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Alexis Kanner as Ernie Turner in 1967's The Ernie Game.Courtesy of CIP

If you were to start an entertainment company in the year 2022, conventional wisdom holds that there are two things that you might want to avoid: Canadian content, and physical media.

Yet fresh on the scene is Canadian International Pictures (CIP), a new boutique Blu-ray label focusing on resurrecting “vital, distinctive, and overlooked triumphs of Canadian cinema” for a home-entertainment market that is dominated by globally produced streaming content.

“Streaming is of course very pervasive, but nothing is there in perpetuity, and it’s difficult to situate yourself against a constantly changing sea of services,” says David Marriott, who also runs the L.A.-based art-house restoration label Arbelos Films, and launched CIP in January with his Arbelos co-founder Ei Toshinari and the Toronto-based film programmer Jonathan Doyle.

“I’d say over the course of the pandemic, our sales at Arbelos went up dramatically. Physical media in a larger sense is contracting, but cinephile audiences interested in discoveries are doubling down.”

Adds Doyle in a joint interview: “Physical media is the domain for people looking to make discoveries and expand their knowledge of cinema. That’s what we’re trying to do: take the unknown history of Canadian cinema, and blast it to an audience that isn’t familiar with it. Both in Canada and beyond.”

So what does CIP consider the “unknown history” of Canadian film? It ranges from art-house to documentaries to tax-shelter-era “Canuxploitation” – all produced in the 1960s, 70s and 80s heyday, when film-preservation, soundtrack rights and future-market use wasn’t necessarily on the top of film producers’ minds. CIP’s first release, arriving through a partnership with the U.S. genre Blu-ray specialists at Vinegar Syndrome: a 2K restoration of the 1967 thriller The Ernie Game, shot in Montreal by celebrated director Don Owen (Nobody Waved Goodbye). The Blu-ray will include four short films from Owen, including a remastered version of his 1964 documentary Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr. Leonard Cohen.

Forthcoming releases include Robert Fortier’s 1981 race car daredevil documentary The Devil at Your Heels, 1973′s treasure-hunt comedy The Rainbow Boys from Gerald Potterton (who would go on to direct Heavy Metal) and a collection of films from the National Film Board archives, including Gilles Groulx’s influential 1964 film The Cat in the Bag (Le chat dans le sac), which was scored by John Coltrane.

“There are a lot of filmmakers that come to mind when we think of key Canadian directors: Egoyan, Maddin, Rozema, Cronenberg. But when I was a programmer at the Trash Palace microcinema in Toronto a decade ago, it triggered a curiosity in me to keep peeling back the onion of Canadian cinema to find these lost treasures,” says Doyle. “Some aren’t what would traditionally be considered sophisticated films, but they all have vitality, whether that’s an artistic vitality or an outré sensibility.”

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1965 profile of Montreal poet Leonard Cohen.Courtesy of CIP

Marriott and Doyle come by their interests honestly, with both spending their youths immersed in the highs, lows and hmms of Canadian cinema. Doyle’s parents even invested in Paul Lynch’s 1982 slasher Humongous, a tax-shelter film that, while reviled at the time of its release, has since gained a strong cult following and critical reassessment.

“We clearly love that kind of tax-shelter stuff, but we’re also interested in films that are Canada’s answer to the New Hollywood cinema of the 60s and 70s, including this whole wave of Quebec cinema that hasn’t been represented outside of Canada, or even outside of Quebec,” Doyle says, adding that CIP plans to devote a “big focus” to historical Indigenous filmmaking, too.

The pair are coy, though, when asked if there is one white-whale of a lost Canadian treasure that CIP is hoping to restore and release.

“We have a group of three or four films at the top of our list, but I’m terrified to mention them in case someone else gets to them first,” Doyle says.

Not that the niche home-entertainment market is an especially cutthroat one.

“This community works together, it’s a family approach, which is not what people immediately think of when they hear about any facet of the film industry,” says Marriott.

“It’s hard for anyone to release these lost Canadian films. It’s a long route – finding the rights holder, restoring the work – that can get expensive and requires patience and tenacity. It’s a long game. So people in our game are excited if anyone can find these titles and release them.”

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