Writers on the Line

On the Line
Schooling Emerson
Emerson alums hold their alma mater accountable, ER reunites on the line, and videogame writers say, “Game on!”
Wednesday, May 31, 2023

Holding Emerson to a Higher Standard

Universal Lot Coordinator Judalina Neira with WGAW Board member and fellow Emerson alum Liz Hsiao Lan Alper at Universal's Emerson College picket.

The community of Emerson College alumni within the WGA is a strong and accomplished group that includes writers, producers, showrunners and directors including 2023 Oscar and Writers Guild Award winners Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan (Everything Everywhere All at Once). The alumni are justifiably proud of each other’s achievements within the industry.

And right now, they’re also mad as hell.

With their union on strike against the studios of the AMPTP, they’re peeved at Emerson’s tone-deaf choice of its 2023 commencement speaker, producer Pamela Abdy, who was handpicked by Warner Discovery President David Zaslav to lead the corporation’s film division. (The commencement took place a week before Zaslav himself spoke at the Boston University commencement.) They’re also annoyed at the school’s hiring of union-busting attorneys to negotiate with adjunct faculty and staff who are attempting to form a union.

Most of all, while many of the school’s prestigious alumni walk the WGA picket lines in their fight for a fair contract, they are angry that their school has remained silent, refusing to offer even a statement of support for the Guild's fight, despite their request for a gesture of solidarity. 

“The only offer that we have received from the school was a pizza party to network with current students, which is just another bit of free publicity for the school,” said WGAW Board member Liz Hsiao Lan Alper, an Emerson alum. “We decided that we needed to do something.”

Alper and showrunner and Universal lot coordinator Judalina Neira circulated a petition to their fellow “Emerson Mafia,” condemning the school’s selection of Abdy, its refusal to support or sanction an alumni picket event last week at Universal and its overall failure to show solidarity. Stating that the college’s recent actions send “the collective message that Emerson College is anti-union and anti-labor,” they sent the petition to outgoing president William Gilligan in advance of the picket, inviting the president to join them for the Universal alumni picket.

Unsurprisingly, Gilligan didn’t show, but the picket still brought out a strong group of WGA members and supporters from other parts of the industry who showed the unity that they say their alma mater is lacking. Wearing their school’s purple and gold, and sporting Emerson Mafia pins, the picketers were happy to be out with their like-minded peers.

“I am very proud of my community and very close to my Emerson comrades, and I have maintained strong ties with the college throughout, having helped mentor students through their Los Angeles programs,” said Keto Shimizu, executive producer and co-showrunner of DC’s Legends of Tomorrow, speaking from the Universal picket line. “So I’m here definitely in support of this wonderful group of people, but also with some frustration that our school hasn’t stood up for us in all of this.” 

“It feels like, at the bare minimum, they could just offer their support of their students, especially when they champion themselves as producing working alumni,” added writer-producer and WGAW member Zach Craley.

While not a WGA member, Julian Higgins is an Emerson alum who has been in the trenches of union battles, organizing both the Emerson Los Angeles adjunct faculty and with faculty at the American Film Institute.

Surveying the turnout for the alumni picket, Higgins expressed pride both in the picketing of his fellow alums and in what he feels the action represents.

“It’s really awesome to see Emerson alums both in and outside of the WGA coming out to show their solidarity, not just with writers, but also with artists in general. That’s what gets me activated,” said Higgins, a DGA member. “This is not about just the writers. The WGA is fighting for artist of all kinds, and frankly this is just part of a much broader labor movement that has reached a critical point right now. We’re entering some serious late-stage capitalism here, and union collective action is the only thing standing in the way. So we really need to all get on board with what the WGA is doing.”

According to Alper, the list of people on the newly-formed Emerson Alumni Advocate Committee is continuing to grow, and the group is still collecting signatures for the petition demanding Emerson administration to do better.

“We’re going to keep everybody informed of what we're doing to pressure the school to acknowledge that siding with tech and with Wall Street is the antithesis of their students’ well-being,” said Alper.

Emerson College alums at Universal.
ER reunion picket at Warner Bros. Photo by J.W. Hendricks.

Over the course of its 15-season run, the hit medical drama ER gave multiple WGA writers their first break or their gateway up the ladder into producing. Now with careers that the show helped launch, many of those writers gathered at Warner Bros Studios’ Gates 2 and 3 directly across the street from a giant photo of the series cast Tuesday afternoon for a reunion picket.

“To see so many people gathered together is an amazing thing and very moving,” said longtime writer and showrunner David Zabel. “It shows their feelings about the show and the experience we had on the show, and it shows their belief in what the Guild is striking for. It shows their belief in the cause that these people out here are walking for and holding up signs about.”

Zabel arrived at the series as an executive story editor and stayed with ER for eight seasons. The experience brought him into all facets of production from editorial to casting, from being on set to scoring, to talking about actors and directors about how a scene would be shot.

“It wasn’t only that I was invited into the process, it was mandated you had to do it,” said Zabel. “That was part of the job because you were a writer-producer. At a certain point, you had to do that and that served everybody.”

The series was part of Lisa Zwerling’s education as well. A physician before she moved into the industry, Zwerling came to ER with no television experience. Like Zabel, she also moved through the ranks, writing or producing more than 80 episodes during her eight seasons with the show.

“There were producing meetings twice a week,” recalled Zwerling. “It was part of our jobs as writers to learn. When you became an upper-level writer, you learned how to be a showrunner. So we all came out of that show knowing how to go off and do our own show. That system doesn’t exist anymore as far as I can tell. It’s very threatened.”

The reunion organizers included WGAW President Meredith Stiehm who served as a writer and co-executive producer on ER.

“At the time, there were 22 episodes per year and you had to have eight writers. You’re doing the writing, the on-set production, and post all at the same time,” said Stiehm, “and I agree that the system was set up to teach writers the ropes. I don’t think that exists anymore. We have to get back to that.”

Game On, WGA!

Picketers get into character for Video Game Day at Universal.

Video Game Day at Universal brought out some creative costumes, signs and theme music. But the threat facing the livelihood of writers is no game.

“The danger is that the studio will use the threat of AI to devalue us,” said Pat Casey, a WGAW screenwriter who co-wrote the Sonic The Hedgehog movies. “Their profits are up, and our pay is down. That’s as simple as it is. They’re out to break labor. They want to bring down their costs, and they don’t care if their product is good or not, they don’t care about the audience. We’re trying to protect this industry by making sure we have good product, something to keep the audiences coming back.”

Halley Gross, who in addition to her film and TV credits, was one of the writers on The Last of Us: Part II videogame, also mentioned the challenges posed by AI.

“As somebody who works in games, I see how much technology can advance storytelling and how wonderful and helpful it can be,” said Gross, “but we also need to figure out a way to do it responsibly and ethically and to have those conversations before they become a threat to our livelihoods.”