UA topper makes mark amid corporate uncertainty

On a Monday evening in late September, Bingham Ray was holding court well past midnight at Tonic, a chic downtown Manhattan restaurant. A boisterous man with the stockiness of a rugby player, Ray was surrounded by friends Glenn Close, Steve Buscemi and Stanley Tucci. The occasion? It was his birthday. His age? Well, he’d rather not say.

Lately there’s been an aura of mystery surrounding Ray. Can he really revive United Artists Pictures? How much freedom will and does he have within the ailing MGM empire? How will his presence affect the already competitive specialty arena in Gotham? What’s his next move? Or can he move?

Last summer, Ray ankled a comfortable prexy job at Gotham-based Crossroads Films when MGM vice chairman and chief operating officer Chris McGurk persuaded him to take the UA reigns.

The first weekend after he had assumed his new post, it seemed as though he had landed in a lucky chair. UA’s “Jeepers Creepers” scared up nearly $18 million at the box office, and positive word-of-mouth was spreading for “Ghost World.” Another UA pic, “No Man’s Land,” would be released and eventually nab a best foreign-language pic Oscar nom.

But Ray will be the first to say he didn’t have anything to do with UA’s three 2001 standout pics.

Six months into the new job, however, he’s starting to put his mark on the company.

In January, he and his acquisitions team, headed by Sara Rose, nabbed Rebecca Miller’s “Personal Velocity” at the Sundance Film Festival.

Ray recently greenlit a film adaptation of “Nicholas Nickelby” that will be penned and helmed by Douglas McGrath (“Emma”), with Charlie Hunnam, Jamie Bell, Nathan Lane and Christopher Plummer toplining; offers are out to Anne Hathaway, Michael Gambon, Jeremy Northam, Alan Cumming, David Bradley, Romola Garai and Phil Davies. Pic is set to shoot April 2.

Gotham-based Hart Sharp Entertainment will produce. The U.K.’s Premiere Fund is set to board the Simon Channing-Williams project.

Still, Ray has his work cut out for him. The specialty landscape has changed and toughened since he co-ran October Films in the 1990s. Gone are the days of quietly slipping films like Mike Leigh’s “Secrets & Lies” or Lars von Trier’s “Breaking the Waves” into arthouse theaters without the marketing muscle of a major.

But perhaps more important is the problem pertaining to the future of UA’s parent company, MGM. The studio is openly on the block, which begs the question, whither UA and Ray if MGM is sold?

Ray denies that a prospective sale is affecting UA. Seated in the studio’s rather bland corporate offices high above Avenue of the Americas, Ray dismisses the what-ifs about his business. “That’s all happening upstairs,” he says, pointing to some vague spot above his head.

To some degree, however, Ray may not have as much of a creative mandate that he enjoyed, say, at October Films. Insiders say that no matter how strong his passion is for films, the exec must answer to McGurk and the studio. But for the moment, there’s nothing but camaraderie between Ray and his boss.

“In the last six months,” says McGurk, “Bingham has energized United Artists and reaffirmed its position as a haven for great filmmaking talent, both new filmmakers and established artists who want to develop smaller labors of love at UA.”

Says Ray: “You are always one picture away from turning everything around.” “That’s what keeps you in the game.”

But, individualist that he is, Ray’s not so used to answering to suits upstairs.

He’s quick to make friends with maverick filmmakers and indie stars, but what happens if and when MGM decides to push UA into the mainstream, or make it even harder to set up deals?

In concluding the “Nicholas Nickelby” deal, for example, sources say UA was on board, then off, then back on again. At issue was the cast, mainly star Hunnam. McGrath wanted him. Ray predictably sided with the director. The studio wanted a bigger name but eventually conceded.

Similarly, Ray’s reasons for shying away from taking North American rights to Franco Zeffirelli’s “Callas Forever” at the Berlin Film Festival may have had to do with pressure he felt from MGM brass.

UA has first-look deals with four production companies –Francis Ford Coppola’s Zoetrope, Michael Winterbottom’s Revolution, his own recent alma mater Crossroads, and Single Cell. Ray says a third of the films the company releases will come from those pacts, a third from pics developed inhouse, and a third through acquisitions.

Upcoming UA pics do not lack stars.

The 2002 slate includes “Pumpkin,” starring Christina Ricci; “Assassination Tango,” directed and starring Robert Duvall, produced by Coppola; “Evelyn,” with Pierce Brosnan, Julianna Margulies, Aidan Quinn and Stephen Rea; “Igby Goes Down,” with Kieran Culkin, Susan Sarandon, Ryan Phillippe and Claire Danes; and “Dark Blue,” starring Kurt Russell and Ving Rhames.

Ray dismisses problems with a dose of self-deprecation. “What we’re doing is a gift,” he said. “But come on, we could be really working, doing heavy lifting or something.”

(Adam Dawtrey in London contributed to this report.)

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