British Columbia

Vancouver's Rio Theatre is for sale, but film fans needn't fear

One of Vancouver's last independent movie theatres is up for sale, but don't hold your breath for it to be turned into condos just yet — booming business and city support have the owners confident in the Rio's future.

Even if bought, site will remain a theatre for foreseeable future, owners say

Vancouver's historic Rio Theatre is up for sale, but booming business and city support has its owners confident it will remain an independent theatre. (Marie-Laurence Heon/CBC)

One of Vancouver's last independent movie theatres is up for sale — but don't hold your breath for it to be turned into condos just yet.

The historic Rio Theatre on East Broadway has actually been listed for sale for almost a year, but a public marketing pamphlet was posted online Saturday, prompting a flurry of concerned messages to owner and operater Corinne Lea.

But Lea says lovers of cinema and the performing arts shouldn't worry — her existing business, combined with provisions in the Grandview-Woodland community plan, mean the Rio will continue to be a theatre for the foreseeable future.

"Where there's a will, there's a way," Lea said. "The community genuinely loves this venue and doesn't want to see it go."

Business booming

Lea first bought the theatre with a group of investors in 2008. But the industry took a nose dive in the following years, and independent theatres across the city began dropping like flies. Lea and her partners were forced to put the Rio up for sale.

Salvation came in the form of Vancouver theatre magnate Leonard Schein, former owner of the Park, Ridge and Fifth Avenue cinemas, among others. Schein bought the Rio from Lea and company for about $2 million in 2011; Lea retained ownership of the theatre's business operations, and was able to keep the doors open with Schein as the new landlord.

It was clear that the old ways of running a single-screen theatre weren't working, so Lea opted for a change in strategy. After a protracted battle with the province, Lea secured a liquor primary license for the Rio in 2012, which allowed for liquor sales and live shows.

Since then, ticket sales have skyrocketed — due largely, Lea believes, to the theatre's diverse programming, which now includes burlesque, comedy and live music in addition to screenings of independent films and classic blockbusters.

"The audience definitely shows that that's something they want more of," Lea said. "We're killing it. We just had six sold-out shows, back to back."

The Rio's recent success is what prompted Schein to list the property for sale in May of 2017.

"[I bought the Rio] to save the theatre," Schein said. "And it's been saved. [Lea] is doing very well."

The Rio Theatre, seen here in an undated archival photo, was built almost 80 years ago at the corner of Broadway and Commercial Drive. (CBC)

A city-recognized cultural asset

Though the Rio was first listed nearly a year ago through real estate agency CBRE, Schein still hasn't received any offers.

This may be largely because CBRE have not been actively marketing the property. Its senior vice president, David Ho, said the public pamphlet was only posted recently because the firm has been researching the intricacies of the site and its development potential.

That's because 2016's updated community plan for Grandview-Woodland limits what can be done with the Broadway site. While the plan now allows for residential development of up to 10 storeys in the immediate area, it also explicitly recognizes the importance of the Rio as a "cultural facility" and requires that any future development take that into account.

As such, the city would be unlikely to approve any development plans that involve scrapping the theatre, which has stood at the site since 1938. A potential developer would also need to secure an adjacent lot to obtain the minimum square footage needed for a residential development — none of which are listed for sale.

An archival photo shows the intersection of Broadway and Commercial Drive in the 1940s, looking to the west. The Rio Theatre's marquee can be seen in the background. (City of Vancouver Archives)

In it to win it

Ultimately, Lea would like to buy the theatre herself, and Schein says he would happily sell it to her. But without other buyers knocking down the door, Lea is not feeling any particular pressure; her current lease gives her at least another eight years of operation, even if the building sells.

The listing does not currently include an asking price. Lea says the city has appraised the building at about $4 million, but expects it could be worth as much as $6 million. While the Rio is doing well, she says she'll still need investor support to make that kind of purchase.

But on the eve of her tenth anniversary at the helm of the Rio, she's confident it will remain an East Vancouver institution for years to come.

"For those of us that work here and know and love the Rio, it's definitely more than just any business or just any venue," Lea said.

"I think the fact that we are succeeding is proof that this building does not need to be torn down."