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Braun Keeps Starz Aligned

Neil Braun takes a distinctly analytical approach to the entertainment business. In working out the financial intricacies of many big deals over his 30-year career, the lawyer-turned-entertainment-executive has strived to exhaustively forecast the probability of success. “I can't predict with any certainty one scenario,” Braun admits. But that hasn't stopped him from trying.

All of which makes him the right man to help cable pioneer John Malone, a financial wizard in his own right, get back into the video-content business. As president of distribution and marketing for Starz Media, a nine-month-old division of Malone's Liberty Media, Braun, 54, applies his analytical approach to funding an eclectic slate of programming, from Nick Jr.'s Wow! Wow! Wubbzy! to Showtime's Masters of Horror.

And with Starz Entertainment's premium channels and digital platforms, Braun expects the fledgling programming outfit to be in full stride by 2009.

From Killing Fields to HBO

After starting out as a corporate attorney for the law firm Paul, Weiss, in 1977, Braun joined Film Investors, where he structured and negotiated financing and distribution deals for feature films, from high-minded award-winners (Gandhi and The Killing Fields) to cult B-films (Escape From New York and The Howling).

In 1982, he jumped to HBO, running its film financing and spearheading the establishment of HBO Video and production outfit Silver Screen Partners. During a short stint as president/COO of Imagine Films, Braun took the Ron Howard/Brian Grazer shingle public while structuring financing and distribution for 30 feature films through Showtime and Universal Pictures.

Braun joined Viacom in 1988, where, as chairman/CEO of Viacom Entertainment, he led a turnaround of its production/distribution TV business, creating theatrical and new-media wings.

When Viacom acquired Paramount Pictures in 1994, Braun declined to move west and instead jumped to NBC to head such non-programming functions as affiliate relations, ad sales and marketing.

A Veteran of the Affiliate Wars

But the initial euphoria he felt after joining a thriving first-place network, with hits like Seinfeld and ER on the schedule, proved to be short-lived. “Two weeks after I got there, the affiliate wars broke out,” Braun recalls.

Triggered by News Corp. chief Rupert Murdoch's move to acquire CBS' NFL rights for his Fox network, the wave of affiliation switches made for some spirited negotiations between NBC affiliates and Braun's team.

“We essentially set up a war room to analyze the situation,” he says. “There were so many group deals and so many moving parts. We had to figure out how to prioritize, who we went after and the relative cost of losing affiliates.”

A few yearslater, Braun and NBC led the charge as networks tried to regain the upper hand. His plan to scrap the network's traditional decades-old compensation structure in favor of a joint profitmaking venture with affiliates met stiff resistance.

Braun left NBC in 1998—before an ultimate shift in network-affiliate relations put stations in the position of paying the reverse compensation.

Braun then reinvented himself as an Internet entrepreneur. With $100 million in venture-capital funding, he founded iCast Corp., which explored ways to distribute TV content online. In 2000, he became chairman of VastVideo, which maintained one of the world's largest archives of video and audio clips.

When the Internet bubble burst, Braun returned to traditional media. In 2002, along with John H. Williams, producer of the Shrek animated franchise, he founded computer-generated–animation outfit Vanguard Animation.

In 2005, he became president of feature films and television for IDT Entertainment, a division of the long-distance phone company, which served as Vanguard's primary funding partner. When Malone's Liberty Media acquired IDT Entertainment in August 2006 and merged it into its Starz Entertainment Group, Braun assumed his current role at newly formed Starz Media.

Building the “New Starz”

Charged with establishing Starz Entertainment as content provider on both coasts, Starz Media is developing live action and animated fare for traditional and new media. The company controls Film Roman, the longtime animator of Fox's The Simpsons and King of the Hill. And its own Starz Animation oprates the two CG-animation studios behind the 2006 movie Everyone's Hero and the 2008 release Space Chimps (in association with Vanguard Animation).

Through Starz Productions, the company has also sold live-action titles, such as the anthology series Masters of Science Fiction to ABC and Painkiller Jane to Sci Fi Channel. Given his company's position within a conglomerate that includes cable networks and broadband distribution, Braun is bullish about Starz Media's prospects.

“We are a relatively young business that has a sister company which uses a lot of programming,” he says. “That is an exciting combination.”

Braun will also oversee TV-related distribution and licensing of live-action films from Liberty Media’s recent startup, Overture Films. Additionally, he will continue to handle that area in relation to pictures from Starz Animation’s theatrical distribution deal with Fox.

Calling Braun “the kind of executive we need as we build this new Starz,” Starz Chairman/CEO Robert B. Clasen praises his “combination of leader-ship experience at big media companies” and “hands-on” experience as an entrepreneur.

And Braun will continue to hone his approach to forecasting success. “I am pretty proactive in managing the risks and looking at what is our exposure against our projections,” he says. “I want to be batting 100%.”