Stephan Shelanski: Back to the Future

Stephan Shelanski is having a little déjà vu these days. Fourteen years ago, he helped launch what today is Starz Entertainment, and now he is building from the ground up at Starz again. But this time, he is developing an original-programming department for the company.

He says the place feels like a startup again, but he's had 14 years of preparation. “It's a great feeling; we are starting fresh in a whole new area, and on a personal note it's been a fresh challenge,” he says.

Growing up in the Philadelphia area, Shelanksi studied mathematics at Harvard but really had no idea what he wanted to do. He had a love for film, and took several film-studies courses while in school.

After an extended tour of Europe, he returned to the States to fortunately find a group of friends and classmates working at HBO. They tipped him off about a job in the research department, and he pounced.

In research, Shelanski acquired a strong feel for the company and grew interested in a move to programming. So he took advantage of an HBO policy that offered financial assistance for certain graduate studies, and went to study film at New York University.

“I believe that allowed me not to get pigeonholed as a numbers guy and paved the way to move over to programming,” he says.

After finishing the program in 1990, he took a job in film evaluation, which meant he was in the first line of people who screened submitted films and traveled to film festivals to evaluate how the entries might fit into the channel's needs. Over the course of his seven years at HBO, he would move from film evaluation into scheduling at HBO's Cinemax channel.

But in 1994, what is today known as the Starz Encore Group was recruiting for its launch, and Shelanski listened.

“The first thing out of my mouth was, 'That's in Denver, are you serious?'” he remembers. “I never thought I'd leave New York City. So I left for Denver thinking I would try it for a year or two, being really skeptical, and I've been here for 14 years now.”

At the time, Shelanski was enticed by the idea of rolling up his sleeves and trying to build something. “That was part of the excitement,” he says. “I loved HBO, but it was very mature and a machine. I used to hear about the good old days when HBO started up, so that was really alluring and that caused me to make the jump.”

Starz had recruited some other HBO alums and was ready to take on the big boys. “It was really tough,” he says. “A little David and Goliath, we were trying to take on the world, we didn't know any better.”

Shelanski began as director of program acquisitions and was tasked with finding content on a limited budget. Most of Starz's programming budget went to big-coin movies, so there was little left over.

“We were trying to convince people to sell us programming at dirt-cheap costs,” he says. “We had to find programming that had no other TV home in the U.S. We hit the international market.”

But as the company gained distribution and continued to roll out new channels such as Encore and other movie channels focusing on niches like Westerns and mysteries, opportunities were created and Shelanski rose up the ranks. And today, he is leading the company's bold move into original programming. This January, it launched two original comedies: Head Case and Hollywood Residential.

And Starz recently announced plans for a show based on the hit movie Crash. An adaptation of an Oscar-winning film is the type of show Shelanski thinks the company should be doing as it gets its feet wet.

“Using other people's content and trying to build a brand on that doesn't really give us an identity or ownership of content,” he says. “Now, even though on a small scale, we are starting to build that.”

Much as when the company launched, it is setting up another David-and-Goliath battle with rivals like HBO and Showtime who have had major successes in originals. And with HBO trying to replace hits like The Sopranos, he sees opportunity.

“The fact that HBO is on a down cycle, it does open the doors for us and other networks, too,” he says of his former employer. “It is an open playing field now.”

Shelanski expects HBO's programming fortunes to rebound soon, but knows his company is battling more than just other premium networks: “In the broader sense, we are also competing with basic cable, networks and the Internet. It's a whole new world.”

For now, the growth will be slow. Starz programs a one-hour original block, and hopes to double it by next year.

If things work out, in a couple of years Starz will look at other types of programming such as sports, news and music. But for now, the key word is “gradual.”

“I think the company understands, having seen HBO and Showtime for years not get any traction,” he says. “Then HBO had this Midas touch, and now they don't. Our company understands it's a little bit of timing, hard work and luck. Our strategy is a measured and patient approach. If we don't strike gold in the first year or two, we will stick with it.”

So 14 years later in another startup environment at the same company, Shelanski is still plugging away.

“As we expand into the production of exclusive original programming, I am confident that Stephan, along with his team, will produce compelling entertainment that will be a terrific complement to our movie content,” says Starz Entertainment President and Chief Operating Officer William Myers.

And Shelanski says he doesn't expect to leave anytime soon. Not that anyone would believe him anyway.

“Through my career here, when people asked how I liked it here, I would always say, 'One or two more years,' and I kept saying that,” he says. “Now I just don't answer; I've lost all credibility.” 

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