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John Dunning, a co-founder of Canada’s pioneering Cinepix film company who helped jump-start the careers of David Cronenberg and Ivan Reitman, died Sept. 19 in Montreal after a long illness, Lionsgate Entertainment announced Thursday. He was 84.
Cinepix, launched by Dunning and partner Andre Link in Montreal in the early 1960s, had its biggest success in 1979 with Reitman’s Meatballs, the first huge hit for Canadian film. It grossed $43 million in North America after Paramount picked it up for distribution.
With Dunning and Link still at the helm, Cinepix, which also owned a New York distribution arm and a controlling interest in an animation house, was purchased in 1997 by Lions Gate and renamed Lions Gate Films.
In 1962, Dunning — who at age 17 took over the family’s small exhibition business when his father died suddenly — and Link produced their first movie, Valerie, a sexy comedy that earned more than $1 million at the box office and held the Quebec box office record for three decades.
It was one of the sexploitation films (in Canada, a genre known as “maple syrup porn”) for which Cinepix would first gain notoriety.
The company also specialized in horror films, and Cinepix produced two early Cronenberg features: 1975’s They Came From Within (also known as Shivers) and 1977’s Rabid (also known as Rage), starring Marilyn Chambers.
“John Dunning is the unacknowledged godfather of an entire generation of Canadian filmmakers,” Cronenberg said in June when the Toronto Film Critics Association honored the producer. “I still consider him my movie mentor.”
Dunning and Link hired Reitman in 1974, and he produced such Cinepix films as Death Weekend (1976), Ilsa, Tigress of Siberia (1977) and Blackout (1978) before scoring big with Meatballs, the summer-camp comedy starring Bill Murray.
Denys Arcand, Don Carmody, Larry Kent and Vincent Gallo were among other filmmakers that were nurtured by the company.
Dunning also produced or executive produced such films as The Mystery of the Million Dollar Hockey Puck (1975), Death Weekend (1976), My Bloody Valentine (1981) and Buffalo ’66 (1998). More recently, he executive produced the Bloody Valentine remake in 2009.
Dunning and Link were honored at the 1993 Genie Awards for their outstanding contributions to the business of filmmaking in Canada and in 2007 were inducted into the Canadian Film and Television Hall of Fame.
Survivors include his wife Jean; son Greg and daughter-in-law Bonnie; and grandchildren, Lia and John.
A service is set for 1 p.m. Sept. 30 at the Mount Royal Funeral Complex in Outremont, Quebec.
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Jon M. Chu