Double standards becoming apparent in liquor licensing conflict
// Ben Spieler

The Rio Theatre on Broadway and Commercial is one of the only theatres left in East Vancouver. Built in 1938, the Rio has since been restored, with modern amenities and equipment, without losing the “retro” feel that people have come to grow and love over the years. Red velvet ropes and curtains, cream-colored backdrops with lightbulbs, and a single screen with a stage in front of it. They generally limit themselves to one new release film per month, but focus on their core business of playing classic cult films.

“Single screen cinemas are contractually obligated to play a new movie for three weeks, not doing any live shows or other events during that time. It’s a lot like betting on the ponies, sometimes you get a bad film and you lose a lot of money, and there isn’t much you can do about it,” says Corinne Lea, owner of the Rio.

They also screen independent films, local student films, and have live performances. Another aspect of the theatre that sets it apart from other venues is that they encourage patrons to wear costumes and make noise during the movies. Costume-wearers receive a discount and have a chance to receive prizes after the movie. Even with its many unique characteristics, Lea has always struggled to keep the theatre going. For this reason Lea had been trying to get a liquor license for the theatre, and after two years of red-tape, petitions, and hoop-jumping she finally managed to get one on Jan.19. Later that day, the B.C. Liquor Control and Licensing Branch released a statement with a previously unmentioned condition stating that by law, a theatre can’t operate as a liquor-licensed live theatre and a non-licensed theatre at the same time. It stated that the Rio was not permitted to show movie or any time of cinematic screenings at any time.

“We weren’t informed of the condition until 30 minutes before we were supposed to sign it,” Lea says. “The fact that they had to add a condition means that it’s not standard and they’re singling us out. We asked a consultant and he said it wasn’t going to be an issue as long we weren’t serving alcohol on movie nights.”

This was not the case, as she soon found out. The liquor license itself only allows the Rio to sell alcohol during the evening hours – such as 6pm onwards. There was hope that they could play movies earlier in the day, in order to remain open and have an income, but this was quashed also. Even though the license only allows them to sell alcohol in the evenings, they are technically licensed at all times; therefore, they cannot play movies during the day. The Rio has always been open every day of the week, but now the liquor board’s condition has forced them to stay closed for several days in a row. “It’s just a matter of paying the bills. Every day that we’re closed I’m losing money, and we were struggling already. The Rio can’t afford to be losing any money right now.” Lea also objected to the fact that the LCLB was classifying her as a “movie theatre” and not as a “multimedia venue”.

"It's not the term and condition itself which prohibits them from operating as a movie theatre," Karen Ayers, General Manager of the Liquor Board, says. "It's the liquor and control licensing act regulation." Ayers added that the regulation was in place in order to protect public safety. "A large number of moviegoers are youth and families, and there's some fairly unique challenges posed by movie theatres in terms of ensuring minors don't have access to alcohol," she said in a phone interview with the Georgia Straight. Ayers expressed concerns that the darkness of a theatre provides ample opportunity for liquor abuse in what is supposed to be a family environment.

This has been a massive point of contention with Festival Cinemas, owner of various theatres and the land The Rio is on. “The local municipality should just overrule the Liquor Board; they seem out of touch with the whole situation and I don’t understand why they are pursuing this,” Leonard Schein, President of Festival Cinemas, says. “The license starts at 6pm, so they should be allowed to play movies before that time.” Schein expressed confusion towards the Liquor Board’s concern that alcohol might find its way into the theatre, even if it’s not being sold, and have a negative impact on any minors in the area. “I was at the Roger’s Arena watching a game a little ways back, and they had people walking up and down the aisles selling beer to everyone. There were plenty of kids around and others under 19. Why is that not a problem, but the Rio is?”

“The government keeps trying to smokescreen the issue by saying it is a public safety issue because cinemas are dark and people could mix drinks,” Lea adds. “Rogers arena is dark during all-ages events, yet they’re allowed to serve alcohol even when minors are on the premises: explain that. Why haven’t they been shut down?”

In a press release on Jan. 25, NDP MLA Jenny Kwan announced that she would take immediate action to help reverse the decision that crippled The Rio. “The minister can fix this literally with the stroke of a pen,” Kwan said. “Allow them to operate as they always have been … without the red tape.” Many people have argued that B.C. liquor laws are archaic, some dating back to the 1940s when it was "illegal to sell liquor to a person who was standing up straight." Many believe that the laws need to be reviewed and updated to accommodate the changing times. This can be seen in other areas of the law, where entire sections were repealed in order to allow alcohol at sporting events and concerts where it had previously been banned.

What is perhaps most interesting about the Rio’s situation is that it seems void of options. Several movie venues in Vancouver have received liquor licenses in the past, generally under the condition that they have a membership process with age restrictions, and a theatre like the Rio could likely follow suit. This prevents minors from entering the premises, regardless of the age restriction on the movie itself. This can also be seen in Manitoba, Ontario, and Alberta, where liquor laws are more lenient where theatres are concerned. In some rare cases, commercial theatres in Ontario have installed bars within the theatre, along with various fast-food stands, in order to better regulate who gets served.

Even with all that is happening, Lea remains hopeful that it will all work out: “We’ve been getting a lot of community support, [and] the majority of people are on our side, but there are a few people who have been getting angry at us for not playing movies anymore. I think they might be misinformed, and think that we sacrificed movies for a liquor license intentionally.”

With heated discussion from both sides of the table, and an outpouring of public opinion, the Rio will likely be remembered either as a victim of government red-tape, or as an underdog who spearheaded liquor law change in British Columbia.

//Ben Spieler, writer
//Graphics by Samantha Thompson

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