When Ben Elliott enrolled in the Master of Entertainment Industry Management (MEIM) program at Carnegie Mellon's H. John Heinz III College all the pieces fell into place.
"It's like taking all of your LEGOs and dumping them all out on the floor — anything is possible," said Elliott, the vice president of business development & licensing at Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment (WBIE) and 2007 CMU graduate.
Helping WBIE launch LEGO Dimensions, is his latest example of what's possible.
LEGO Dimensions combines physical LEGO bricks with a virtual video game world, featuring everyone from Gandalf to Homer Simpson teaming up to defeat the evil Lord Vortech.
To make that happen, Elliott negotiated partnerships with entertainment studios such as Sony, Universal and Fox.
From Government to Games
As a political science major, head of the debate team and student body president at Pepperdine University, Elliott planned to leverage his skills in business management and public policy in a foreign affairs career. After graduation, he spent six months working for the U.S. Department of State to help promote civil society reforms in the Middle East, followed by a stint at the U.S. Embassy in Tunisia.
The experience was life changing, but Elliott said something was missing.
"When I was in high school, I actually worked six days a week at a movie store, and my best friend was a complete 'nerd,'" Elliott said. "So I was constantly consuming video game, comic book, and film content. When I was an undergrad, I planned concerts, worked on student films, and even took a screenwriting class out of curiosity. I've always really loved and consumed entertainment but never really thought of it as a career path.
"At this time I was really focused on working in foreign policy in the future, but I felt I needed to go back to school, learn more and then potentially do something that might be more creative."
After Tunisia, Elliott left the world of Beltway foreign policy and was named a Coro Fellow with the Coro Center for Civic Leadership in Pittsburgh. As a fellow, he did special projects and internships, including a stint at the Pittsburgh Film Office and working on the mayoral campaign for Bill Peduto.
Elliott met many CMU students in the Coro program, and he was attracted to CMU's collaborative community.
"My entire life, I've been interested in pop culture, and the talent that goes into making any creative product," Elliott said. "Whether it's TV, film, or video games, it takes a lot of people doing a lot of different things well, all at the same time.
"I really appreciated CMU's focus on consciously creating space for projects where art and technology could intersect to make these things happen," he said.
Elliott was completing the Coro Fellows Program just as the Heinz College was introducing its MEIM program. The unique, dual-city MEIM program covers everything from management skills to hands-on experience within the entertainment industry.
"It was completely serendipitous," Elliott said. "I heard about the MEIM program, and I thought, 'what is this?' It seemed exactly right - the perfect way to balance the creative part of my brain with what I do well: manage and negotiate."
During the first year of the MEIM program in Pittsburgh, students develop the business management and leadership skills necessary to excel in a constantly changing marketplace.
In their second year, students reside in Los Angeles, where their practical learning experiences include classes with top industry professionals and nearly 1,000 hours of internship experience. By offering a core curriculum of quantitative management skills combined with practicum work within the field, the MEIM program positions its graduates to be leaders throughout the entertainment industry.
As part of their curriculum, MEIM students attend the Sundance and South by Southwest film festivals, building relationships and expanding their network in the process. They participate in internships and capstone projects with entertainment industry clients including Disney, Warner Bros., Twitter, Nielsen, PwC, Fox and IMAX.
This hands-on professional experience in the entertainment industry allows students to find the best working environment for them.
"It's really about understanding what skill set you have, and what kind of culture you want to be in," said Elliott, speaking of the internship experience. "If you open your eyes to what companies are focused on 'entertainment,' the opportunities are remarkable."
Elliott's big break in the entertainment industry was the direct result of his second-year internship with Warner Bros. Though he originally planned to work in film development, he was offered an internship in video game production.
Seven years later, Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment has grown from a staff of 30 to more than 1,000 employees working for six studios. It boasts four of the top 10 games in the United States, including "Mortal Kombat X" and "Batman: Arkham Knight."
For Elliott, his love of his work goes back to his desire for creative collaboration. A yearly trip to Comic-Con International in San Diego reminds him why he's found his ideal career.
"It is an incredible experience, seeing people dressed up as characters from our films, television shows and games," he said. "It's incredible to realize that Warner Bros. is entertaining the world, and that I'm a part of that process."