After a tumultuous few months, Maker Studios seems ready to open a new chapter. On Monday, after laying off an estimated 10 percent of employees over the weekend, YouTube network Maker Studios gathered the remaining employees at its Culver City, Calif. office to introduce them to their new boss, Ynon Kreiz, a longtime Maker investor and board member. A week before, Maker’s founder and CEO, Danny Zappin, had resigned, and the company — one of YouTube’s most popular networks both in terms of watch time and unique views — seemed like it was in turmoil, largely due to Zappin’s erratic behavior.
Zappin was an early YouTube adopter who posted videos as Danny Diamond, founded Maker Studios in 2009 with Lisa Donovan (his girlfriend at the time) and her brother Ben Donovan. Maker has also been home to some of the video-sharing site’s most popular users, including Donovan herself, ShayCarl and Kaseem G. Time Warner invested $36 million in the company in December.
In recent months, though, Zappin had become a bit of a liability to the company he created. A few months ago, he became involved in an ugly, high-profile fight with one of Maker’s former partners, Ray William Johnson, owner at the time of YouTube’s most popular channel, who left Maker in October after a dispute over rights to intellectual property associated with the channel. In December, Johnson wrote a lengthy screed about his troubles with Maker in which he revealed Zappin was a convicted felon. (Zappin would later confirm in an interoffice memo, “As many of you are aware, about 12 years ago, I made a mistake for which I was convicted of a felony drug possession.”) At the time, Johnson also posted screenshots of embarrassing text messages that were ostensibly from Zappin.
As recently as last month, Johnson tweeted that Maker had not yet relinquished his AdSense account, and he would be pursuing legal action. If he has filed a lawsuit at this point though, Kreiz said he is not aware of it. “I don’t know about that,” he told BuzzFeed. (Johnson did not respond to a request for comment) In a letter sent out to employees on May 7, Zappin wrote, “I love this company and all of you. I’ve always been committed to do what I feel is best for the company and that will never change. This transition is what is best for the company right now. I am confident in my decision.”
Kreiz, formerly CEO of the production company Endomol (Big Brother, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, Deal or No Deal) and CEO of Fox Kids Europe, comes with a lot of experience in both television production and the digital space, the two realms Maker straddles. He told BuzzFeed that his goals right now are to figure out the company’s priorities and approach, while making sure to maintain its position in the YouTube ecosystem.
But first, the bad news: Among the changes Kreiz has already instituted are layoffs of more than 30 people from Maker’s 300-person workforce. He downplayed the significance of those cuts, saying, “We’re not contracting. We did change the allocation of some resources at the company, but we’re now hiring in several key departments.” (Kreiz listed programming, commercial business and technology among the areas of the company to which he would be looking to dedicate more resources.)
Kreiz insists that Zappin’s departure had nothing to do with his dispute with Johnson. “It’s unfortunate that the company had this exchange with Ray. I absolutely respect Ray and value him and it’s regrettable that it happened that way, but in any event that has nothing to do with Danny’s transition,” Kreiz said.
Kreiz said he remains close with Zappin. “Danny is the one who initially introduced me to the board and to the company and I had an excellent relationship with him— I still do have an excellent relationship with him.” Zappin, he added, will remain both a shareholder and board member at Maker.
The transition, Kreiz said, “could not have been more amicable and more natural than it has been.”