This article was originally published in 2007; John Dunning passed away in 2011 at the age of 84.
Veteran film producer and distributor John Dunning finds the aura of respectability surrounding his career a bit odd.
Dunning and his longtime business partner Andre Link are cofounders of the legendary Montreal film company Cinepix, now known as Lionsgate Entertainment.
When Dunning initially heard the news about being inducted into this Hall of Fame, he didn’t believe it. ‘I thought someone was pulling my leg, but it’s quite an honor,’ says the slightly bemused octogenarian from his office in Montreal.
‘For years we were in the dark area of the business,’ Dunning explains. ‘We were the black sheep. And we certainly weren’t the critics’ favorites.’ Dunning and his partner were more interested in audience favorites.
Hungarian-born producer Andre Link agreed, via a telephone interview from Germany: ‘We made movies that were commercially successful, and in the eyes of some that was reprehensible.’
Cinepix was launched in 1962 during the heady days of Quebec’s Quiet Revolution, when many in the province rejected the repression of both the Catholic Church and the Duplessis government. Cinepix quickly became the center of risqué moviemaking in Canada with box-office hits such as Denis Heroux’s sexy and rebellious Valérie (1968), the tale of a teenage girl who flees a convent (bra-less) on the back of a motorcycle.
In 1971, its sequel, l’Initiation, and other Cinepix B-movies (Love in a Four Letter World) were distributed in English Canada and began to draw the ire of the public, who took aim at the Canadian Film Development Corporation (now Telefilm Canada) for spending Canadian tax dollars on them. The now-defunct Toronto Telegram called them ‘nothing more than sexploitation movies.’
Over the span of their four-decade partnership, Dunning and Link produced nearly 60 films and nurtured a fantastic generation of young creators who made movies with audience appeal and longevity in home-video residuals.
Link and Dunning executive produced David Cronenberg’s early horror films Shivers and Rabid, which were produced and co-executive produced, respectively, by a young Ivan Reitman (of Ghost Busters and Animal House fame). Producing with the Cinepix team, Reitman began his long-standing tradition of alternately wearing the successful cap of producer then director. He first hit the jackpot as helmer with Bill Murray’s breakthrough comedy, the wildly successful Meatballs, which raked in some $46 million at the box office in 1979. Reitman recently returned to Canada to exec produce Trailer Park Boys The Movie.
The Cinepix duo also mentored George Mihalka, who in 1981 was a 27-year-old rookie when he directed the cult classic My Bloody Valentine. They were like ‘supportive uncles,’ says the Montrealer, whose long list of television and film directing credits includes Race to Mars, La Florida and the fourth installment of the smash Les Boys franchise. ‘We were a bunch of kids. We were fresh out of film school. They took a chance on us. They allowed us to prove ourselves.’
The list of successful careers launched at Cinepix also includes that of movie titan Don Carmody, who produced the 1982 all-time Canadian international box-office champ Porky’s ($110 million) and coproduced the Oscar-winning hit Chicago. Carmody hands Link and Dunning the credit.
‘Andre and John are incredibly important,’ says Carmody, who first worked for the pair as a driver on George Kaczender’s low-budget 1973 film U-Turn. ‘They were the genus of commercial filmmaking, not only in Canada but in Quebec. They were directly responsible for developing commercial talent such as Reitman and me.
‘I think of them as my strongest mentors in this business,’ continues Carmody. ‘They taught us that you shouldn’t waste opportunities, or money. In the early days, Andre’s wife Trudy was the main accountant, and she could squeeze more out of a nickel than anyone I’ve ever met.’
Perhaps Trudy’s way with figures laid the groundwork for Cinepix’s ultimate commercial success. In the fall of 1997, Link and Dunning and the other shareholders in CFP sold their company for $36 million in cash and shares to a Vancouver-based investment group led by Lions Gate Entertainment.
‘We were mavericks in the sense that we wanted to put films in the marketplace that would appeal to the majority,’ says Dunning, who likely developed his keen ability to read audience tastes while growing up in the neighborhood movie theaters his father ran in southeastern Montreal.
Link is also pleased to have been involved in the early days of Quebec cinema, and proud of the fact that Cinepix produced Claude Jutra’s classic Kamouraska (1973).
Ultimately, Link believes Cinepix thrived because he and Dunning had complementary skills. ‘We were alter egos. John is far more artistic than I am,’ he says.
Throughout their partnership, Link took care of the money side of the business, while Dunning focused on finding good stories and getting them produced.
The pair also had a rule that Link believes prevented conflict throughout their relationship: if one of them wanted to take on a project but the other didn’t, the opposing party couldn’t veto it. ‘This way neither of us felt frustrated. We always had to support the other person.’
Cinepix may also have survived by its ability to turn the threat of censorship into sex appeal, and controversy into box office. The company (and the CFDC) came under the gun in 1975 with Cronenberg’s Shivers, the story of a sexually transmitted parasite that infects a Montreal apartment complex.
‘They were standing up in the House of Commons and demanding our heads,’ recalls Carmody, a coproducer on the film. ‘They wanted to put us in jail and Cronenberg in an insane asylum.’ But the film was a hit and spawned another dose of Cronenberg’s ‘lunacy,’ Rabid, which made $7 million on North American screens.
In 1989, Cinepix joined with Famous Players and formed a new company, C/FP, which shared in hits like The Piano, The Crow, The Crying Game, Like Water for Chocolate, Indochine and Strictly Ballroom. In 1994, Cinepix bought out FP’s interest in distribution and reorganized under the name Cinepix Film Properties (CFP). In January 1998, following its sale, CFP was renamed Lions Gate Films. In 2006, Link resigned as president of Lion’s Gate Entertainment.
Dunning is completing his memoirs, working on a few scripts and recovering from a near-fatal bicycle accident that happened last fall. He is most proud of his efforts to fight censorship.
‘In the sixties it was pure hell,’ he recalls. ‘They wouldn’t even allow two people to be in the same bed together. They’d cut it out. I wanted to try to open things up. Of course then I got called a ‘pornocrat.’ But I was really interested in liberalization.’
For his part, Link is also proud that the partners had such a good long run in such a fickle business. ‘I’m amazed at having survived so long in a business where there is so little guarantee of longevity.’