Conversation at the intersection of Entertainment and Tech with Chase Benjamin Ellman
With over a decade in Hollywood and tech on his résumé, Chase Ellman has seen tech culture grow from curiosity to mainstream. Now, after working for nearly 5 years with some of the world's biggest names while on the Partnerships team at Facebook and Instagram, Chase is moving on to what he sees as the next place to make an impact in culture.
J.E.: What was your childhood like?
C.B.E.: I grew up in Chicago. Michael Jordan and the ‘90s Bulls were a big part of my childhood. Although I was particularly drawn towards more creative hobbies as a kid: building with Legos for hours, never following directions but creating my own characters & acting out different narratives of the universes I had built. Drawing. I was also fascinated with solving technical challenges - I remember I would take apart old electronics we were going to get rid of and try to put them back together. So I was the one who always volunteered to solve what seemed at the time like a very complex challenge of organizing the cords and setting up a new TV or computer for my parents (laughs). Looking back I think this diversity of interests set the foundation for a lot of what I aspire to achieve in my work today - use both my left and right brain to help bridge the gap between the creative and tech worlds. I hope for most people that if they look back to what they were interested in as a kid they will see a lot of similarities and overlap in their current day-to-day.
C.B.E.: As a kid with a desire to connect with interesting people, I was also captivated by watching movies. I was maybe the only person in my middle school who had seen Goodfellas & every Tarantino movie. My bar mitzvah was Hollywood themed - “Cut To the Chase” - and even though I had just turned 13, no one called my parents out on the guest tables being named after R-rated films! When Harold Ramis was filming a movie once in Chicago, I snuck on set with my mom and met John Cusack, telling him I loved his performance in “High Fidelity” to which he replied “aren’t you a little young for that?”
J.E.: Sounds like you just knew what you were going to do in this life.
C.B.E.: Not exactly. Not at all. I remember sitting in business school and being told I had to pick a career. None of the majors were particularly of interest to me because they all felt like they were lacking the creative excitement I was so used to in my hobbies and interests as a kid. I guess it’s different now with the evolution of social media, but at that time, starting out, I felt pretty lost - no one was explicitly confirming that it was an option to do something different other than what was being offered in front of me.
C.B.E.: Then I learned about a childhood family friend who was working in L.A. for the partners at a small Hollywood talent agency startup called Endeavor (now WME) and a lightbulb went off - even though L.A. felt like a different planet, why couldn’t I explore a career in the entertainment industry, mixing my background in business with my love of movies and desire for something creative?
J.E.: Hollywood from Chicago does feel like a stretch. If you didn’t know people, how did you you break through?
C.B.E.: Once I decided a career in entertainment was my goal, I went for it. I subscribed to every industry trade mag and blog I could find. I read books and watched documentaries on the industry like “The Kid Stays In the Picture”. I cold emailed alumni from my university database who seemed to be doing something interesting tied to this world. I mailed handwritten letters to the presidents of all the top talent agencies asking for advice.
C.B.E.: Something I realize now, reflecting on that moment - when I’m interested in something new - maybe it’s researching and learning about a company, industry, hobby or individual - I have a habit of obsessively going down the rabbit hole pretty quickly to gain as much knowledge as I can. I did the same thing later in my career when I decided to pursue a role at Facebook, and this remains true today.
J.E.: At some point these efforts paid off and you made it in the door. What next?
C.B.E.: We’re of course leaving out the dozens of meetings, phone calls, early mornings, late nights but this “rabbit hole” approach also led me to a few summers in LA where I hustled to make enough money to survive while doing unpaid internships at a variety of entertainment companies. Only to find myself a few years after graduation working full time in the Commercial Endorsements department at Creative Artists Agency (CAA), one of the leading talent agencies in Hollywood.
C.B.E.: CAA was an incredible experience. You really felt like you were at the center of everything in one building. But as I would look at offers for CAA clients, a trend I continued to notice was social media was basically an afterthought in deal terms. For context, this was only a few years after “House of Cards” came out and people were still laughingly referring to a pocket of west LA as “Silicon Beach”. But as someone who grew up with Facebook & was a heavy user of Instagram, I felt like these platforms weren’t being shown the respect they deserved.
C.B.E.: I became obsessed with the concept of bridging the gap between entertainment and tech. So even though I finally had the opportunity to pursue a dream career at CAA, I had the gut feeling I was being drawn to work in a different world. This is another trend I can identify from my career so far which I recently shared when I spoke to a class at the USC Business School - trusting your gut. Even though on a surface level things might appear great, if you have the feeling it’s time to make a move, that is what matters the most. I still have an email I wrote to myself talking through pros and cons of what at the time seemed like a monumental decision.
J.E.: The tech game pulled you in.
C.B.E.: Definitely. So when I knew I was ready to make the move to tech, I repeated the same approach I took with entertainment - extensive industry research. Books, newsletters, etc. Making it a priority to meet as many people as possible in tech to hear their story. Remaining persistent. Funny enough, one of the friends I had made in LA was now working for Instagram, and she thought I might be a good fit for a role working for Kevin Systrom, the co-founder of Instagram. I ultimately didn’t get that job but the resulting interview process put me in the FB system and after consistent follow-up, I interviewed and was eventually offered a role in Media Operations at Facebook in the LA office, focused on Entertainment. I had no idea what the title of this role meant and after learning what its responsibilities would entail - spreadsheets and data, it didn’t seem to carry the cachet of working at CAA. But there’s a well-known story in the tech world around “if you’re offered a seat on the rocket ship, get on and don’t ask which seat”.
J.E.: Take us inside Facebook just a little bit.
C.B.E.: The first poster I saw on the wall at the office was “Every Day Feels Like A Week” and this was never more true than when I joined..but as the company launched more and more features directed towards accounts creating content - Video, Stories, Live, Shopping and IGTV - they began to understand how important it was to maintain strong relationships with the influential accounts using these features. Kylie Jenner tweeted once that she wasn’t using SNAP anymore and the company’s stock dropped 6%, wiping out $1.3B in value - so FB/IG made it a priority to avoid a situation like this and built out a partnerships team comprised of people who had industry expertise but were also familiar with FB/IG policies & operational procedures. It turns out I was in the right place at the right time.
C.B.E.: Even after formally joining the partnerships team, it was still the wild wild west - there were less than 50 people globally on the team at the time and eventually that grew into 500 focused specifically on different partners. But for the majority of my time there out of bandwidth necessity I was thrown into working with just about everyone - actors, creators, artists, sneaker designers, media entities, brands, entrepreneurs - you name it.
J.E.: Speaking from first hand knowledge here. You are known in this industry for your empathy. What do you say to that?
C.B.E.: Thank you! The people I work with are building their livelihoods on these platforms, and therefore every question, issue, challenge, idea, no matter how small is important. So instead of ridiculing or ignoring their situation - I always do my best to understand their point of view and create a solution, while treating everyone the same whether it is the assistant or an Oscar winner. I worked at a restaurant growing up and it had a major influence on the ability to have patience and working with a lot of different people.
J.E.: You strike me as a person who is “endlessly curious”. Would you agree?
C.B.E.: I think so! From all of the unpredictable & different situations I was thrown into, I made it a priority to learn from whatever I was doing, even if it wasn’t apparent if it would have an immediate payoff. I remember one of the agents I met with for coffee once when I was interning in LA told me to be a sponge - essentially soak up as much as you can without regard for how it will come into play later. This has definitely had a major effect on building my own taste. Something I am most curious about right now is DALL-E by OpenAI - I don’t even think we know the potential / implications of this technology.
J.E.: So you are curious about AI, but at the end of the day you are also a relationships guy.
C.B.E.: Yeah. Facebook and Instagram was getting me in the room with all these incredible people that inspired me, but it was up to me to build and solidify the relationships. I want my working relationships to be genuine, not transactional. For some people this is never going to be possible. I can tell you about the thousands of cold, all-caps emails or hectic DM requests I’ve received over the years. But it is amazing the response when you approach people with the intent of a a genuine friendship - many of whom I support however I can to this day.
J.E.: Sounds good to me. What’s next for you?
C.B.E.: So while my experience at Facebook and IG was incredible, it all goes back to trusting your gut, and eventually I could feel myself hitting a peak there. “Ships are safe in the harbor but that’s not what they’re built for”. So after 4.5 years, I joined a startup for a while around January 2020 and then about a year ago started my own company where I consult for various individuals and projects, applying many of the life experiences I have had in my career up to this point to help with a variety of different business goals. Every client’s needs are unique but I am always aiming to maintain the perspective I’ve gained in every interaction I have.
J.E.: Last thing.. I have to ask about the tennis.
C.B.E.: Ha. I really picked up tennis while in LA due to COVID but there is actually a bigger backstory - my grandfather played till he was in his early ‘90s, so I would go with my cousins and hit around casually at his complex, never taking it too seriously but developing a foundation to play. He passed away almost a decade ago, so in a sense tennis is a way for me to continue his legacy every time I step on the court. That being said, there are so many elements I love about the game - it’s a lifetime sport, the global culture & elegance surrounding it, and how many of the lessons from tennis are applicable to real life as well. One is actually a principle I’ve read about in one of my favorite newsletters, Brain Food, called “Occam’s Razor”, which at its core is “the simplest solution is almost always the best”. This is something I aim to do in tennis, that I also aim to apply to my life off the court. While there is always more to learn and improve on, and I certainly am far from where I want to be, tennis has introduced me to some of the most interesting people in my life, brought me to some of the most beautiful places in the world and created amazing memories.