The Rio Theatre is an anomaly among Vancouver venues. Corinne Lea, the theatre’s owner and general manager, has a vision for The Rio as a multi-media art house venue.
To celebrate the five-year anniversary of the theatre’s re-opening under Lea’s ownership, and to celebrate the one-year anniversary of getting their liquor license, the Rio is hosting an evening of burlesque, music, spoken word and comedy.
Dorothy Chiong, the theatre’s bar manager and longest-standing employee, said the event will be important in getting the message out that The Rio survived its darkest days.
“Everybody can just be like, ‘Hey the Rio, it’s still open and not actually closed,’” she said.
Since Lea bought and re-opened the theatre, it has undergone a slew of transformations.
“In the past five years we’ve upped our attendance, we now have creative programming, we have our liquor license, so it’s really come a long way since I started working here,” said Chiong.
The theatre’s programming is quirky and idiosyncratic of the Commercial Drive/East Vancouver community it resides in. That being said, there is always a variety in what the Rio is presenting any given week. For example, in the last week of April, the shows playing at the Rio include: a showcase of local ambient/experimental music, a hip-hop concert, a live improv Dungeons & Dragons comedy, and the 1980s horror/sci-fi cult film They Live.
The success of the Rio’s creative programming is enabled by their liquor license. Having the license has allowed them to expand beyond movies and book more live shows, because promoters looking to book a venue often require the venue to have a liquor license.
The Rio relied on special-occasion liquor licenses in the past, but Lea decided to pursue the application for a liquor-primary license.
Getting the license was not an easy task, and almost cost Lea her business.
An arcane provincial law prohibited movie theatres from obtaining a liquor license. A statement from Solicitor General Shirley Bond stated, “One of the considerations has always been the large number of movie goers that are youth and the unique challenge posed by movie theatres in ensuring minors do not have access to liquor.”
The province granted the Rio its liquor license in January 2012. However, it bore the stipulation that the Rio could no longer show movies of any kind or operate as a cinema in any capacity.
Lea had the choice to either back down and accept the terms, or bite the bullet and fight for her business. The Rio lost thousands of dollars in revenue during the highly-publicized battle, but eventually Minister of Energy and Mines Rich Coleman took over Shirley Bonds’ position and changed the regulation, allowing movie theatres in B.C. to obtain liquor-primary licenses.
It has been about a year since then, and the Rio is now Vancouver’s last independently owned cinema. The Hollywood closed, and so did Denman Cinema. The Ridge is making way for condos, and Festival Cinemas owner Leonard Schein sold the company to Cineplex.
However, the Rio is somewhere between live venue and repertory cinema. It’s hard to define their programming and, being an independent theatre, it’s even harder to get their name out in the stratosphere as a recognizable brand.
“We need more marketing, and marketing takes a lot of money,” said head security Glenn Thompson. “But I don’t necessarily think this is something you can just throw a lot of money at. We’re still in the process of figuring out who we are and developing our own brand.”
Chiong said the Rio needs to expand its promotion so it’s “not just East Van’s independent movie theatre [but] Vancouver’s independent movie theatre.”