Indie theatres weather the liquor license storm

BY SARAH BERMAN, OPENFILE.CA

Following months of struggle with British Columbia’s Liquor Control and Licensing Branch, the Rio Theatre in East Vancouver will gradually return to the mixed programming it cultivated before 2012. For most of this year, the Rio operated under an imposed liquor licensing condition that prevented the venue from showing films.

Although the single-screen venue expects to make a full recovery, owner Corinne Lea says her company is not out of the woods yet. “Because our finances got depleted so badly, our biggest challenge is just digging ourselves out of the hole,” Lea says. “Now we’re creeping back.”

Before the ban on movies, the Rio was generating between $15,000 and $20,000 per week. But up until April 11, when the province announced it would allow alcohol service in movie theatres, Lea says her business sagged to $5,000 per week.

“Before there was a lot of stress and worry about the future. I didn’t know if we were going to make it through,” she says. “Now it’s still challenging, but good challenging because we have our doors wide open as far as our programming goes. We just have to figure out how to fit everything in.”

Lea says event inquiries have doubled in the last three weeks. “Already our income has improved,” she adds. “We had a $16,000 week.”

The wider film community in Vancouver is also relieved to lawfully host occasional gala events with bar service. “I was really happy when I found out, and I think it was long overdue,” says Festival Cinemas president Leonard Schein, who runs the Ridge, Park and Fifth Avenue theatres. Schein says the Rio’s ban on movies was never an explicit law, but an interpretation of the Liquor Control and Licensing Act. “The province was interpreting the regulations in a way that they weren’t allowed to do that,” he says.

While he’s happy to see the “erroneous interpretation” lifted, Schein has no plans to bring permanent liquor service into his own theatres. He says movies like Casablanca and Rocky Horror Picture Show—which are both currently playing at the single-screen Ridge Theatre in Kitsilano—should remain open to all ages. “Once you apply for a liquor license, it wouldn’t allow anybody under 19 to see those movies,” says Schein. “I think people under 19 should be allowed to see those movies.”

Schein says his business has stayed profitable in an economic climate that has seen both independent theatres and multiplexes close their doors. Ten Vancouver theatres have gone dark in the last decade—most recently the single-screen Hollywood, the Oakridge Centre triplex and the Vancouver East Theatre on Commercial Drive. The Ridge is also slated to close by September 2013, to make way for a condo and supermarket development.

Lea sees liquor service as an extra source of income in an unpredictable economy. Small venues like the Hollywood Theatre, which closed in 2011, may have been saved if it was allowed to diversify its programming to include live bands.

But surprisingly, few theatres have jumped at the chance to serve beer with their popcorn. Earlier this week, minister Rich Coleman told News1130 that only four theatres in B.C. had submitted permanent liquor license applications.

“Not for us,” says Pacific Cinematheque manager Amber Orchard, who points to the “tricky landscape” faced by independent movie houses. “I’ll be honest, for us revenue is very consistent with previous years,” she says. “We consistently do well with our numbers.”

The low interest and uncertainty may suggest theatre managers are still wary of the kinks yet-to-be worked out of B.C.’s liquor licensing system. Even for the Rio, there are still a couple hurdles to clear. “The changes that affected us immediately allow us to show movies right now without alcohol,” Lea explains. “Our application is in process to serve alcohol with movies. We’re still waiting to get that finalized.”

Lea is allowed to serve alcohol during adult-only events, but is awaiting approval for all-ages screenings. So far, she has applied to serve alcohol in the Rio’s 30-person lobby, but hopes to convince the province to let the heritage building’s upper balcony serve as a 19-plus lounge with bar service when minors are present. “I see these as minor details,” she says.

Lea hopes to finalize the technicalities of her liquor license in time to participate in Vancouver’s Craft Beer Week beginning May 18. “We’ve got one event planned,” she says. “We’re having the best double-feature: Strange Brew and Slapshot.”

“I’ve been told by my consultants that’s more than enough time,” she says of the May 24 screening. “The movies will go ahead with or without the beer.”

Published April 27, 2012. Photo courtesy of the Rio.

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