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Paul Lynch’s The Hard Part Begins (1973) follows country singer Jim King (Donnelly Rhodes) who’s been playing small-town bars for years.Courtesy of TIFF

When Paul Lynch received a cold call from two young Canadian cinephiles inquiring about the rerelease rights to his first film, the director of such Canuxploitation classics as 1980′s Prom Night and 1982′s Humongous wasn’t quite sure what to make of the situation. After all, it had been 50 long years since 1973′s The Hard Part Begins – a no-frills work of hardscrabble drama set in small-town Ontario – opened in theatres, and decades since it was available to view in any kind of proper home-entertainment format.

But Lynch quickly became convinced that Jonathan Doyle and David Marriott – who together with Ei Toshinari make up the boutique Blu-ray label Canadian International Pictures (CIP) – just might be in the mould of Canada’s earliest, and biggest, film-industry power players.

“They reminded me of these other two guys who came fresh from film school: smart, forward-thinking guys who love Canadian film and, to quote Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, have vision when the rest of the world wears bifocals,” Lynch recalls. “And those guys were Michael MacMillan and Seaton McLean, who formed Atlantis Films.”

While CIP is a long way from reaching the heights of Atlantis – and several decades removed from the industry heyday – one year into operations the company, whose focus is on resurrecting “vital, distinctive and overlooked triumphs of Canadian cinema,” is enjoying a surprising level of success. Especially considering the common wisdom of the streaming-wars era: that digital is the future, and physical media is dead.

“We’re in this era now where everything we watch is in the cloud, but I’m not so sure about that end of things to be honest,” Lynch says. “I like the idea of having something in my hands, or sitting on my shelf.”

And on the shelf is where you can find CIP’s remarkable slate thus far: 11 titles released over a relatively breakneck 12-month pace, ranging from a 2K restoration of Don Owen’s 1967 Montreal-shot thriller The Ernie Game (whose disc includes a remastered version of Owen’s 1964 documentary Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr. Leonard Cohen) to Jacques Godbout’s 1975 Quebecois crime thriller The Mob.

“Typically when you aim for 10 releases a year, so many can’t actually happen for X and Y reasons. But all of our must-do 2022 films were actualized, which is relatively unprecedented in the rerelease field,” says CIP’s Marriott, who also runs the Los Angeles-based art-house restoration label Arbelos Films with Toshinari. “Our productivity is beyond what we imagined when we started just a year ago.”

Alanis Obomsawin’s landmark documentary Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance.National Film Board of Canada

The CIP folks should be even busier over the coming year thanks to several high-profile releases. First up is Lynch’s The Hard Part Begins, CIP’s first in-house restoration, whose Blu-ray release is preceded by a special 50th-anniversary screening at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto on Jan. 8. Another notable one is the 30th-anniversary Blu-ray release of Alanis Obomsawin’s landmark documentary Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance (whose Blu-ray will include the filmmaker’s complete “Oka” quartet of films). Other forthcoming rereleases include titles from Mireille Dansereau (whose 1972 drama Dream Life was only the second narrative film in Canadian history to be directed by a woman), Denys Arcand and Atom Egoyan.

“They are genuinely excited and intensely curious about these films,” says Egoyan, who has been busy ploughing through CIP’s releases over the past year, including the 1965 documentary Buster Keaton Rides Again. “The plethora of streaming services give the impression that all films are available all the time, but this is simply not true. The triumph of an outfit like CIP is that it’s a vindication of the curated experience. So much streaming culture is ephemeral, and what CIP is asserting is that film culture is ultimately the result of physical storage and perhaps even a degree of fetishization.”

While CIP is working with video-on-demand services such as Google Play and Apple TV – as well as niche subscription video-on-demand streamers – to make their restorations available digitally, the heart of the business is on providing movie lovers both in Canada and in the U.S. with special-edition discs that are rich in extra features to provide essential context.

“There is definitely already a Canadian audience that loves these Canadian cult films, but there is also an American audience who are totally open about their lack of knowledge about Canadian cinema and want to learn more,” CIP’s Doyle says. “There is something appealing about this idea of a parallel cinema that is both different and not from American film.”

Aside from building a seemingly healthy business – first-year sales have “exceeded expectations,” according to Marriott – CIP is also doing the hard, dirty work of preserving predigital Canadian cinema, a surprising amount of which has simply been forgotten, misplaced or lost.

“It’s amazing how a film negative can just disappear,” Lynch says. “I made another film in ‘82 and it just doesn’t exist anywhere – people were searching up and down for it.”

Fortunately, The Hard Part Begins was financed by what is now known as Telefilm, which required producers to provide a copy for records. CIP was able to secure its negative from Ottawa’s files for the new restoration, as well as invest in cover art design that, like all of the company’s releases, brings the past to glorious, contemporary life.

“Anything that gets people excited about our cinema is good news, and it’s appealing that the packaging is so enticing,” Egoyan says. “I see future generations of young Canadian cinephiles trading these covers like I used to do with hockey cards.”