The Holdovers | Alexander Payne’s film accused of plagiarism

The Holdovers review
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British screenwriter Simon Stephenson has accused the makers of The Holdovers of plagiarism, saying its similarity to his 2013 script, Frisco, is “brazen”.

Mere hours before Alexander Payne’s comedy drama The Holdovers was garlanded with an Oscar win – Da’Vine Joy Randolph walked off with a Best Supporting Actress gong – controversy suddenly blew up thanks to a report published by Variety.

According to British novelist and screenwriter Simon Stephenson – whose credits include The Electrical Life Of Louis WainThe Holdovers was “plagiarised line by line” from Frisco, a screenplay he wrote in 2013.

One of the scripts shortlisted for 2013’s Black List of unproduced screenplays, Frisco is about a middle-aged, grouchy pediatrician who strikes up an unlikely friendship with a 15 year-old patient. This, Stephenson has argued, is markedly similar to the premise of The Holdovers, in which a middle-aged, grouchy teacher (played by Paul Giamatti in the film) strikes up an unlikely friendship with a 15 year-old pupil.

In emails to the Writers Guild of America, Stephenson goes further, alleging that The Holdovers’ plagiarism is so “brazen” that its script is taken in “meaningful entirety” from Frisco.

“I can demonstrate beyond any possible doubt that the meaningful entirety of the screenplay […] has been plagiarised line-by-line from a popular unproduced screenplay of mine,” Stephenson wrote in a 25th February email published by Variety. “I can also show that the director of the offending film was sent and read my screenplay on two separate occasions prior to the offending film entering development. By ‘meaningful entirety’ I do mean literally everything- story, characters, structure, scenes, dialogue, the whole thing. Some of it is just insanely brazen: many of the most important scenes are effectively unaltered and even remain visibly identical in layout on the page.”

Read more: The Holdovers review | Pure, cinematic soup for the soul

Variety also published a 33-page ‘introductory document’ which provides a comparison with Stephenson’s script and The Holdovers.

Stephenson also alleges that director Alexander Payne had been in possession of the Frisco script in 2013 and 2019 and that on both occasions he’d declined to take things further. The Holdovers was written by David Hemingson – whose previous credits include such TV comedies as American Dad and Family Guy – though Payne has said that he had considerable input into the script’s creative direction.

Ultimately, the WGA said that it couldn’t get involved because Stephenson had written Frisco on spec (as in, it hadn’t been commissioned by a studio or producer), and recommended that he file a lawsuit instead.

The Holdovers was nominated for an Academy Award but ultimately lost out – Anatomy Of A Fall received the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.

What will happen next in the Frisco-Holdovers controversy isn’t clear. Reading through the comparison document put together by Stephenson, and the similarities between the two screenplays is evident, but it’s hard to say whether there’s a clear-cut case for the ‘line-by-line’ allegations the screenwriter has made.

Certainly, the premise of a jaded, middle-aged protagonist and a younger, more hopeful supporting character isn’t a unique one – 2016’s Hunt For The Wilderpeople follows a similar template, to cite but one example. Whether The Holdovers takes “characters, structure, scenes, dialogue” from Frisco – or whether both scripts adhere to the conventions of screenwriting – is something we’d probably better leave to well-paid lawyers to decide.

The reaction from other screenwriters, however, seems to have come down on the side of The Holdovers so far, at least if this compilation of responses over at The Wrap is to be believed. “With The Holdovers being accused of plagiarism,” wrote Ted TV screenwriter Julius Sharpe, “I’d like to point out that Oppenheimer is basically Minions.”

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