Disney Shifts Oversight of Maker Studios (EXCLUSIVE)

Courtney Holt takes on new role under Kevin Mayer

maker studios logo
Courtesy of Maker Studios

The top executive at Maker Studios is stepping down to take on a new role at the company as Disney shifts the property to a different area within its consumer products and interactive media (DCPI) division, Variety has learned exclusively.

Maker, which was moved under DCPI last year, will now be overseen by Andrew Sugerman, who is EVP of the division’s Content & Media area. Courtney Holt, outgoing head of the company, issued an internal memo in which he laid out the rationale for the shift.

“Merging Maker Studios with Content & Media allows DCPI to continue to expand audiences — across both physical and digital content,” he wrote. “And, by taking a broader digital content offering to market, we can truly differentiate ourselves to advertisers and distribution platforms.”

Holt is moving on to a new role at the company as EVP of media and strategy, reporting to Kevin Mayer, senior EVP and chief strategy officer at Disney.

Maker Studios was acquired by Disney in 2014 Disney for $500 million in addition to a potential $450 million based on hitting certain goals. It was initially placed under the oversight of Jay Rasulo, who stepped down from the CFO post in mid-2015. Then Maker’s senior-most executive, Ynon Kreiz, left the company right before 2016 began, and his No. 2, Holt, was upped.

A source familiar with Maker explained that the shift clarifies confusion within the company regarding growing duplication between Maker and Sugerman’s Content & Media department, which quietly launched earlier this year. There has already been some measure of synergy between the two teams with regard to specific job functions, which has led to concerns that there could be some layoffs coming to pave the way toward complete integration. Maker already laid off about 30 employees in July.

A rep for Disney declined comment.

“In the weeks to come, you’ll hear more about how the teams will come together around an integrated digital content strategy–both domestically and internationally. Andrew is a fantastic leader and I’m energized by his passion for the organization and what we do at Maker,” Holt wrote in his memo.

Hopes are high that the new structure will provide a new sense of direction for Maker, which insiders have described as rudderless practically since the acquisition was completed. The company, which started out as a vast affiliate network of amateur content creators operating on YouTube to the tune of billions of video views, has morphed over the years as digital monetization has gotten more challenging. The multichannel network, or MCN, business model employed by pioneering digital outfits like Maker and Fullscreen has largely been discarded as brands and marketers have cut out the middlemen and YouTube itself has inserted itself more forcefully, as its October acquisition of Famebit indicated.

Disney, which was widely criticized for the high price tag of the acquisition, saw Maker as a way of gaining a better understanding of digital distribution and promoting its movie and TV franchises to younger audiences online. But while properties like “Star Wars” and “Guardians of the Galaxy” have been plugged heavily through Maker channels, the company has operated under a cloud of uncertainty as to whether the acquisition was worth the price, particularly considering it was the first of many similar combinations of old and new media such as NBCUniversal’s investments in Buzzfeed and Vox Media.

Similar in scope to Maker, Sugerman’s Content & Media division has been tasked with translating a legacy brand to digital auds via properties including Disney LOL and Oh My Disney.

“Maker Studios will add to Content & Media’s capabilities around short-form content creation and distribution, making this a natural fit,” Holt wrote in his memo. “Also, many of our teams have already integrated with DCPI across sales, finance, communications, marketing, legal, technology, and HR, so it makes sense to pull together the distribution, franchise, network and studio teams in one segment. As a reminder, the Content & Media organization is focused on digital publishing of original short-form and micro-content across various digital brands and social channels, along with physical publishing through Disney Book Group and licensed book titles.”

DCPI is led by chairman Jimmy Pitaro, who has seen Disney’s digital properties through a state of almost constant flux since he joined the company six years ago. Last June, Disney combined its digital and consumer products divisions. In February, he grabbed sole oversight of the unit when his co-chair Leslie Ferraro left. The company shuttered its best-selling videogame, Infinity, in May.

DCPI reported a 7% drop in revenues for the third quarter, from $348 million to $324 million, in August.

Prior to Maker, Holt has held senior roles at MySpace Music, News Corp., MTV Networks and Sony BMG. “On a personal note, even though I remain a key supporter of Maker within Disney, stepping away from the day-to-day will be a change of pace,” he wrote in his memo. “It’s been an unforgettable 5-year+ journey and I’m grateful for everyone’s continued dedication to the brand. Disney is truly the best media company in the world, and I’m excited to see what’s ahead in digital for the business.”

Maker may be best known as the home of PewDiePie, the most popular talent on YouTube, where he recently threatened to delete his channel after crossing 50 million subscribers.