Did “The Holdovers” Plagiarize a Highly-Regarded Screenplay?

Writer Simon Stephenson has argued that the film used elements from his unproduced screenplay

"The Holdovers" at BFI
Rhianna Dillon, Alexander Payne, Da’Vine Joy Randolph and Paul Giamatti attend "The Holdovers" BFI Screening and Q&A at BFI Southbank on January 16, 2024.
Tristan Fewings/Getty Images

Since its release late last year, The Holdovers has received high marks from critics and audiences alike. It might also take home a few Oscars at tonight’s Academy Awards, with Da’Vine Joy Randolph a favorite to win Best Supporting Actress. But not all of the news about director Alexander Payne’s recent film has been good — and now, The Holdovers is at the center of a high-profile plagiarism controversy.

On Saturday, Variety‘s Tatiana Siegel broke the news that writer Simon Stephenson had made the accusation, arguing that The Holdovers had appropriated large parts of his screenplay Frisco. It’s worth stating here that Frisco is not an obscure project; it was named to the 2013 Black List, an industry listing of the year’s best as-yet-unproduced screenplays. Stephenson himself has contributed to some high-profile films, including Luca and The Electrical Life of Louis Wain, and is the author of several books.

Both The Holdovers and Frisco focus on a cynical protagonist who forms an unlikely bond with a teenager; in the case of The Holdovers, the protagonist is a teacher, while in Frisco, the protagonist is a doctor. Siegel reports that Stephenson has sought redress through the WGA — and that there’s evidence that Payne had read the screenplay for Frisco and ultimately passed on it.

Stephenson seems confident in his case. As Variety‘s article points out, he’s gone so far as to making his case to the WGA’s board of directors, writing, “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.”

Alexander Payne’s “The Holdovers” Is an Instant Holiday Classic
The lonely Christmas tale premiered at TIFF over the weekend

The Variety article also contains one of the documents that Stephenson used to make his case — a 33-page breakdown of similar character moments and dramatic beats between the two projects. As one industry source told the publication about plagiarism allegations, “They’re hard cases to win. And so there are kind of no winners in them because they’re expensive and ugly and they spook people.” It’s a complex issue, to be sure — and one we’ll probably hear more about in the coming weeks.

The InsideHook Newsletter.

News, advice and insights for the most interesting person in the room.