The Holdovers‘ screenplay has been accused of plagiarising a well-known, unproduced script.

Yesterday (March 9), Variety reported that screenwriter Simon Stephenson (Luca) sent a complaint to the WGA. He alleged that the Alexander Payne-directed film had “brazen” similarities to his own script, Frisco – a drama between a middle-aged children’s doctor and his 15-year-old patient.

Meanwhile, The Holdovers is about a surly classics professor (Paul Giamatti) at an all-male boarding school, forced to look after a 15-year-old student (Dominic Sessa) over the holiday break.

In the email, Stephenson reportedly wrote he could demonstrate “beyond any possible doubt” that the “meaningful entirety” of The Holdovers had been plagiarised “line-by-line”  from his own script. “By ‘meaningful entirety’ I do mean literally everything,” he added – “story, characters, structure, scenes, dialogue, the whole thing. Some of it is just insanely brazen.”

He went on to allege that “many of the most important scenes are effectively unaltered and even remain visibly identical in layout on the page.”

Paul Giamatti stars as Paul Hunham and Dominic Sessa as Angus Tully in director Alexander Paynes THE HOLDOVERS, a Focus Features release.
Credit: Seacia Pavao / © 2023 FOCUS FEATURES LLC

The Holdovers is currently nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, along with Best Picture and Best Editing. Giamatti is also nominated for Best Actor, whilst Joy Randolph is up for Best Supporting Actress.

Payne and Hemingson declined to comment to Variety; Stephenson confirmed emails were real, but also declined further comment to the publication.

Though unproduced, Frisco received considerable attention when it appeared at Number 3 on the Black List, which runs an annual survey on the best unproduced screenplays in the industry.

Stephenson alleged that Payne was in possession of the Frisco script on two occasions, in 2013 and late 2019. In 2013, Payne was reported as “liking” the script but “not interested in prod[ucing] or directing” Frisco, implying he had read it. But around 2019, Payne apparently came to screenwriter David Hemingson to propose working on a project, which Variety said was “backed up” by several emails from Hollywood agencies and producers. It was around this time that the duo began working on The Holdovers.

Payne previously claimed on The Rough Cut podcast that the idea for the film came from “a 1935 French movie I’d seen at a film festival about a dozen years ago”, and coincidentally received a TV pilot set in a boarding school around five years ago. Payne suggested to Hemingway that they translate it into a film, which then birthed The Holdover.

According to an email reviewed by Variety, the WGA apparently would not get involved as Frisco had been written “on spec” (without a specific client/buyer), despite Payne, Hemingson and Stephenson all being WGA members. However, they also reported that the case “sparked debate” in the WGA, with one of its officers finding the allegations “unsettling”.

You can read the full list of plagiarism accusations here.

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