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Ray Price, the respected independent film innovator who was president of American Zoetrope and First Look Pictures and a marketing and distribution executive for companies such as Landmark Theaters and Trimark Pictures, has died. He was 75 years old.
Price died Sunday at Whittier Hospital Medical Center of heart failure after a long battle with cancer, his longtime partner, Meg Madison, said.
Throughout his career, Price has displayed an encyclopedic knowledge of filmmaking, mentored generations of executives, and veered toward the outrageous in the ways he enticed audiences to experience thought-provoking films.
Along the way, he championed directors including Carl Franklin (1992’s A false move), Allison Anders (1992 Gas Food Accommodation), Tran Anh Hung (1993). The scent of green papaya), Gurinder Chadha (1993). Bhajis on the beach) and John Sayles (1994 Roan Inish’s Secret).
“Ray, while a provocatively singular individual, was also emblematic of a bygone era of independent films,” Magnolia Pictures co-CEO Eamonn Bowles said in a statement. “From theater chain owner to distributor, exquisite marketer and production executive, he was always looking for new ways to approach things. He really was a rebel.”
Price began his film career in 1972 when he managed the featured theater The Rialto in Berkeley, California and went on to build the 33-house Bay Area Renaissance Theaters chain with Allen Michaan, later sold to the Landmark Theaters circuit.
Under Price’s leadership, Renaissance redesigned marketing materials such as posters and press books that distributors often adopted when films had not been successful in other markets. “He pulled (the film directed by Alex Cox in 1984) Repo Man out of the pile of slush, he designed a poster with his own money and put it up in his theater,” said his former assistant Marti Mattox. “The rest is history.”
Since most of the major arthouse distributors focused on established auteurs from Europe and Asia, Renaissance slated for new American directors such as Martin Scorsese and John Cassavetes. It has also relaunched films like Ridley Scott’s The Duelists (1977), Lewis John Carlino’s The Great Saint (1979), by Jonathan Demme Melvin and Howard (1980), by Brian DePalma Turn off (1981) and Christopher Guest The big picture (1989).
In 1988, Price moved to Los Angeles, where he helped start distribution companies including IRS Media and First Look and built the theatrical arm for home video company Trimark.
During this time, he handled distribution and marketing for Gas Food Accommodation, A false move, Roan Inish’s Secret AND The scent of green papayain addition to that of Bobcat Goldthwait Shakes the clown (1991), by Stacy Cochran My new gun (1992), by Mira Nair The Kama Sutra (1996), by Mary Harron I shot Andy Warhol (1996), Kasi Lemmons’ Eve is Bayou (1997), by Wayne Wang Chinese box (1997), Vincenzo Natali’s Cube (1997) and more.
When most of the specialized distributors died DESCEND because they didn’t know how to sell the fairy tale to children without involving a Happy Meal, Price at First Look appealed to adults via “Irish Magical Realism,” noted producer Maggie Renzi. “Ray figured out how to sell it as an art film to adults,” she said. “Everyone came back with the kids. The poster was complex, sophisticated and gorgeous. It was timeless. He respected the art. It was a pleasure working with him.”
“Ray was the best tactician I’ve ever known,” said Bert Manzari, who started an independent reservations company in San Francisco with Price called ManRay Booking long before running the Landmark chain. “Ray not only taught me tactics, but he also introduced me to cognac, Armagnac and other deliciously decadent pursuits. We had a blast. Ray had the best cinematic sense and his powers of persuasion were unmatched.
With Price’s help, Green papaya received an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. “Today, with experience, I know for sure that Ray brought success to (the feature film) in North America,” said Tran.
Price released many films by women and people of color, and was always looking for something fresh and unexpected. A friend asked him why he was wasting his time with such an obscure title like Bhajis on the beach. The answer came a few years later when Chadha wrote and directed Dreaming of Beckhams (2002).
Price was the first to stream a new feature. After First Look acquired Daisy von Scherler Meyer’s Party girl (1995), starring Parker Posey, arranged to be streamed over the Internet in black and white at 14 frames per second via T1 cable in June 1995.
After 1999, when he joined Francis Ford Coppola’s American Zoetrope, Price oversaw worldwide sales and marketing for films such as Sofia Coppola The Virgin Suicides (1999), which premiered at Cannes, and the former’s productions creepers Jeepers entries.
In 2001, he joined Manzari to help revive ailing Landmark and released the chain’s libero flm extension independent film magazine, with first person articles from directors, in order to create awareness for the product on the marquee.
Price returned to the internet in 2007 with two Wang films that the director wanted to release theatrically in tandem. He thought A thousand years of good prayers qualified as an art house dish but its accompanying piece, Princess of Nebraska, it wouldn’t work on the big screen. So she persuaded Wang to give Princess off for free.
The New York Times, IndieWire AND Variety agreed to put the film on the front page of their websites, where it garnered 250,000 opening weekend hits and helped promote Millennium.
Also in 2007, Price joined 2929 Entertainment as senior vp marketing and distribution, overseeing films such as tourists (2006).
“He had a deep knowledge and love of motion pictures and was the source of a great deal of knowledge of the film distribution business,” said Roadside Attractions Co-President Howard Cohen. “He was part of what I might call a dying breed of independent film executive, along with the late Bingham Ray, who came into the business from a unique combination of a love of filmmaking and a down-to-earth, field-based filmmaking perspective, often starting to run local theatres.”
At the time of his death, Price was promoting the Rodrigo Reyes documentary Samson and I, about a 19-year-old illegal immigrant sentenced to death. The film will be simulcast in prisons thanks to a grant from the Ford Foundation, there are plans for a theatrical release, and PBS will air it this fall.
Besides Madison, survivors include her sisters, Liz and Sean; her children, Antigone, Dierdre and Asher; and her brother Brian. Donations can be made to give.translifeline.org.