Writer Accuses ‘The Holdovers’ of ‘Line-by-Line’ Plagiarism – Hours Before Oscars

The Holdovers (Credit: Focus Features)

Oscars season always brings at least one controversy, and this year The Holdovers has landed at the center of a real-life Hollywood drama.

The film from director Alexander Payne and writer David Hemingson is nominated for five Oscars, including best picture and best original screenplay.

But just one day before tonight’s awards, Variety published an exclusive article saying a member of the Writers Guild of America has alleged The Holders script was “plagiarized line-by-line.”

In its Saturday report, the outlet said screenwriter Simon Stephenson (Luca and Paddington 2) stepped forward weeks ago and formally accused the team behind The Holdovers of ripping off Frisco, a screenplay he wrote in 2012.

The outlet said Payne and Hemingson declined comment.

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Frisco centers on an aging pediatrician who gets stuck looking after a 15-year-old patient. The Holdovers follows a grumpy professor (Paul Giamatti) forced to stay on campus over the Christmas holiday with cafeteria manager Mary (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), so they can look after a troubled student (Dominic Sessa) with nowhere to go.

Stephenson’s script was never made into a movie, but in 2013 it landed at number 3 on “The Black List,” an annual survey started by Franklin Leonard of Hollywood’s “most-liked” unproduced screenplays.

Variety’s article included a portion of the Frisco script, along with emails between Stephenson and the WGA.

The writer filed a complaint with the guild on Jan. 12, and called similarities between the two scripts “brazen.”

“The evidence The Holdovers screenplay has been plagiarized line-by-line from Frisco is genuinely overwhelming – anybody who looks at even the briefest sample pretty much invariably uses the word ‘brazen,’” Stephenson wrote.

Stephenson suggested he has proof that Payne, who worked on fine-tuning the script for The Holdovers was given a copy of Frisco in 2013 and later in 2019, when the script was being considered as a project for Payne to bring to the screen. However the film never moved forward and on Dec. 6, 2019, Stephenson received a communication saying, “Sorry to say that Alexander has now read but says it is not quite what he is looking for.”

The writer also accused The Holdovers team of lifting key scenes and dialogue.

In one communication, Stephenson said: “The copying is so comprehensive that it seems likely The Holdovers was created by importing Frisco into screenwriting software and directly overtyping the transposition on a line-by-line basis.”

The writer said he was contacted by WGA board members this month. The guild described the situation as “unsettling,” per Variety, but said it may not be able to help and referred Stephenson to a Los Angeles law firm because “a lawsuit remains the most viable option under these circumstances.”

Focus Features released The Holdovers on Oct. 27, 2023. The film has won a string of awards and earned $45.2 million at the global box office.

If Payne walks the Oscars red carpet this evening, he’ll likely be asked about the controversy.

Hosted by Jimmy Kimmel, the 96th Oscars air on ABC at the new time of 7 p.m. EDT/4 p.m. PDT.