How about a beer or wine with that popcorn?

Victoria movie theatre testing new liquor licensing possibility

Operators of the Roxy Classic Theatre hope to see the Quadra Street movie house become the first in the city allowed to serve alcohol during movies.

Maybe it’s the veil of darkness that leaves people leery.

Whatever the reason, the possibility of selling alcohol at Victoria movie theatres doesn’t sit as easily as it does with sports arenas such as the Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre.

In B.C., movie house owners won the right to apply for liquor licences in April, after a high-profile and contentious public consultation. But while the provincial government’s concerns have been adequately assuaged by a set of restrictions, the as-yet untested idea still elicits some fears at the local government level.

This provincial issue has landed here for the first time, as the Roxy Theatre seeks the nod from city council.

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In 2010, the little theatre in Quadra Village made headlines when owner Michael Sharpe tried – and failed – to sell the property with development potential. Fans were quick to defend their 63-year-old “irreplaceable landmark,” and reporters waxed eloquent about the value of these disappearing icons.

Even back then, before it was legal, Victorians mused about the possibility of selling booze as a way to reinvigorate the theatre.

“I guess I can see how someone might want to have a few beers while at a (for example) martial-arts triple feature,” wrote ‘Amor de Cosmos’ on Vibrant Victoria, adding a smirking emoticon.

These days, the Roxy mostly shows second-run films at reduced prices.

But it also screens cultish and other classics, such as the upcoming Rocky Horror Picture Show. The theatre’s website even invites patrons to write to management with suggestions for what they’d like to see.

These are hard times for many small movie theatres.

That’s in part because they often can’t afford to make the transition to digital technology, said Donovan Aikman, programmer for the Victoria Film Festival, which salvaged the Vic Theatre after it closed in 2008.

“Digital projectors are not a small investment … (and) there is a lot less film product that can come into a theatre on 35 millimetre,” he said.

This is the problem facing Sidney’s well-loved, but struggling Star Cinema. It’s looking to its patrons to secure its financial future. Seat sponsorships by individuals and businesses have so far raised just over half of the $200,000 needed to upgrade its technology.

Liquor sales could prove another way forward for small theatres. But is it a good idea?

“Time will tell,” said Aikman. “For me as a patron, it sounds like a nice idea.”

But, he qualifies, it depends on how licences are implemented locally.  “It could work really well in one area, and not so well in another.”

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This is the decision facing Victoria city council, whose input influences the evaluation of the application by the province.

“I know the owner and respect the owner,” said Mayor Dean Fortin at last week’s governance and priorities committee meeting.

“I’m worried a bit about late-night movies and alcohol and only 19 and over (permitted). That really has the potential in the wrong owner’s hands to be a community nightmare.”

Added Coun. Geoff Young: “I’m inclined to be a little bit cautious. The main impact would be people emerging from the theatre, walking through the neighbourhood speaking loudly.”

Council was also left with many questions about the business model.

“What provisions would there be for all-ages movie nights?” asked Coun. Ben Isitt.

“I would like to understand how it’s been vetted in Vancouver,” said Coun. Chris Coleman, referring to the Rio Theatre, which is now licensed to serve alcohol during movie screenings.

At staff’s recommendation, council voted to move the application to public hearing, but with one tweak: liquor service should end at 11 p.m. rather than the proposed  last call of 1 a.m. on weekends and midnight on weekdays.

Sharpe did not attend the meeting to answer questions, and did not respond to requests by the News for an interview.

The details:

• The Roxy Theatre, at 2657 Quadra St., has applied for a primary liquor licence, commencing one hour before the screening of a film and ending at 11 p.m. at the latest. Only ticket-holding patrons would be served and the facility would not allow minors during screenings where alcohol is served.

• In April, the province changed legislation to allow movie theatres and live-event theatres to apply for a licence to serve alcohol during the screening of a film. To date, nine live-event theatres have been granted licences, such as the Rio Theatre in Vancouver, and three more applications are pending.

• Movie theatres have been slower to apply. So far, the province has only received two applications, but has yet to grant any.

rholmen@vicnews.com