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The Holdovers, Best Original Screenplay nominee at the 2024 Oscars, accused of plagiarism

Simon Stephenson, the Scottish screenwriter whose credits include Pixar’s critically acclaimed animated feature film Luca, has accused Oscar-nominated movie The Holdovers of plagiarism.

The allegation lands on the eve of this year’s Academy Awards, where the 2023 comedy-drama is up for five trophies including Best Original Screenplay.

In an exclusive report by Variety, emails sent by Stephenson to Lesley Mackey, senior director of credits at the Writers Guild of America, along with other WGA staffers, make the complaint that director Alexander Payne’s film plagiarises “line by line” from a well-known, unproduced, screenplay of his.

Stephenson’s screenplay, Frisco, is a drama about a weary middle-aged children’s doctor and the 15-year-old patient he is made to look after.

The Holdovers stars Paul Giamatti as an unpopular classics professor at an all-male boarding school, who is forced to supervise a 15-year-old student during the holiday break.

Along with the film’s Best Original screenplay nod, The Holdovers is nominated for Best Editing and the biggest prize of the night, Best Picture. Giamatti is up for Best Actor, while his co-star Da’Vine Joy Randolph is nominated for Best Supporting Actress.

L-R: Dominic Sessa, Paul Giamatti and Da'Vine Joy Randolph in a scene from ‘The Holdovers’ (© 2023 FOCUS FEATURES LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.)
L-R: Dominic Sessa, Paul Giamatti and Da'Vine Joy Randolph in a scene from ‘The Holdovers’ (© 2023 FOCUS FEATURES LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.)

The Frisco screenplay caused considerable buzz around Hollywood in 2013, when it featured at No 3 on the annual Black List, which compiles the industry’s most popular unproduced screenplays.

According to Variety, Stephenson wrote that he was able to demonstrate “beyond any possible doubt” that the “meaningful entirety” of The Holdovers screenplay had been lifted from his own work.

He said he would also be able to produce evidence that Payne had been sent and read his screenplay “on two separate occasions prior to the offending film entering development”.

“By ‘meaningful entirety’ I do mean literally everything,” he wrote of the alleged plagiarism. “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.”

Paul Giamatti is up for Best Actor for his performance as classics professor Paul Hunham (AP)
Paul Giamatti is up for Best Actor for his performance as classics professor Paul Hunham (AP)

Stephenson, who has worked as a professional writer for the past 20 years, said he was aware that it was possible for people to have “surprisingly similar” ideas and that on occasions, certain elements could be “borrowed”.

“This just isn’t that situation,” he said. “The two screenplays are forensically identical and riddled with unique smoking guns throughout.”

The Independent has contacted representatives for Stephenson and Payne, and the WGA, for comment. Payne declined to comment to Variety.

The Academy Awards are taking place tonight (10 March) at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles, where many of Hollywood’s biggest stars will gather to see who scoops the ceremony’s top prizes.

The Holdovers is one of the 2024 Oscars’ most popular entries, competing against Christopher Nolan’s epic Oppenheimer starring Best Actor favourite Cillian Murphy, and Poor Things from director Yorgos Lanthimos starring Emma Stone and Mark Ruffalo.

Other top contenders include Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon, led by Leonardo DiCaprio, Lily Gladstone and Rober De Niro, and Greta Gerwig’s Barbie.

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