Oberlin Alumni Magazine

The Golden Age of Obiewood

Oberlin creatives have the talent to make it in Hollywood. Now they have the network too.

May 30, 2023

Annie Zaleski

Collage of photos and graphic designs representing the Oberlin Screenwriters Intensive
Pictured l-r: Michele Mulroney, Kieran Mulroney, Sterlin Harjo
Photo credit: Photos by Geoff Pingree and Yevhen Gulenko, Illustrations by Nadia Radic

Ask Miles Labat about his favorite movies, and you’ll get an impassioned, incisive response encompassing Fritz Lang’s influential 1931 thriller M, Italian and Japanese filmmakers of the ’40s and ’50s, and the silent film icon F.W. Murnau.

“My preference, aesthetically, is just how film feels,” says Labat, a 2014 Oberlin grad. “Because I grew up on music, I’m very big on feeling. That’s why I love Thelonious Monk and Duke Ellington.”

For Labat, music and film have always been intertwined. Growing up in New Orleans, he paired a talent for the drums with a deep passion for movies. At Oberlin, he continued to nurture both interests, studying jazz in the conservatory while taking enough film classes to earn a minor in cinema studies.

“I didn’t really go to any parties,” he says. “I went to the library at Mudd, checked out a room, and watched movies on the weekends.”

After graduation, Labat gigged for a few years but realized he’d rather pursue a career in film. A self-taught writer, he worked as a camera assistant and refined his own craft, directing and producing a short movie and developing scripts.

Admission into film school, however, remained elusive. But when Labat heard about the inaugural Oberlin Screenwriters Intensive—a three-day event held on campus during the 2023 Winter Term and tailored to aspiring TV and movie writers—he didn’t need to think twice before applying.

“If I learned anything from working in film production, it’s that every opportunity counts. You just have to search for them.”

Labat was one of eight fellows in the initial Oberlin Screenwriters Intensive (OSI), a cohort comprising Oberlin alums at varying stages in their careers, toting scripts geared toward features as well as TV drama and comedy.

“Obies are original, independent thinkers and have a lot to say about the world,” says writer, director, and producer Michele Mulroney, vice president of the Writers Guild of America West and co-founder of OSI along with her husband, Kieran Mulroney (pictured, previous spread from left). “Our hope was that we could tap into those incredible voices that we know Obies have.”

Adds Kieran: “The opportunity to take something that you’ve written and spend hours getting inside of it with another brain—with another artist, with another writer—is this rare thing.”

Accordingly, across three packed days, the fellows were mentored by Sterlin Harjo, co-creator and showrunner of the Peabody Award-winning series Reservation Dogs (pictured, right on previous spread); Allison Schroeder, who was nominated for an Oscar, British Academy Film Award, and Writers Guild of America Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for Hidden Figures; Micah Schraft, who has written, produced, and directed multiple TV shows; and Julian Breece, who co-wrote the Emmy-nominated Netflix series When They See Us and wrote the screenplay for Netflix’s forthcoming film Bayard.

OSI mentors and fellows, pictured outside Oberlin’s historic Apollo Theatre in January 2023.
OSI mentors and fellows, pictured outside Oberlin’s historic Apollo Theatre in January 2023.

The Mulroneys, who also served as OSI mentors, became involved with Oberlin when their daughter Stella ’21 was a first-year student. They were a natural fit: Across a career that spans more than 20 years, they’ve amassed extensive writing, producing, and directing credits, including writing and directing the 2009 independent feature Paper Man (starring Emma Stone and Ryan Reynolds); writing 2011’s Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows; and co-writing 2017’s Power Rangers.

At Stella’s graduation, the Mulroneys found themselves chatting with Laura Baudot, associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and an associate professor of English. “In conversation over tea, I said, ‘You know what Oberlin needs? It needs a writers’ conference. It needs something that’s known outside of the college,’” Kieran says.

A few months later, their idle conversation became a reality—and took shape over the year that followed. “We wanted this intensive to be very craft-focused, about the fundamentals of writing for the screen: screenplays and teleplays,” Michele says. “It’s not an industry accelerator, where we’re about to try and go sell the projects, although we very much hope and expect these projects to do well.”

An intensive dedicated to storytelling dovetails neatly with Oberlin’s commitment to fostering opportunities for its students and alumni to develop their narrative skills and voices. Traditionally, students have received a strong foundation in documentary filmmaking, animation, and experimental filmmaking, both at Oberlin and off campus via the nonprofit StoryLens Pictures and semester-exchange programs at Prague Film School and New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.

But in recent years, English and cinema studies professor Geoff Pingree noticed increasing interest in Oberlin’s screenwriting courses. In response, he and creative writing professor Emily Barton joined forces to integrate the courses into both the cinema studies and creative writing programs. (The popular Cinematic Storytelling Workshop, for example, is cross-listed in both departments.)

“My conversations with Emily have been along the lines of, ‘Why don’t we build a pathway?’” Pingree says. “Let’s build a pathway of what I call writing for screens. Increasingly, students are not writing for theater or movies. They’re writing for iPhones or iPads.” To Pingree, OSI perfectly complements this evolution. “Oberlin proportionately produces a really high rate of good and interesting writers,” he says. “But there’s something about their relationship with stories that is very interesting. The intensive made sense to me as something that would naturally connect with this pipeline of Oberlin storytellers we’re trying to create that write for different forms.”

"We can get distracted by our careers on the coasts, but we can find our voice out there, together, on that magical campus in Ohio."

Micah Schraft, writer, producer, director, and mentor for the 2023 Oberlin Screenwriters Intensive.

Pingree's vision aligns with existing opportunities for Oberlin students that are grounded in experiential learning and network-building. Among them are integrative concentrations, which blend coursework with real-world experience, and the wide-ranging resources of the Center for Engaged Liberal Arts. The latter connects students and alumni with a wide range of professional development support.

Creating pathways for Oberlin students and alums is also a major goal of the Oberlin Entertainment Network. Affectionately dubbed “Obiewood,” the network exists to help students and alumni succeed in the entertainment industry.

Driven by a core working group of alumni and parents with established careers in Hollywood—including the Mulroneys, actor-comedian Ed Helms ’96, executive Steve Dolcemaschio, and TV writer Andrew Guest ’99—and presented in conjunction with Oberlin’s alumni engagement office, Obiewood produces education-focused events and networking opportunities intended to untangle the often winding path toward working in entertainment. Previous events have included a webinar called “The Art of the Pitch” and the panel discussion “Rising Stars vs. Old Guard: A Showbiz Clash of the Ages.”

A former film student at Oberlin, Helms has been working in entertainment for close to 30 years, his iconic roles including uptight dentist Stu Price in the Hangover movies, salesman Andy Bernard on The Office, and correspondent on Comedy Central’s The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.

“I know how hard it is to land on your feet after college in general, but especially in an [industry as] crazy as show business,” he says. “It’s been really fun to collaborate with other alums and passionate people, just trying to figure out some pipelines and access points and landing pads, and making that transition a little bit easier.”

As with the Oberlin Screenwriters Intensive, Helms sees Obiewood fitting into larger initiatives on campus that are geared toward establishing pathways for students, particularly the Career Communities, which offer formalized networks around various popular career tracks.

“The college is doing a really good job right now creating working groups in different professions,” Helms says. “We became the show business version of that.” Obiewood also exists as a conduit of support for alumni already working in the entertainment industry—a model similar to Harvardwood, a nonprofit founded by (and geared for) Harvard University graduates that now has more than 10,000 members worldwide.

“In order to be successful in show business, no matter what path you want to take, you need to have an entrepreneurial fire in your belly,” Helms says. “But even if you have that—and I know from my personal experience—there’s always this sense of, ‘Where do you start? Where do you go? Who do you talk to?’ There aren’t really shortcuts, but we can make access to information easier. We can demystify things and help people feel a little bit safer and more comfortable in such a chaotic business. And that can go a really long way.”

“The fellows gain a lot from this program, but it’s a gift to the mentors as well. The energy, drive, and big starry-eyed dreams that were shared over those three days reminded me why I got into the business of visual storytelling in the first place.”

Julian Breece

As a senior manager for creative affairs at A+E Studios, Tasha Cohan ’11 spends her days discovering, developing, and shaping drama and comedy projects for TV and streaming platforms. The youngest member of the working group that drives Obiewood, she became involved partly because she found herself fielding multiple requests from students for informational interviews and realized there was so much interest in what she did—and curiosity about how she got there.

“Oberlin does such a wonderful job of finding incredible students who have so much to say and who engage with art in wonderful ways,” she says. “And so I thought that Hollywood—or my part of Hollywood, which is scripted dramas—could benefit from having more Obies all throughout the process.” At Oberlin, Cohan thought she would be a documentary filmmaker. “[But] I found out that it really didn’t suit me professionally,” she says. After graduation, she moved into her mom’s garage in Portland, Oregon, and took a DIY approach to a career.

“I tried to teach myself how to write screenplays,” she says. “I read the books. I listened to the podcasts. But I was really getting nowhere, and I did not know a single person in scripted TV at all.” In fact, she found it difficult to even find an Oberlin alum who could do an informational interview.

She decided to get an MFA—an experience that led to internships and, eventually, her current job. But she realizes now that the liberal arts education she received at Oberlin was enough preparation for what she does today.

“You need to be able to read, and talk about what you read, and write clearly and have an opinion about art,” she says. “And all that was stuff that I learned at Oberlin— more so actually at Oberlin than in my MFA [program].”

With Obiewood, Cohan helps younger alums grasp what it’s like to work in a studio on the business side; connects them to people who can help; and even simply “mak[es] them feel like they’re not alone,” she says.

“The time that was the hardest for me was that transition from my last year to actually finding my way. If I had known some of this information when I was still at Oberlin—if I could have been connected with some of these folks—I could have gone more directly into my path.”

Besides providing a sense of belonging and community, Obiewood facilitates invaluable career connections. During a Friday afternoon Zoom interview in early March, Liam Oznowich ’17 politely pauses the conversation to take a phone call, which turns out to be related to reserving space for an upcoming Obiewood event that he’s moderating.

That event, “Live from the Trenches: Hollywood’s Rising Stars Share Their Stories,” took place April 20 at the Los Angeles offices of United Talent Agency. The panel discussion—which included early-career employees working in acting, TV writing, documentary production, and series coordination—covered tangible, practical advice to industry newcomers about getting started, as well as sharing insights about what it’s like working in Hollywood now.

Oznowich conceived the idea for the panel based partly on his own years of hard work and hustle. During college, the Cleveland native had several internships, including one in TV development at Paramount Television and another in the production department at Late Night with Seth Meyers. But Oznowich— who triple-majored in creative writing, cinema studies, and French—knew he wanted to write. So after graduation, he headed to L.A., where he took on more internships before landing at a talent agency as a literary assistant to two agents: one who focused on film and another who primarily handled TV.

“Everybody was telling me that no matter what I wanted to do, I needed to work at an agency,” he says. “It was a lot of work [and] it was very hectic, but it was a year and a half of a lot of learning. It was like a crash course in how the business worked.” Oznowich parlayed this experience into a writer’s production assistant job on the first season of HBO Max’s Flight Attendant and then gigs as a showrunner’s assistant on Supergirl and The Venery of Samantha Bird.

In fall 2022, Oznowich stepped into his current role: assistant to Ed Helms. He’s spent the past few months learning about what it’s like to be on set as Helms has been filming a Netflix movie, Family Leave, alongside Jennifer Garner.

Oznowich traces his latest job to his own participation in Obiewood. He met Helms via a virtual pitch event, and they reconnected at an August 2022 Obiewood mixer. There, he boldly presented his idea for the panel that became Obiewood’s “Live from the Trenches.”

During subsequent email conversations, Helms asked if Oznowich was looking for work. “And I was like, ‘Yes, please,’” he says with a laugh. “I’m freelancing. But I need a job.” They hit it off during a more formal interview, and Oznowich got what he calls his “dream job,” for many reasons.

“He was very open to me wanting to write, and [there’s] the opportunity to get involved with the development side of the company in terms of reading scripts and giving my thoughts and having creative input,” Oznowich says.

“It seemed like a perfect opportunity.”

Michele and Kieran Mulroney drew on their experience being part of the Obiewood working group as they envisioned what the Oberlin Screenwriters Intensive could look like. For starters, they were committed to presenting the program at Oberlin, since writing labs and intensives often take place in New York and L.A. Michele hoped to draw students with backgrounds in other disciplines, like music and science.

They were also inspired by their 2004 participation in the prestigious Sundance Screenwriters Lab and Directors Lab, which showed them the importance of creating an empowering and supportive environment.

“The Oberlin Screenwriters Intensive is a conversation from artist to artist,” Kieran says. “It’s about supporting your script and ideas. It’s, ‘You have built this object. How can we make this the best version of the object?’ It’s a two-way conversation.”

Appropriately, one-on-one mentor sessions that dug into the fellows’ scripts were the cornerstone of OSI. These came paired with smaller-group breakout sessions, in which four fellows and two mentors gathered for in-depth discussions about strategies for rewriting and adapting intellectual property, as well as a session that simulated a writers’ room for television.

The intensive also featured a panel on what to expect in the business. “We got very real about some of the joys and challenges of working in this industry—which is a thriving industry, but a very selective industry, and it can be hard to get into,” Michele says. “And then once you get into it, it’s not easy to sustain a career. But we were able to share strategies about how to put your best foot forward, how to not lose your voice, [and] how to collaborate with producers and executives and other writers along the way.”

“The Oberlin Screenwriters Intensive is a conversation from artist to artist. It’s about supporting your script and ideas.”

Kieran Mulroney P'21

For writer and comic Ru Anderson ’19, OSI’s approach was exactly what they needed. “What I was looking for was mentorship and one-on-one time with working screenwriters like the Mulroneys and the other mentors,” they said over Zoom from Los Angeles. “So I was like, ‘OK, this is perfect.’”

Anderson had applied to screenwriter intensives before but found them to be extremely competitive and appreciated that OSI was easier to get into. “I don’t need to pull off the odds of getting into Harvard—I just want to talk to someone who can teach me something. And that was exactly what I got, and it was awesome.

A Philadelphia native who majored in comparative American studies, Anderson brought a script for a half-hour “mockumentary written in reality TV-show style, about an event-planning company in West Hollywood. So it’s sort of like Selling Sunset meets Party Down.”

Anderson, who also performs stand-up around L.A., received a lot of notes on the script. “At first, it felt really overwhelming, and I felt defeated, to be honest. But now that I’ve had almost two months to step back, I’m like, ‘OK, I can sort through everyone else’s voices, find my own, and still incorporate things people have said to make it a stronger script.’”

As it so happens, some of Anderson’s favorite shows involve Oberlin alums, including Search Party (Sarah-Violet Bliss ’06), High Maintenance (Ben Sinclair ’06), and Girls (Lena Dunham ’08). They were also buoyed by the community that’s grown out of a fall 2022 Obiewood networking event. “OK, cool,” Anderson remembers thinking. “Now I have access to this alumni network.” Another OSI fellow, Hyacinth Parker ’17, has spent several years working on a script based on a book by Shay Youngblood. “The story is about a young Black woman named Eden who moves to Paris in 1986, in pursuit of James Baldwin and to become a writer and fulfill her dream,” she says.

After graduating with a degree in environmental studies, Parker moved abroad for a year and then worked in the New York Times’ advertising department, focusing on entertainment brands such as Netflix, Hulu, A24, and HBO. Over time, however, the San Francisco native felt pulled in a different direction. “There was a moment where I was like, ‘I would much rather work on making films,’” she says. Parker decided to change course. Her jobs today involve working in production—“mostly for documentaries and docuseries,” she says.

Parker’s path in entertainment has been typically nonlinear. “The first challenge was really figuring out how to get in,” she says. Finding the right position was also paramount—but complicated by the fact she finished her résumé the week before the pandemic hit in 2020. She decided to stay at the Times for an extra year, albeit in a different job, doing more creative strategies with the same entertainment brands, and worked on her script and other projects.

“One of the main challenges I face is learning how to be patient and how to have grit and keep pursuing the dream even though it seems like everything’s falling apart,” says Parker, noting the pandemic “but then also the challenge of Hollywood always being in flux and figuring out how to get the story told and how to make the story when you don’t have enough money. Or it seems like everybody’s just interested in true-crime documentaries, and they don’t want to make a movie about a young Black girl who’s moving to Paris because it’s not demographically in.”

The OSI feedback was invaluable, however. “All of their advice really led towards the same path, which was: Keep going, keep pursuing this vision that you have for the story—but make it bigger, more expansive, and more dynamic.”

Parker is preparing to film a short version of her script in collaboration with her creative partner and a cinematographer and a French production team, with the goal of having a “strong stand-alone piece” that can also generate interest for the larger film.

“I really appreciated the opportunity to learn from writers who were so experienced and had such depth and success in their careers,” she says. “It was a privilege to sit with them for three days and was a breath of fresh air as they provided a new perspective on my story. A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

Julian Breece points at writing on white board
Writer-director Julian Breece teaches at the Oberlin Screenwriters Intensive.

The hope is that the first cohort of the Oberlin Screenwriters Intensive turns into a self-sustaining community—something that appears to be happening, as Michele Mulroney shares news of fellows forming writers’ groups and meeting up in New York City. Ru Anderson, meanwhile, has been able to rely on Parker and another fellow, Charlotte Istel ’14, when facing “career conundrums that I’ve needed support with.”

However, much like how Obiewood benefits all members, the support goes both ways. “I certainly can speak for the other mentors that we got as much, if not more, out of this intensive than the fellows did,” Michele says. “It was so inspiring for us. Their openness was incredible. Not every writer is able to be that open and receptive to interesting or challenging thoughts.”

The next Oberlin Screenwriters Intensive is set for January 11-13, 2024, with applications welcome beginning in September. Michele Mulroney hopes to build on the success of this year, keeping the mentorship and group classes an integral part, while continuing to invite the greater Oberlin community to take part in screenings and panels. “We want to wrap our arms around the entire college and faculty and the town of Oberlin and make this something that annually we all look forward to doing and being together for,” she says.

Miles Labat’s OSI experience certainly fulfilled his expectations. His application included an original screenplay called Caper, rooted in police corruption in early 1970s New York City.

“It’s a fictional story that was based around a bank robbery from a corrupt ex-detective who needed to do the bank robbery in order to get out of a deal with the Black mafia of New York,” he explains. “And this was all based on actual syndicates and actual figures in the corrupt police department.”

In response to mentor feedback, Labat overhauled the script. He’s also eyeing up a move from New Orleans to L.A. this summer. And at the intensive, he had a chance to discuss old films, writers, and film theorists with his new mentors. “I’m like, ‘Man, I never get to talk about these people with anybody,’” he says. “There was a camaraderie aspect to the mentor sessions.”

His other enduring takeaways might prove to be even more valuable. “One of the best things I learned was from Sterlin Harjo, who said the difference between people who make it and don’t is perseverance—it’s not merit,” he says. “It is people who stick it through, because it’s gonna get hard, and a lot of people give up. And those that don’t give up eventually make it.”

Annie Zaleski is the editor of the Oberlin Alumni Magazine.

Elevator Pitches

As part of the application process for the Oberlin Screenwriters Intensive, fellows included a pitch for a work-in-progress TV show or film script. Here are their winning ideas.

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