John Dunning: Film producer and mentor to David Cronenberg

Click to follow
The Independent Online

While some actors, producers and directors left Canada to find more opportunities in Hollywood, John Dunning stayed in his homeland to become a pioneer who helped to establish the country's film industry.

Among those directors whose careers he helped to launch was David Cronenberg, who credited him as his mentor. Dunning produced Cronenberg's early "body horror" films Shivers (1975), about residents of an apartment block infecting others after parasites have turned them into mindless, sex-crazed fiends, and Rabid (1977), starring the porn actress Marilyn Chambers as a woman who has plastic surgery following an accident and develops an orifice under her armpit that contains a phallic stinger which feeds on the blood of other people.

The producer was also responsible for the screwball summer-camp comedy Meatballs (1979), an international box-office hit which took $46m in North America alone. The film gave the American actor Bill Murray his first starring role and an early directing opportunity to Ivan Reitman, who went on to produce and direct Ghostbusters and other films in Hollywood.

Dunning enjoyed a long professional partnership with a fellow producer, André Link. They set up Cinépix in 1960 as a distributor of films mostly from Europe and the US, such as Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965) and other early pictures directed by Russ Meyer.

The pair started to produce their own sexploitation films, beginning with Valérie, a 1969 French-language comedy that grossed more than C$1m and held the Quebec box-office record until 1995. Similar productions – dubbed "maple syrup porn" by the American film-trade magazine Variety – followed, including Sex Isn't Sin (1970), Virgin Lovers (1970) and The Importance of Being Sexy (1971).

Some were screened in European cinemas, but they were eventually followed by horror pictures and thrillers. The Montreal-based Cinépix became a cottage industry, with a reputation for making low-budget films. As a distributor, the company later took acclaimed pictures such as Strictly Ballroom (1992) and The Piano (1993) to Canadian audiences.

In 1997, Dunning and Link sold Cinépix to the newly formed Lions Gate Entertainment and it was renamed Lions Gate Films, with the pair remaining in charge and setting it on the path to becoming one of the world's most commercially successful independent film producers.

Born in Montreal in 1927, Dunning had an early inauguration into the film business. His father screened newsreel footage from the boot of his car to audiences across Quebec, then owned cinemas in Montreal. At the age of 13, Dunning served sweets at the Century Theatre and, four years later, took over as manager following the sudden death of his father.

During his years with Cinépix, Dunning – who wrote some screenplays and storylines himself – was proud that 90 per cent of its productions were made in Quebec. Another of his associates who went on to success in Hollywood was Don Carmody, the company's vice-president of production, who later produced pictures such as Porky's and Chicago.

One of Dunning's films as executive producer following the launch of Lions Gate was The First 9 Weeks (1998), starring Paul Mercurio, Malcolm McDowell and Clara Bellar. Two years ago, he re-made the 1981 Cinépix slasher film My Bloody Valentine in 3D.

In 1993, Dunning and Link were presented with a Genie Award for outstanding contribution to the Canadian film industry. They won similar awards at the 1999 Montreal World Film Festival and this year's Fantasia Film Festival.

John Dunning, producer: born Montreal 27 April 1927; married 1957 Jean Myzner (one son, one daughter deceased); died Montreal 19 September 2011.