Twentieth Century Fox president and chief operating officer Strauss Zelnick announced Monday that he would be assuming command of a Silicon Valley multimedia software company, Crystal Dynamics.
Twentieth Century Fox chairman Peter Chernin, meanwhile, said he won’t be rushing to fill the vacancy left by Zelnick’s exit.
Zelnick had just reupped with the studio in January for three years. He joined Fox in 1989 from indie Vestron Inc. where he’d been president and chief operating officer.
The move underlines the connection between Hollywood and Silicon Valley at a time when interactive videogames are becoming more like feature film productions.
The year-old Crystal Dynamics will be able to parlay Zelnick’s position as president and CEO into a multimillion-dollar valuation by drawing a raft of investors to its doors. More important, the move permits the exec to have a piece of the action in a new company.
“This was about squaring my interest with the entertainment business, and with my interest in being an entrepreneur,” said Zelnick, who’s 35. “It’s the first time I’ve worked for a company where the people are younger than me.”
Zelnick said Fox Inc. chairman Rupert Murdoch approved his exit. Zelnick will be moving soon to Palo Alto, where Crystal Dynamics is headquartered.
Chernin taking stock
Chernin, meanwhile, said, “My sense right now is to take stock and make sure I feel comfortable that this is the best way to organize all of (Zelnick’s) areas. Anytime you’re presented with something like this, it makes sense to re-evaluate.”
The deal had been in the works since April, when Zelnick was recruited by Robert Fell, head of his own Century City executive search firm and a Crystal Dynamics director.
An upstart software company, Crystal Dynamics intends to become a leader in the $ 7 billion videogame business based on its connection to 3D0 Inc., which is debuting a new multimedia player for Christmas. Already, two Crystal titles won high praise at the recent Consumer Electronics Show.
Once the call came from Fell, Zelnick met in early April with Crystal’s board at venture capitalists firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, two blocks from the company’s office.
On April 30, an all-day meeting ended in a deal giving Zelnick an equity stake nearly on par with the founders. The stock would come from hefty options and Zelnick’s own cash investment.
Though no amount was available, according to one source, Zelnick holds “substantially more” than 5% of the company.
Zelnick has all the right credentials. His studio experience, plus Harvard MBA and law degree, gave him an affinity with another Harvard business school grad and Crystal director, Doug McKenzie, a partner at Kleiner Perkins.
Much of Crystal’s immediate success is in its founders. Created last July, the company boasts David Morse and two Sega executives. Morse, as president of New Technologies Group, was a designer of 3D0’s leading-edge computer graphics chips.
“When I met him, I thought he had all the ingredients to do the job,” said Morse. His first task, he added, will be to find the partners that have made 3D0 so successful. That company counts Time Warner, MCA’s parent Matsushita Electric Industrial Ltd. Co. and AT&T as investors.
“Frankly, one reason we needed Strauss is there are whole lineup of people who want to get involved with us and we don’t have the manpower to assess it.”
It also helps with raising additional funds now. Crystal is preparing for another round of financing. Before he arrived, the good press from its software made raising $ 30 million possible, said Bill Hart at Technology Partners.
“I believe with Strauss can command a $ 50 million valuation.”