‘The Holdovers’ Plagiarism Controversy Alleges ‘Line by Line’ Similarity to a Black List Script: Report

A new report in Variety lays out a detailed argument from British screenwriter Simon Stephenson alleging that the Oscar-nominated screenplay for Focus Features’ widely praised “The Holdovers” is extremely similar to his own 2013 Black List spec script, “Frisco” — and that, according to Stephenson, “Holdovers” director Alexander Payne likely read that script.

“The Holdovers” has only one credited screenwriter: David Hemingson, who was an entertainment lawyer before becoming a TV writer and producer in the late ’90s, working on shows such as “Just Shoot Me!,” “Kitchen Confidential,” “How I Met Your Mother,” and “Don’t Trust the B— in Apartment 23.” “The Holdovers” is his first produced feature.

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IndieWire has reached out to Focus, WGA West, and to reps for Payne, Hemingson, and Stephenson, but has not yet received a response.

Stephenson is credited as a co-writer on Pixar’s “Luca” and received an “additional material” writing credit for “Paddington 2.” Working Title is developing his novel, “Set My Heart to Five,” with Edgar Wright to direct for Universal.

Variety’s report appears to show that his script did make it before Alexander Payne.

As no. 39 on the 2013 Black List, this is the “Frisco” logline: “A forty-something pediatric allergist, who specializes in hazelnut and is facing a divorce, learns lessons in living from a wise-beyond-her-years terminally ill 15-year-old patient when she crashes his weekend trip to a conference in San Francisco.” “The Holdovers” is the story of a cranky prep school history teacher who is forced to care for a 15-year-old student.

According to Variety, Stephenson first reached out to the WGA about the claim on January 12. The guild usually does not investigate plagiarism claims involving spec scripts, but the report claims the assertion received some discussion. It’s common practice for studio story executives to decline spec scripts in order to avoid this issue.

Variety appears to show a paper trail of emails that suggest Payne did read the script or was at least aware of it when he decided to pass in December 2019 — shortly before he began work with Hemingson on what became “The Holdovers.” The outlet also published a detailed memo from Stephenson comparing the two scripts.

Payne has said on some occasions, including at the Thessaloniki Film Festival in November, that he was involved in shaping the “Holdovers” script despite electing not to take a screen credit.

Hemingson and “The Holdovers” are up for the Best Original Screenplay Oscar at the Academy Awards March 10, competing against “Anatomy of a Fall,” “Maestro,” “May December,” and “Past Lives.”

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