‘Captain Phillips’ Screenwriter Billy Ray Helps Nail Down Scribe Demands

He hasn’t written for television since the 1990s, but “Captain Phillips” screenwriter Billy Ray spent much of the first quarter of 2014 negotiating the intricacies of the Writers Guild of America’s contract provisions covering TV work by writers earning less than $200,000 annually.

“It took eight weeks to resolve, because the business has changed so enormously due to the shorter seasons,” notes Ray, who co-chaired the negotiating committee for the agreement that was ratified April 30. “Companies don’t want to change how they operate, but everyone eventually agreed that we needed to address the issue that writers could not blithely accept being held endlessly without being compensated.”

The key provisions: Writers can’t be exclusive except when being paid; and writers can’t be held for more than 90 days under an option without a holding fee of at least one-third of the minimum.

Ray believes hammering out the specific language was aided by a negotiating committee that includes well-known showrunners Damon Lindelof (“Lost”) and Shawn Ryan (“The Shield”). “Having Shawn there is huge, because he knows how the contract works — and the other side knows that, too,” he added.

Ray notes that the WGA — unlike the DGA or SAG-AFTRA — announces the entire membership of the committee before negotiations start. And he says the WGA West board took the unprecedented step last year of announcing a five-year extension for exec director David Young, reviled by many execs for the 2007-08 strike.

“That sent a very clear message about our being unified,” Ray notes, adding that getting the companies to bend on exclusivity for the first time “was massive.”

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