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B.C. mulls allowing movie theatres to serve alcohol

British Columbia Premier Christy Clark (left), Attorney General Shirley Bond (center) and Richard Rosenthal (right), the provincial chief civilian director for police oversight.

Rafal Gerszak For The Globe and Mail/rafal gerszak The Globe and Mail

British Columbia is considering changes to liquor laws relating to movie theatres, B.C. Minister of Public Safety Shirley Bond said on Wednesday.

"We are aware of the challenges that these establishments have faced with current regulations and in fact over the last several months have been examining the policy implications and are currently considering what changes may be appropriate," Ms. Bond said in a statement. "We look forward to having to more say about this in the near future."

Historically, B.C. has not allowed movie theatres to hold a "liquor primary" licence, reflecting concerns around alcohol and underage moviegoers.

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"We are working to try and balance the desire to assist business owners in being successful with the responsibility of regulating liquor in the interest of public safety," the statement continued.

B.C. facilities that do mix movies and alcoholic drinks operate under different provisions. The Silver City movie complex in Coquitlam, for example, has been issued a licence for a "food primary" lounge. And the Vancouver International Film Centre is licensed as a club and is therefore allowed to serve alcohol. Current regulations, however, do not allow movie theatres to obtain a "liquor primary" licence.

Changes, if they come, won't immediately help the Rio Theatre, a Vancouver theatre that sought and obtained a liquor primary licence – at the cost of no longer being able to show movies.

"That doesn't really address our issue – which is, we've made it pretty clear that we're asking to show movies without alcohol," Rio owner Corinne Lea said on Wednesday. "The Liquor Control Licensing Board has not changed their stance on the matter – they're still holding to that, that we are not allowed to show any movies, at any time."

Ms. Lea applied for a liquor licence with the intent of gaining permission to serve alcohol at live events to which minors would not be permitted.

Officials warned her that she would have to choose between being a live-events venue and a movie theatre, Ms. Rea conceded. But, based on advice she said she was given by a liquor inspector, she sought a licence in the belief that the Rio would be able to serve alcohol at live events and still show movies without booze being served – and issued a press release to that effect on Jan. 19.

The next day, on Jan. 20, however, she was forced to backtrack, after the province imposed a condition on the Rio's licence stating that the establishment was "not to show movies or any type of cinematic screenings at any time."

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"They went the extra step to put the nail in the coffin on our movie – and they made it extreme – and they made it so that we are not allowed to show any movies, at any time," she said.

Ms. Lea argues that the Rio is a "multipurpose" venue. She and supporters have also challenged the province's public-safety rationale, saying that large facilities are licensed to serve alcohol at other events, such as concerts and sporting events, that minors frequently attend.

The Rio scenario has generated considerable public support, including a Facebook group and support from city Councillor Heather Deal, who plans to introduce a motion calling on the province to amend its liquor laws.

The controversy over the Rio has highlighted the issues of provincial liquor laws, some of which have come under fire for being too complex and weighing down business growth and innovation.

B.C. MP Dan Albas last October put forward a private member's bill that would amend a federal law that makes it illegal to ship wine across provincial boundaries.

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