Ray heads up new SKE unit

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Indie film veteran Bingham Ray has joined Sidney Kimmel Entertainment as president of its new division, Kimmel Distribution. He will oversee all domestic marketing and distribution strategies for SKE's slate of motion pictures.

Ray, former president of United Artists and co-founder of October Films, also will spearhead efforts to acquire films for worldwide distribution in conjunction with Kimmel International.

Ray, who will report to SKE president and COO Jim Tauber, is immediately stepping into the post. SKE president of marketing and distribution Mark Kristol will report to Ray in the new venture. Ray will split his time between SKE's Beverly Hills headquarters and his longtime home base, New York, where he will work out of Kimmel International's offices.

"Their films are really in the sweet spot for me — who's in them, who's made them," Ray said of SKE's features, most of which fall in the $15 million-$25 million range. "I haven't had much experience with full-blown major studio releases, but the films I've been involved with in the latter days of October Films and at UA usually had crossover potential, and that's the case here."

SKE has an overall, nonexclusive distribution deal with MGM and also is releasing individual films through such other distributors as Focus Features, Paramount Vantage and Universal Pictures.

All upcoming advertising, publicity, marketing and distribution for films produced or acquired by SKE will be managed by Kimmel Distribution, which Ray said will work "very intimately" with each distributor that handles SKE product.

"We plan to customize all rollouts of our films to fit their system," he said. There are no current plans for SKE to establish its own domestic theatrical distribution system.

"Bingham's vast experience in the marketing, distribution and acquisition of motion pictures on films, combined with Mark's own talents and experience, positions SKE to more efficiently generate and execute the marketing campaigns and distribution plans for the films we finance, produce and acquire," Tauber said. "By bringing everything in-house, our business model is infinitely better suited to serve our filmmakers and filmmaking partners, providing consistency and concentrated attention to each film."

SKE's deal with MGM runs through next year, and while one source said the new division was designed to make the MGM deal more productive, another insider said there are no plans for a renewal.

SKE has four films set for release through MGM, beginning with Frank Oz's "Death at a Funeral" on June 29, the first release under the MGM pact.

Subsequent SKE releases will include Kasi Lemmons' biopic "Talk to Me," starring Don Cheadle, via Focus, and Mark Foster's "The Kite Runner," produced with DreamWorks, Participant Prods. and Parkes/MacDonald Prods. through Paramount Vantage.

"I'm looking to work on a handful of films I'm passionate about. Film is in my blood," said Ray, saying that his vision was in line with a company that makes four to six films a year. "They make really classy material, and I'm grateful for that."

"We won't listen to a word he says. Who the hell does he think he is?" Focus CEO James Schamus said jokingly. "We're actually very excited to be working with him."

One film that clinched the deal for him was Charlie Kaufman's feature helming debut, "Synecdoche, New York," set to begin shooting next month. "I really look forward to working with (producer) Anthony Bregman on it," Ray said.

Ray is something of a legend in the indie film business, with more than a quarter century of experience under his belt and a reputation for making edgy films and speaking his mind. After working mostly with such indie distributors as New Yorker Films, the Samuel Goldwyn Co. and Avenue Pictures, he co-founded October Films in 1991 with Jeff Lipsky and was the indie distributor's co-president until USA Networks acquired it in 1999.

In 2001, he became president of UA, where he released such Oscar contenders as "No Man's Land" and "Bowling for Columbine" during his three years there.

His talents were put to use in the past year as a consultant for IFC Films, where he helped the company acquire and release a large number of art house films under its IFC First Take banner.
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