Ster Century, the South African-owned UK and Ireland cinema circuit, has been sold to Aurora Holdings, a UK-based outfit whose partners include ex-Ster Century Europe managing director Mike Ross.

Ross, who will now become CEO of Ster Century, would not comment on the value of the deal, which was backed by Inflexion Private Equity. The business was acquired from Royale Resorts and Primedia.

Aurora's senior management also includes Theo Fonternel who, along with Ross, developed the Ster Century cinema group in Europe in the late 1990s. Ross left the company in October 2001, to be replaced by Selwyn Grimsley. Other partners in Aurora include Jonathan Scherer and Stephen Louis, a governor of the UK's National Film and Television School.

The sale will come as a surprise to the UK exhibition sector: many expected Ster to be absorbed by one of the major circuits sooner or later.

Ster owns 87 screens across six sites around the UK - in Basingstoke, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Leeds, Norwich and Romford - and one in Dublin.

The focus of the new ownership is to sweat the existing assets, and the Ster name will be kept. "We're got seven really good sites," Mike Ross told Screen Daily, "and the focus is on maximising those sites. We've got a marketshare of around 3% and the plan is to keep the cinemas growing. Quite a few of them are new."

The company's first European cinema was opened in July 1999 in Ireland and aggressive expansion across Europe followed quickly, with sites in Spain, Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Greece, Slovakia and the UK. However, following jitters in the exhibition industry, Ster's South African owners decided to pull out of Europe and sold off its national circuits.

John Hartz, Charles Thompson and Amanda Luckett co-ordinated the transaction for Inflexion Private Equity, with Hartz and Thompson taking seats on the board.