Top Women in Global Exhibition: Olga Zinyakova, Karo

In 2019, 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 and early 2020, Boxoffice Pro continues to honor the women who have an immeasurable impact on the exhibition industry with a series of in-depth profiles.

Since its founding in 1997, Russian cinema chain Karo has been a standard-bearer in the industry. With Olga Zinyakova as its president, the chain has become one of the most high-tech in Russia. Zinyakova headed up Karo’s marketing and advertising efforts before being promoted to president in 2017. The chain currently boasts 250 screens at 30 locations in eight Russian cities.

The last few years have seen steady growth in the Russian box office. How has 2019 been shaping up?

It’s true that the Russian film market has been growing for the last several years and, in 2017, was the leader among all European countries in terms of cinema attendance. 2018 was tough for the Russian industry due to the World Cup disrupting summer box office. But as for Karo, [we] have shown sustainable growth in attendance over the last three years, and in 2019 we are set to break our box office and admission records. Comparing 2019 to 2017, we’ll see a 14 percent growth in box office and an 18 percent growth in attendance, driven by our business strategy of focusing on innovations and consumer experience.

As far as premium amenities are concerned, in some markets the focus is on finding an affordable and accessible price point for the largest number of people. In some other markets—I’m thinking of the Middle East—the trend is to make it as exclusive and VIP as possible. Where does Russia fall on this spectrum?

The Russian film industry is quite young, and it’s still in search of its own path. We at Karo are determined to concentrate on consumer preferences and are trying to reach different audiences while staying focused on the quality of service and technological innovations for every patron.

We have a lot of specially developed offers, like discounted pricing for students and pensioners and a separate program for families, which is available with animated films and family movies. We also have a discount for movies that have been in cinemas for two weeks or more. Recently we launched a loyalty program that is specially designed in accordance with our patrons’ preferences and gives a lot of discounts and bonuses.

At the same time, most of our theaters are equipped with VIP halls called Karo Black. They have luxurious seats, individual design, and at-your-seat dining service. All this gives a real first-class experience for the most sophisticated guests.

We are trying to combine different offers for various audiences in one venue. We have seen that very large multiplexes are what modern consumers want. These provide consumers with choice. It is not unusual for a family to come to a 17-screen cinema, and each family member goes to see a different movie. We know from our research that people in Russia come to the cinema to see a new movie in an environment that cannot be replicated in the home. This means that a successful modern cinema should be a large multiplex with big sound systems and comfortable seating that caters to a multitude of consumer movie tastes with a big-screen experience. Otherwise, the cinemas will always compete against in-home entertainment, where large-screen, high-definition TVs are becoming more and more the norm all over the world.

What is it that initially made you want to join the film exhibition industry in 2013?

The opportunity to work with people. I had quite a lot of experience in film promotion as well as event organization. But I hadn’t seen the result of what I was doing. Cinema is a great industry. It is entertainment and retail at the same time. So you should be business-oriented and consumer-oriented at the same time. This is what I was always about as a marketing person. I was also super lucky to become a part of Paul Heth’s team. They believed in me, and I had a promotion in a few years.

Do you have a favorite among Karo’s theaters?

I think that our best cinemas are the cinemas for the new generation, which established a new standard for the film exhibition industry. But our team is doing absolutely fantastic things and bring great results even in small locations, which is much harder to do. Theater directors are the number one people in our company.

What have been the highest-grossing local films for you so far in 2019? [Note: This interview was conducted in late October.]

This year, the box office leaders in Russia are across different genres: the patriotic war movie T-34; the comedy Громкая связь (Loudspeaker Mode); a local remake of Italian hit Perfetti sconosciuti; the comedy Бабушка легкого поведения. Престарелые мстители (Grandma of Easy Virtue. Old Avengers); an action comedy Миллиард (Billion); and the drama Текст (Text), a screen adaptation of a Russian best seller that showed surprising box office results for such a complex social drama.

Who have some of your mentors been in this business?

Paul Heth, who developed an exhibition business in Russia and brought high standards to our country. He has a great energy and great ideas, which we make a reality in the Russian market.

What’s your proudest achievement from your time so far at Karo?

Over the last few years we significantly changed our repertoire and consumer approach. We also implemented new technologies, focusing on innovation. That includes our market-leading “u-choose” bars, offering self-service snacks, healthy food, and a kids’ menu—all in all, up to 300 items. The introduction of these new format cinema bars was followed by a period of serious business growth, setting us apart from the stagnation experienced by our competitors. 

Then, we engaged in overall digitization of the ticketing experience via in-theater ticketing kiosks. This also optimized our staffing and online F&B sales. We are especially proud of our alternative content program, Karo.Art. Since its launch in 2016, the project’s box office and attendance have gotten four and a half times bigger. Today, smart, intellectual movies—as well as movies screened in their original language and TV premieres, such as “Game of Thrones”—are associated with Karo. Together with Karo.Art partners, we set a trend that has led to growing popularity of alternative cinema content, which is a great step in the development of the entire film industry in Russia. 

Also, in the beginning of 2019, Karo finished the renovation of Russia’s premier cinema venue, the Oktyabr cinema. Today it is the venue where all significant cinema industry events are held. Oktyabr hosts the biggest “u-choose” bar in Russia, plus several restaurant concepts, a museum, a music studio, a comic book store, and coffee bars.

How would you evaluate the progress women have made in the exhibition business in Russia in recent years?

When I joined the exhibition business, I was one of three women in top-level management in Europe. When we met at a UNIC conference, there were just a few of us. Today, we see that almost 50 percent of company leaders are women. In Karo, currently, we have the same situation. But I have never divided people on a gender basis or even thought about it. For example H.R., which is thought of as being a woman’s job, is managed by a young man. And he does his job fantastically. He is developing high-tech instruments to work with a quite young personnel. At the same time, one of our best technical people in cinema mechanics is a woman. There are no more traditional “women’s” or “men’s” jobs. What is good is a balance. Diversity of experiences always helps businesses be flexible and work fast.

What was the most important lesson you learned when you joined the film exhibition industry?

1. Do what you believe in and keep on pushing until you get what you need. Persistence and patience are important.

2. Work only with true partners, those you can go through good and bad times with. One bad rent deal can seriously hurt your business.

3. People are very smart. So don’t lie to your team, partners, or guests.

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