Canadian film pioneer key to Lionsgate founding

Producer and independent film exhibitor John Dunning, who was instrumental in getting mini-major Lionsgate off the ground, died in Montreal on Monday, Sept. 19, after a long illness. He was 84.

Dunning began in the movie business while still a teen: His father, who owned several movie theaters in Montreal, died when he was 17, and Dunning suddenly found himself in charge of the family firm in 1944.

In 1960 Dunning met Andre Link, who had distribution and business expertise. Together, they formed Cinepix, which distributed both English- and French-language movies. In 1962, they produced their first film, “Valerie,” which held the Quebec box office record in Canada until 1995. The pair produced 59 feature films and were among the first in Canada to produce and distribute commercial films for the U.S. and worldwide markets.

Dunning and Link eventually expanded Cinepix to the U.S., with a distribution arm based in New York headed by Jeff Sackman and Michael Paseornek. In 1997 the company was purchased by the newly minted Lions Gate Entertainment, and Cinepix was rechristened Lions Gate Films, with Dunning and Link remaining as its leaders.

Dunning’s last producing credit was on Lionsgate’s “My Bloody Valentine” in 2009.

Dunning and Link were honored at the 1993 Genie Awards for their contributions to the business of filmmaking in Canada. In 2007, they were inducted into the Canadian Film and Television Hall of Fame; they also received lifetime achievement nods at the 2011 Fantasia Film Festival.

Though he did not choose it, Dunning grew to love his career, in which he gave aspiring filmmakers a chance to work and gain experience; he and Link launched careers including those of Ivan Reitman and David Cronenberg. Though incapacitated in his last year, Dunning somehow found the energy to write another screenplay.

He is survived by his wife, Jean, whom he married in 1957; a son; and two grandchildren.

Visitation is scheduled for Thursday, Sept. 29 from 1-4 p.m. and 6-9 p.m. at the Mount Royal Funeral Complex, 1297 Chemin de la Foret, Outremont, Quebec. The funeral service will take place on Friday, Sept. 30 at 1 p.m., also at the Mount Royal Funeral Complex, followed by a burial and a reception.

Donations may be made to NOVA West Island, 422 Beaconsfield Blvd., Beaconsfield, Quebec H9W 4B7.

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more