Earlier this year, Boxoffice Pro partnered with Celluloid Junkie to present the fourth annual list of Top Women in Global Exhibition, published in our CinemaCon issue. Throughout 2019, Boxoffice Pro continues to pay tribute to the women who have an immeasurable impact on the exhibition industry with a series of in-depth profiles.
Debbie Stanford-Kristiansen is “someone who very much likes to be challenged.” Born and raised in Brighton, England, where she’d make weekly trips to a theater “just across from the seafront,” Stanford-Kristiansen has been the CEO of Novo Cinemas, which operates cinemas throughout Oman, Qatar, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates, since 2013.
Initially an executive in the world of events and business tourism, Stanford-Kristiansen received a job offer in 2004 that brought her to Bahrain to help establish that country’s Exhibition and Convention Authority. That phase of her professional life lasted almost nine years, during which time she was promoted to CEO of the Exhibition and Convention Center. “Then I got offered an opportunity to move to Dubai [and work in] entertainment,” she recalls. “I thought about the synergy of what I had done in the past [and] where I could take the company in the future, by looking at cinema with very different eyes [since I didn’t] come from the industry. … It was a big challenge to swap industries after such a long time. I said to myself, ‘This is a super opportunity. If I don’t do it, I’ll regret it. I’ve got nothing to lose and everything to gain.’”
Debbie Stanford-Kristiansen took the job and got to work. “It was apparent to me that we needed to look at doing a complete rebrand, which is exactly what I did,” she says. Since its founding in 2010, the chain had been known as Grand Cinemas; Stanford-Kristiansen admits that, while “there was a lot of history and a super legacy there, times had changed. The audience had changed. There were different demographics living and working in the UAE. So we did a six-month project where we set about doing a complete rebrand of the organization, creating a new structure and different roles” that would allow the new Novo to expand into different facets of the exhibition market, such as hosting corporate events, which Novo has been “very successful” at.
The rebrand was followed by a spate of renovations and expansions. “When I joined, we had one Imax theater. Every other screen was a standard screen,” Stanford-Kristiansen recalls. Now, Novo boasts seven Imax screens, making them “the largest Imax partner in the region.” In early 2019, Novo cut the ribbon on Dubai’s largest Imax screen with laser, located at the chain’s new flagship location at the IMG Worlds of Adventure, the world’s largest indoor theme park. In April of this year, Novo Cinemas opened a new cinema at Oman’s Mall of Muscat, bringing the chain’s total screen count to 178 across 17 locations. By 2020, that number will grow to 201 screens in 20 locations, with “further expansion” planned across the Gulf region.
Under Stanford-Kristiansen, Novo packed in the premium amenities, introducing Dolby Atmos, MX4D motion seating, and Novo Kidz screens, with seats and design catered to younger audiences, to select locations. With their “seven-star VIP” service in place at 21 theaters, Novo gave moviegoers access to leather recliner seats and a “butler” to deliver food and beverages. Three of those theaters, Stanford-Kristiansen says, even have dedicated valet parking, so you can literally go from your car to your movie seat in three minutes.” Novo also offers its Novo Majlis, an “ultra-exclusive experience” where moviegoers have access to a “dedicated entrance and a personal butler offering a four-course meal from a menu that features classic dishes from both the East and the West.”
“We really, really worked hard,” says Stanford-Kristiansen. “We did a complete and utter evaluation of the business as it was in 2013 [and decided] where we wanted to take the brand in the future.”
But that future didn’t—and couldn’t—just involve luxury amenities, as important as they are to Novo’s overall experience. The Gulf region presents unique challenges—though Stanford-Kristiansen prefers to label them as “opportunities.” The United Arab Emirates, for example, where Novo has 10 theaters, is home to inhabitants of “around 220 different nationalities.” Catering to the needs of this varied population means screening the hits from Hollywood and Bollywood, of course. There’s also South Indian cinema, which represents “a very big market” for Novo. “We have Tagalog movies. We have Arabic movies—Arabic from Egypt [and] Arabic from the Emirates and Bahrain. In terms of expat market, we show French movies. We’ve shown German movies. Russian movies. We’ve even shown Korean and Chinese movies. We always try to appeal to the audience that we have, [and] we work really hard at understanding who our audience is at each and every location.”
This analysis led Novo to expand into event cinema, starting with a live stream of the 2015 boxing match between Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao. The time difference between Dubai and Las Vegas meant Novo moviegoers would have to head to one of six participating cinemas at five o’clock in the morning … which they did. Eight thousand of them. “There were so many different nationalities that wanted to see that match,” says Stanford-Kristiansen. “It gave us the appetite to expand further and look at other opportunities.” Football (soccer, for the Americans) has grown into a big draw, with Novo screening World Cup match-ups in addition to La Liga, UEFA European Championship, and Essay Cup games. Three Novo locations screened this year’s ICC Cricket World Cup, the result of “a very, very big Asian customer base here who are very passionate about cricket.” In addition to sporting events, Novo screens ballet and opera and “works very closely with schools and colleges; we regularly have groups of school children coming in to seeeducational movies”—nature documentaries, for example—thanks to the chain’s partnership with Imax.
“The market differs from country to country, especially in the Middle East,” Stanford-Kristiansen explains. “It’s never one size fits all. … It’s about constantly doing studies, doing online research, and testing things for the customer. Doing pilot testing in different locations, whether on F&B offerings or experiential offerings or the way that we market to the audience. We really try to understand who they are.” Who they are changes, Stanford-Kristiansen readily admits: “We have a much younger, tech-savvy audience now, so we need to make sure that we always understand the right ways to engage with them, whether that’s on Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, YouTube, or whatever it is.”
Novo is currently in the midst of that research phase for Saudi Arabia; in 2018, Stanford-Kristiansen announced that the chain was “in discussions” about moving into the newly opened market. “Right now, we are still studying the market,” she says. “We haven’t made firm commitments on locations. … I think it’s an exciting time. We’re observing, we’re taking notes, we are doing our own market research to study a number of options.”
Stanford-Kristiansen’s role in the evolution and expansion of cinemagoing in the Gulf region made her a prime candidate for inclusion on Boxoffice Pro and Celluloid Junkie’s 2019 list of the Top Women in Global Exhibition. Fitting, too, is Stanford-Kristiansen’s belief in the importance of mentorship, with an end goal of creating increased gender diversity. “Obviously, this is a very male-dominated industry. I certainly felt it when I moved across into entertainment, coming from tourism, which is very heavily female-dominated. … I believe that you need to have a balance of both male and female within any organization in order to get the best out of the company and to bring better opportunities.”
The support Stanford-Kristiansen received when she moved to the Middle East (“Probably more than I ever had back in Europe!”) increased her determination to pay it forward. At this year’s CineEurope, she was announced as one of the eight mentors participating in UNIC’s Women’s Cinema Leadership Program, designed to provide one-on-one support and advice to up-and-coming women in the exhibition business. “That’s something I’m really, really proud to be part of,” she notes. The more women support other women, the more we’ll start to see women grow within the industry, move up the career ladder, get better opportunities for growth. … There are so many amazing young women coming into this industry. I think we have an obligation to help support them and to help them to grow.”