Obituary: Mel Hoppenheim, 84, was a Canadian film industry pioneer known as ‘Mr. Hollywood North’

Mel Hoppenheim received an honorary doctorate from Concordia University in 2009.

Mel Hoppenheim, who is being hailed as a visionary pioneer in the Canadian film and television industry, might never have left his job in meat packing if he hadn’t had a keen eye for opportunity and a daring entrepreneurial spirit. 

Hoppenheim, who died on July 27 at age 84 in Montreal, rose from humble origins to build Mel’s Cité du Cinéma into the largest provider of services to film and TV in the country. He was known as “Mr. Hollywood North” for attracting U.S. and other foreign investment here when Canada was not on the movie map.

Although he enjoyed hobnobbing with celebrities, Hoppenheim was most proud of the thousands of jobs and millions in economic spinoffs created by his enterprise.

“Mel was an inspiration and a major source of support for countless members of the film and TV communities in Montreal and Canada, and contributed immeasurably to the creation of the thriving audiovisual industry in this country,” said a friend of 45 years, Michael Prupas, founder and president of Muse Entertainment.

Melvin Hoppenheim was born in 1937 into a family of modest means and grew up on fabled St. Urbain Street. After his Polish immigrant father died when he was 12, Hoppenheim left Baron Byng High School early to help support his mother and two siblings, doing odd jobs like hawking wares outside Beauty’s diner.

One day while in Mont Tremblant in the Laurentians, Hoppenheim noticed a crew shooting a commercial. He struck up a conversation and learned how difficult it was to find filmmaking equipment here. A light bulb lit up and, although he knew little about the field, he started a small company in 1965 renting cameras and other supplies.

At his funeral, Rabbi Adam Scheier related that Hoppenheim had told him that in the early days of the venture he would work at the slaughterhouse and then devote the little time left in the day to developing the company.

Panavision Canada expanded into Toronto and Vancouver, establishing Hoppenheim as a leader in the burgeoning industry through the 1970s. However, the path was not without setbacks and struggle. He sold that business and teamed with an up-and-coming competitor, Michel Trudel, in the late 1980s.

They would develop Mel’s Cité du Cinéma (now MELS Studios) into state-of-the-art production studios.

In 1988, Hoppenheim bought the old Expo Theatre, built for the 1967 world’s fair, and converted the space into studios. Eventually, he would construct three large facilities housing numerous studios, before selling the business.

Hoppenheim liked to say, “Philanthropy is the rent you pay for success. “ Among his numerous charitable endeavours, his signature legacy is Concordia University’s Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema, which was named in recognition of his million-dollar donation in 1997.

The school has since become the largest university-based centre for film studies in Canada, and helped launch the careers of over 2,500 graduates.

“Mel Hoppenheim was a visionary builder in Canadian cinema whose entrepreneurial spirit and generous support helped foster remarkable talent across the country,” said Concordia president and vice-chancellor Graham Carr.

The Montreal Children’s Hospital was also a favourite cause, and Hoppenheim funded a chair there in neurology.

Observed its pediatrician-in-chief Dr. Michael Shevell: “He had an incredible personal journey that read like a Mordecai Richler novel, and an amazing ability to project passion, energy and engagement. It was always a delight to be in his company. Quite simply, they don’t make men like him anymore.”

The Montreal Heart Institute also benefited from his support; though little known, Hoppenheim suffered from heart disease for many years. His love of life and family, and the care of his wife of 35 years, Rosemary, are credited with keeping him in better health longer than might have been expected.

Rabbi Scheier said that when he visited him a week before his death, Hoppenheim was “optimistic…radiant” talking about going up north with the family and a recent trip to Israel.

The father of eight children (two predeceased him), 14 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, Hoppenheim was eulogized as a loving, attentive parent who, despite his busy life, always had time for each of them and took pride in their achievements.

“My dad was larger than life,” said daughter Teri. “He was a butcher, a hunter, a skeet shooter, a fisherman, a golfer, an amazing card player, a film industry mogul, a leader, a philanthropist, a go-getter, a trailblazer, our patriarch in the truest sense of the word, and he was so darn cool.”

She said Hoppenheim never forgot his roots, and delighted in taking his kids on tours of his old neighbourhood to reminisce.

He also never lost the common touch, and enjoyed schmoozing with his staff. He spoke to everyone with the same respect, whether it was a production assistant or Denzel Washington, said Rabbi Scheier.

Hoppenheim, who always sat in the first row at Congregation Shaar Hashomayim, was deeply committed to the Jewish community and Israel. He chaired the 2002 Combined Jewish Appeal, which raised a then record $40 million.

The Jewish General Hospital, Segal Centre for Performing Arts, Jewish National Fund, Montreal Israel Film Festival, Chai Lifeline Canada, and Montreal Holocaust Museum are some of the organizations that he helped.

He was named a member of the Order of Canada in 2015, received an Academy Achievement Award at the 2010 Genies, and was presented with an honorary doctorate by Concordia in 2009.