One of independent film’s key players, Ray Price, died July 16 at the age of 75 from heart failure after a long battle with cancer, his long-term partner Meg Madison confirmed.
Talking to Price about movies, past and present, was an exhilarating sport that could take a while. He knew his stuff — no one loved movies more — but more than anyone during the great indie decades of the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, he was a respected innovator who thought outside the box. He began as an exhibitor in San Francisco and moved on to marketing, releasing, and distributing movies, leaning toward the outrageous in how he lured audiences to sample challenging fare.
“Ray, while being a defiantly singular individual, was also emblematic of a bygone age of independent film,” Magnolia Pictures co-CEO Eamonn Bowles wrote me in an email. “From theatre chain owner to distributor, exquisite marketer, and production exec, he always sought out novel ways of approaching things. He truly was a rebel and my heart goes out to his family.”
Price championed a slew of talented filmmakers at pivotal points in their careers: Tran Anh Hung (“The Scent of Green Papaya”), Gurinder Chadha (“Bhaji on The Beach”), Carl Franklin (“One False Move”), Allison Anders (“Gas Food Lodging”), and John Sayles (“The Secret of Roan Inish”). When most specialty distributors passed on “Inish” because they didn’t know how to market the fairy tale to kids without spending for Happy Meals, Price at First Look lured adults via “Irish Magical Realism,” producer Maggie Renzi told me on the phone.
“Ray figured out how to sell it as an art movie to adults. Everyone came back with the kids,” she said. “The poster was complex, sophisticated and gorgeous. It was timeless. He respected art. He was a delight to work with.”
Price launched his film career in 1972, managing Berkeley storefront theater the Rialto, and went on to build (with Allen Michaan) Renaissance Theaters, an independent art film chain that at one point had 33 screens in the Bay Area; it later sold to the Landmark Theatre circuit.
A tough negotiator and exacting exhibitor, Price gained a reputation for redesigning marketing materials from posters to press books. “He pulled ‘Repo Man’ from the slush pile,” texted his one-time assistant Marti Mattox, “designed a poster with his own money, and put it in his theater. The rest is history.”
At a time when most arthouse distributors focused on established auteurs from Europe and Asia, Renaissance Theaters exploded those norms by programming new American directors like Martin Scorsese and John Cassavetes. The company also took films out of studio vaults and relaunched them, including Ridley Scott’s “The Duelist,” Jonathan Demme’s “Melvin and Howard,” Brian de Palma’s “Blowout,” Lewis John Carlino’s “The Great Santini,” and Christopher Guest’s “The Big Picture,” among others.
“Ray was the best tactician I’ve ever known,” said Bert Manzari, who formed an independent booking company in San Francisco with Price aptly named ManRay Booking long before running the Landmark Theatre chain. “Ray not only taught me about tactics, he also introduced me to Cognac, Armagnac, and other delightfully decadent pursuits. We had a hell of a good time. Ray had the best film sense and his persuasive powers were unmatched.” He remembers that after one of Price and Madison’s parties at their home, Manzari discovered he had been hanging out with Lawrence Ferlinghetti.
In 1988 Price relocated to Los Angeles, where he helped start several distribution companies including IRS Pictures and First Look Pictures and built the theatrical arm for home video company TriMark Entertainment. He also handled distribution and marketing for a slew of independent films, including “Gas Food Lodging,” “One False Move,” “The Secret of Roan Inish,” and “The Scent of Green Papaya,” plus Mira Nair’s “Kama Sutra,” Kasi Lemmon’s “Eve’s Bayou,” Stacy Cochran’s “My New Gun,” Wayne Wang’s “Chinese Box,” Bobcat Goldthwait’s “Shakes the Clown,” Mary Harron’s “I Shot Andy Warhol,” and Vincenzo Natal’s “Cube.”
Thanks to Price, Vietnamese director Tran Anh Hung was introduced to limos and non-stop public appearances. Two months after the first limo pickup at LAX, “we were again in a long limo heading to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion for the Oscars,” said Tran. “Today, with experience, I know for sure that Ray brought success to ‘The Scent Of Green Papaya’ in North America. I am very grateful to you, Ray.”
Most of the films Price distributed were from women and people of color. Many were first-time directors because he was always in search of something fresh and unexpected such as “Bhaji on The Beach,” a social realist comedy set in London’s South Asian community. One friend asked Price why he was wasting his time on such an obscure title. Gurinder Chadha’s next film was “Bend it Like Beckham.”
Roadside Attractions co-president Howard Cohen knew Price well on the arthouse circuit. “He had a deep knowledge and love of movies, and was the source of great lore about the theatrical distribution business.” he wrote in an email. “He was part of what I might call a vanishing breed of indie film executive, along with the late Bingham Ray, who came at the business from a unique combination of cineaste love and down-to-earth, on the ground movie theatre perspective, often starting out managing local theatres.”
Price was the first to stream a new feature film online. After First Look Pictures acquired Daisy von Scherler’s Mayer’s cult hit “Party Girl,” starring Parker Posey, Price arranged to stream it on the internet in black-and-white at 14 fps via a T1 cable on June 3, 1995, garnering coverage from NBC News, among others. He was always trying new things. It was what he lived for.
After 1999, when he joined American Zoetrope, Francis Ford Coppola’s indie film production company, Price supervised the worldwide sales and marketing of such films as Sofia Coppola’s “The Virgin Suicides,” which debuted at Cannes — he made sure the American press were in attendance — and Coppola’s productions of the first “Jeepers Creepers” entries.
In 2001, Price rejoined his old ManRay Booking partner Manzari to help rebuild the struggling Landmark Theatre chain, and also published Landmark’s free FLM indie film magazine that featured first-person articles by film directors to create awareness for films on the Landmark schedule.
In 2007, Price returned to the internet with a pair of Wayne Wang films that the director wanted to distribute in tandem. Price felt that “A Thousand Years of Good Prayers” qualified as arthouse fare but the companion piece, “The Princess of Nebraska,” wouldn’t work as a theatrical release. Thus Price convinced Wang to give “Princess” away for free. The New York Times, IndieWire, and Variety all agreed to put the film on the front page of their websites, where it achieved 250,000 hits on the opening weekend, and helped to promote “A Thousand Years.”
Price also took on the role of senior VP of marketing and distribution at 2929 Entertainment in 2007, boosting the fortunes of such films as “Turistas.”
At the time of his death, Price was promoting Rodrigo Reyes’ documentary “Sansón and Me,” about a 19-year-old illegal immigrant sentenced to death without parole. The Ford Foundation has given a grant to fund a simulcast in prisons that are open to public discussions. There are plans for a theatrical release and PBS is scheduled to air the film in the fall of 2023.
Price is survived by his long-term partner, Meg Madison, her two sisters Liz and Sean Madison, his children Antigone Dempsey, Deirdre Price, and Asher Price, and his brother Brian Price. In lieu of flowers, the Price family requests donations be made to http://give.translifeline.org.