Oscar-nominated The Holdovers is ‘line-by-line’ plagiarism of my screenplay, says Scottish writer

This image released by Focus Features shows Paul Giamatti in a scene from "The Holdovers".
Paul Giamatti portrays a weary, misanthropic schoolmaster in the film - Seacia Pavao / Focus Features
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

Oscar-nominated film The Holdovers has been accused of plagiarising its script “line-by-line” by a Scottish writer.

‌Simon Stephenson, whose screen credits include Paddington 2 and Pixar’s Luca, has made a formal complaint to the Writers Guild of America, claiming to have the evidence to prove the allegations.

‌The Holdovers, directed by Alexander Payne, received five Oscar nominations including for best original screenplay by David Hemingson.

‌In emails obtained by Variety, Mr Stephenson claims the script of The Holdovers plagiarised Frisco, a screenplay he wrote in 2012, which was circulated in Hollywood.

‌Frisco, which tells the story of a doctor reluctantly tasked with looking after a 15-year-old patient, was never produced.

‌The Holdovers, in which Paul Giamatti portrays a weary, misanthropic schoolmaster stuck with a teenage pupil over the Christmas holiday, was one of the film successes of the past year.

Simon Stephenson, a former paediatric doctor-turned writer
‌Simon Stephenson's screen credits include Paddington 2 and Pixar's Luca

‌Complaining to Lesley Mackey, the Guild’s director of credits, Mr Stephenson wrote: “The evidence The Holdovers screenplay has been plagiarised line-by-line from Frisco is genuinely overwhelming – anybody who looks at even the briefest sample pretty much invariably uses the word ‘brazen’.”

Mr Stephenson says his screenplay, although unproduced, was “in active development”.

‌According to Variety, Mr Payne’s team wrote to Mr Stephenson in 2013 saying the director liked the script but was not interested in producing or directing it.

‌Six years later, Mr Stephenson was told the script was “not quite” what Mr Payne was looking for.

‘Some scenes completely unaltered’

The Scottish writer alleged: “The meaningful entirety of the screenplay for The Holdovers has been copied from the Frisco screenplay by transposition.”

‌He claims scenes, characters and dialogue were lifted with some scenes being completely unaltered.

‌“I can 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 plagiarised line-by-line from a popular unproduced screenplay of mine,” he wrote in one email.

H‌e added: “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.

‌“The industrial scale of the plagiarism means that it is actually far easier to list the parts of The Holdovers that were not taken from Frisco as opposed to those that were.”

‌Of 148 scenes in The Holdovers, there were at most 20 dialogue-containing scenes that were not lifted from Frisco, Mr Stephenson alleged.

‌He also claimed the lead characters, Paul Giamatti’s teacher and the doctor in Frisco, were both: “Crumpled/dishevelled, cynical, world-weary, rebellious but deferential to authority, isolated from colleagues, rarely leaves campus/has fun.”

‌In a lengthy complaint, Mr Stephenson compares swathes of dialogue and scenes.

Other allegations of plagiarism in Hollywood

‌This is not the first time Hollywood has found itself embroiled in allegations of plagiarism.‌ In 2018, the multiple Oscar-winning The Shape of Water was sued by David Zindel who alleged the screenplay had “brazenly” copied the story, elements, characters, and themes of his late father Paul Zindel’s 1969 play Let Me Hear You Whisper. ‌The case was dismissed.

Humourist Art Buchwald sued Paramount over Eddie Murphy’s 1988 film Coming to America and, after a seven-year legal battle, was awarded $825,000 (£642,000).

Colin Gardner, emeritus professor of critical theory at the University of California Santa Barbara, told the Telegraph: “Usually, scripts are submitted through agents who keep track of their circulation.

‌“I wrote 10 scripts in my time and got a deposit put down on one and have no idea what happened since then.

‌“There are a lot of unproduced scripts circulating around Hollywood.”

‌Approached by Variety, Mr Payne and Mr Hemingson declined to respond to the allegations.

‌The Telegraph has contacted Focus Features, the film’s producers, for comment.

Broaden your horizons with award-winning British journalism. Try The Telegraph free for 3 months with unlimited access to our award-winning website, exclusive app, money-saving offers and more.