "Well, I like this, but who else would? Is there an audience for it?" It was more like, "I like it. It's good. We're gonna do something with this." And with certain people it's carried over to the current day. […]

… [When] when your roots are in the realm of personal taste, and a belief in quality, it makes a difference over time. That's not to say that people in L.A. don't have personal taste, or don't believe in quality, but I think it's more pronounced in New York. Everybody has an opinion, and stands by it. I mean, you've got Bingham Ray, a year after Blair Witch premiered at Sundance, saying, "I don't care if it grossed $100 million, it's shit." So it goes both ways -- it's not just positive, it's also stuff like, "That director's no good, that film's no good. Fuck it, I don't care if people do go to see it -- it's still crap!" You know, in L.A., if it grosses $400 million worldwide, it's not shit anymore.

Amen. Among Bingham's last bookings for the San Francisco Film Society were Margaret and Once Upon a Time in Anatolia -- two of the best and boldest films you will see this century. Most of all, though, I can hardly bear that I won't be seeing the man again. Look for his name at a key moment in Mike Leigh's Secrets & Lies. Bingham's immortal in a way, but that doesn't lessen the pain of missing the guy.


Jim Emerson is a film critic whose work can be found at MSN as well as many other outlets, in print and online. He is also the Web master for Roger and presides over his own filmic domain, the influential and excellent blog Scanners.


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Steven Boone said...

I submitted my final post before getting to read this beautiful tribute, so I'll leave the gist of my response here: Wow. I learned a lot here.

Part of my post celebrates LOST HIGHWAY, the gorgeous David Lynch film your dear departed friend made it possible for me and other everyday moviegoers to see in 1997.

More executives like Mr. Ray, finding ingenious ways to get worthile movies onto screens, please.

What Krzysztoff Zanussi said, and what you concluded from it, is the heart of the matter:
"I don't know how my movies will survive the tyranny of the marketplace," he said. That shook me, because I immediately realized he was right. We don't have official government censors, as in the Soviet bloc or today's Canadian provinces, but the so-called "free market" is a self-limiting, not necessarily benign, force.

Joel Bocko said...

I think one thing you're addressing (among others) is the difference between the patronage motivation and the profit motivation. In both cases, there is a gap between the artist's intentions and the funder's (naturally, two different people will always have different intentions) - but in the former case, it's a gap of "degree", in the second it's a gap of "kind."

What I mean is that the patron may like a given work for a different reason than the creator, but it's still a matter of "liking". Whereas the profiteers are only interested in their own personal tastes inasmuch as they think these reflect or predict the tastes of the masses. Obviously, that's a simplification but I think it gets at the heart of the matter.

In a state-funding situation, like Zanussi initially faced, the state is in the role of a patron: passing or turning down certain works because it approves of qualities the work achieves. Often what it "likes" (cultural cache for international prestige, ideological promotion of certain values, etc.) is quite different from what the artist likes (usually more aesthetic than ideological or, if ideological, in a very different spirit) - but it's a matter of shared, or not shared, values.

I agree that we need more of a patronage mentality in film-financing if for no other reason than that the profit motive dominates SO thoroughly. However, I think the best mentality to foster is the self-funding model, which eliminates the gap between the financier and the creator, making them - more or less one and the same. With lower technology costs, this is more possible than ever before in terms of production.

Finally, though, there's another aspect of patronage: I'm pretty sure the patrons you're addressing (certainly Ray in the case of Blair Witch) have to do with distribution of pre-existing material. Obviously a different model than patronage of Renaissance Art - these are works that are not commissioned but released. I believe that with the internet, the previously near-absolute need for distribution-patronage is decreasing. This might be the final barrier blocking self-financing art from being realized in the cinematic realm.

Obviously lots of other issues arise - a glut of products, the matter of cultural gatekeepers, etc. - but it would be an interesting development.

(continued below)

Joel Bocko said...


As for as the film industry's mentality, increasingly I see it less as something to be criticized than avoided. That is to say, of course they want to make money. They are businesses. If they weren't, they wouldn't exist. Lions eat lambs, scorpions sting frogs, and businesses try to make money. What gets my goat more than the executives themselves is the apologists who try to conflate the industrial and creative functions as if they overlapped. They don't. A movie can be both a product in the marketplace and a work of art, but it isn't both simultaneously. I don't think this contradicts Sheila's point about "show business" (at least not as I took it - I found myself agreeing that understanding the practical implications behind how entertainment works can be part of the enjoyment) but I do think it puts the lie to a lot of the hoopla around the Oscars, etc. The Academy is essentially the cultural-propaganda wing of Hollywood, creating an aura around the product much like advertising does by appropriating images of "culture", "art", etc (perhaps not so ironically, the Academy was formed in the first place as a company union to stem the growth of bottom-up guilds).

I think the attitude that aspiring filmmakers and film commentators should take towards the industry is one of indifference. If an opportunity arises to "work within the system", sure, try it out, but not at the expense of creating alternatives. It should be realized that Hollywood is what it is - a business. Its concerns (tapping into or fostering an interest in the public which will in turn lead to higher profits) differ quite thoroughly from that of those who seek personal enjoyment, expression of feelings or ideas in film. It should be realized that its positive qualities as art are circumstantial to the process behind them. And to the extent possible, the process behind them should be avoided if art/personal expression/something other than profit is the aim.

jim emerson said...

Thanks, Boone. John P. sums up the attitude I remember from my experience with distributors as an art house exhibitor/promoter in the 1980s (roughly from "Stop Making Sense" and "Stranger Than Paradise" to "Baghdad Cafe" and "The Dead"). Instead of being motivated to "give the people what they want" (as if anyone knows what that is -- least of all "the people" themselves), the best exhibitors and distributors respond to their own feelings and think: "How can I communicate my enthusiasm for this to others?" It is (I say, in my characteristically pedantic way) about educating the audience -- and having faith that, if you respond to something, others will too, if you give them the chance.

But then, I'm the guy with the UPC code from Nirvana's "Nevermind" tattooed on my leg because I feel that album cover, of the newborn baby swimming after a dollar bill on a fishhook, says all too much about the society we live in... (BTW, it was a birthday post on Simon's FaceBook page that made me think about "Nevermind" just now...)