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NEWS: Rent-free offer at Rio Theatre good for everyone

It started as an attempt to make lemonade from lemons. Now the owner of the Rio Theatre is hoping her experiment will turn into a sweet deal for local artists and her independent business.

Corinne Lea is offering free use of the 442-seat venue, which normally rents for $800-$1,000 a night, to anyone putting on an event who thinks they can draw a crowd of 100 people or more. She’s currently accepting proposals for everything from dance to film screenings to comedy, music and beyond. 

Lea says she came up with the idea a few weeks ago after a professional promoter “who shall remain nameless” cancelled a Friday night booking with only four days notice. “That put us in a really tough spot,” she says. “We count on Friday nights to pay our bills.”

At a loss on how to fill the venue, Lea turned to her 3,000-odd Facebook friends. “I just put it out there on my status update: ‘anyone who can draw a crowd, we’ll give you this Friday night for free.’”

It didn’t take long for two viable proposals to come her way, both from comedic filmmakers looking to show their stuff. “What the heck,” she thought and rolled them together into a one-off bill.

The event drew about 150 people and got Lea thinking the deal could be a win-win scenario. 

“We know that artists struggle to afford a venue the size of the Rio,” she says.

And as a small business owner, Lea’s no stranger to struggle either. The Rio has become an East Van institution since Lea took it over three years ago and gained a following with her screenings of campy fare and cult classics, but it’s been an uphill battle to keep a single-screen theatre open in a business climate geared to multi-screen cineplexes.

Lea started hosting live events in the hopes of diversifying her business and thought she found a reprieve when city council approved liquor primary license for the Rio in October. But provincial liquor laws outlaw serving alcohol in a movie theatre and have forced Lea to put the emphasis on live events, and she doesn’t want to limit them to weekends.

“I’m used to being open every day and I want to keep it that way,” she says. 

Hence the free-rent deal. It’s simple: Lea will accept proposals on an ongoing basis and choose the events she thinks can draw a big enough crowd. The producers get free rent and tech support, plus she’ll help with the promotion. Sales from the first 100 tickets go to the Rio to cover costs; everything after that is a percentage split — 75 per cent for the artist or more if the turnout is high. If the crowd fails to materialize, the Rio takes the hit. The catch is that artists have to be flexible on dates and professional promoters looking to control their own box office aren’t eligible.

Lea plans to start off with about two rent-free nights a month, adding more if the project proves successful. So far she’s received about 50 proposals, and that’s just from circulating the offer on Facebook.

As for the Rio’s future as a movie theatre, Lea says she’s been told she can’t operate as a live venue with a liquor licence and be a part-time movie theatre, but she thinks there will be room to host film screenings as special events. She’s still waiting on the province to approve her liquor licence and clarify exact restrictions. 

Anyone interested in applying for the Rio’s rent free deal should email