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Alexander Payne's “The Holdovers” accused of plagiarism, writer calls screenplay 'forensically identical' to his

"I do mean literally everything — story, characters, structure, scenes, dialogue, the whole thing."

One day before Alexander Payne’s heartwarming dramedy The Holdovers potentially wins the award for Best Original Screenplay at the 2024 Oscars, the film has been accused of plagiarism.

Simon Stephenson, whose previous work includes Pixar’s Luca and Paddington 2, accused Payne and Holdovers writer David Hemingson of the “line-by-line” theft of his 2013 screenplay Frisco in emails and documents sent to the Writers Guild of America, which Variety has reviewed and published.

Stephenson’s script, which appeared on The Black List, follows a disgruntled children’s doctor who gets stuck looking after a 15-year-old patient, while Hemingson’s Holdovers tells the story of a disgruntled boarding school teacher who is left in charge of a 15-year-old student over the holidays.

Stephenson emailed WGA senior director of credits Lesley Mackey on Jan. 12 to set up a time to discuss a “credits-related issue on quite a high-profile WGA-covered project," Variety reports. In a follow-up email sent after their conversation, he added, “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.’”

Representatives for Payne, Hemingson, Focus Features, Stephenson, and the WGA did not immediately respond to EW's request for comment. Payne and Hemingson declined to comment to Variety, and though Stephenson confirmed the authenticity of the emails, he declined to further comment to the outlet.

<p>Seacia Pavao/FOCUS FEATURES</p> Dominic Sessa, Da'Vine Joy Randolph, and Paul Giamatti in 'The Holdovers'

Seacia Pavao/FOCUS FEATURES

Dominic Sessa, Da'Vine Joy Randolph, and Paul Giamatti in 'The Holdovers'

Since then, Stephenson has been engaged in months-long discussions with the WGA in order to address his claims, Variety reports. Further muddying the waters is the fact that Stephenson alleges that Payne had previously received the script for Frisco in 2013 and in 2019, shortly before the director tapped Hemingson to collaborate with him on what would become The Holdovers.

Variety shared portions of two 2013 emails that two Hollywood agents sent to Stephenson, including one from United Talent Agency’s Geoff Morley that seemed to suggest that Payne had read the script. The email read, “I spoke to Alexander Payne’s exec Jim Burke directly a while back, and he said that Payne did like it but was not interested in prod [producing] or directing it.”

In 2019, Stephenson alleges that Frisco wound up on Payne’s radar for a second time after the screenplay was taken to Netflix, who then passed it on to Payne. John Woodward, cofounder of the U.K. production company Brightstar, sent an email to Stephenson and fellow cofounder Tanya Seghatchian that read in part: “Sorry to say that Alexander has now read but says it is not quite what he is looking for.”

In a separate email to the WGA board sent in February, Stephenson wrote that he could “demonstrate beyond any possible doubt that the meaningful entirety of the screenplay for a film with WGA-sanctioned credits that is currently on track to win a screenwriting Oscar has been plagiarized line-by-line from a popular unproduced screenplay of mine.”

“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,” he continued. “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.”

Stephenson added, “I’ve been a working writer for 20 years — in my native U.K. before I came to the U.S. — and so I’m very aware that people can often have surprisingly similar ideas and sometimes a few elements can be ‘borrowed,’ etc. This just isn’t that situation. The two screenplays are forensically identical and riddled with unique smoking guns throughout.”

Stephenson intimated in the email that Mackey had told him the WGA wouldn’t address his case because Frisco was a spec script, and presented three separate documents to prove his case against the film, reports Variety. In one of Stephenson's documents, which the outlet published in full, the writer claims that "The Holdovers has been copied from the Frisco screenplay by transposition" and has taken its "entire story, structure, sequencing, scenes, sequential sub-beats within scenes, line-by-line substance of action and dialogue, characters, arcs, relationships, theme, and tone."

He was ultimately directed to WGA West associate counsel Leila Azari, who stated that it was not a guild issue and, in a March email, suggested that “a lawsuit remains the most viable option under the circumstances.” The case's current status remains unclear.

While Payne is not listed as a writer on The Holdovers, the director has expressed that he took on a supervisor role over its script, telling the Los Angeles Times last year, “[Hemingson] would run two, three, four different scenarios by me, and I would put the kibosh on him until we finally said, ‘Yes, this one.’” He also told the outlet that the film was inspired by Marcel Pagnol’s 1935 French film Merlusse, which follows a curmudgeonly teacher who is charged with looking after boarding school students over the holidays.

The Holdovers is up for five Academy Awards Sunday night, including Best Picture, Best Actor (for Paul Giamatti), Best Supporting Actress (for Da'Vine Joy Randolph), Best Original Screenplay, and Best Film Editing.

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