Prominent Screenwriters Skeptical of Claims ‘The Holdovers’ Was Plagiarized

A heated debate broke out online following charges the Oscar-nominated film lifted from a Black List script

Paul Giamatti in The Holdovers
Paul Giamatti in "The Holdovers" (Credit: Seacia Pavao/Focus Features)

Writer Simon Stephenson, who has a story by credit for the Pixar animated film “Luca,” ignited a debate in the screenwriting community Saturday following his claims that a script of his was plagiarized by “The Holdovers.” While the charges are serious, many screenwriters have taken issue with the charge that the Oscar-nominated screenplay was plagiarized “line-by-line” from Stephenson’s 2013 Black List script “Frisco.”

Among them is “The Good Wife” co-creator Robert King, who argued that the similarities are so tenuous that this isn’t a story.

“Read the attached 33-page craziness that supposedly points out the plagiarism,” King wrote.

He went on to share a screenshot of alleged “line-by-line” plagiarism from a document Stephenson assembled arguing his case, with the pages seeming to share little in common.

“Suits” creator Aaron Korsh responded by noting that he’d “witnessed” “Holdovers” screenwriter David Hemingson working on the screenplay for years and that he doesn’t believe the accusations.

“The Holdovers” director Alexander Payne has said himself that he’d had a rough idea for the film for years, inspired by obscure 1935 French film “Merlusse,” which he’d seen at a festival. He later hired Hemingson to write the script after reading a TV pilot Hemingson had written in a similar setting. Hemingson has also credited many of the best lines he wrote for Paul Giamatti’s character as being inspired by his uncle.

Many took to social media dunking on the idea that the scripts were similar, as the 33-page document created by Stephenson appears to show little evidence of the script being directly copied.

Journalist Matthew Yglesias shared the list of items that Stephenson argued had been “transposed” into something different in “The Holdovers” while essentially being the same, describing it as “Guy who has a script that’s nothing like ‘The Holdovers,’ says they are actually the same via this list of correspondences.”

Others jokingly noted how many items could be claimed to be transposed in film as a whole, thanks to the similarities in traditional screenwriting structure.

Others pointed out that someone had asked on Reddit a week and a half earlier whether it would be possible to detect similarities in scripts using AI in a situation that sounds like that described by Stephenson, seemingly posted by either the writer himself or someone investigating his claims.

However, some screenwriters have argued that the lifting of ideas is more common than others would like to admit. Writer Julie Bush (“Manhunt,” “Sons of Anarchy”) wrote, “I hate the way pro writers try to act like plagiarism never happens in our community. It’s actually very common, and people are discouraged by their reps from ever saying anything about it publicly. One guy who has a huge overall [right now] stole an idea from me and sold it twice.”

Bush later added, “Historically The Town has abided by Country Club Law, which the agencies have enforced. ‘How dare you accuse that Member of a nasty piece of business?! He pours a mean gin and tonic!’ That’s how rape is basically legal in Hollywood and plagiarism doesn’t exist.”

Jeff Howard (“The Haunting of Hill House,” “Midnight Mass”) shared the initial story, writing, “My career started with a very similar case.”

“Freddy vs. Jason” writing team Damian Shannon and Mark Swift chimed in to add to some nuance, writing, “Accusations of plagiarism are common in Hollywood. Most are baseless (we’ve had three lawsuits against us tossed by a judge) but then sometimes … it’s very real. I know a writer who was directly ripped off by an Academy Award winner. They were advised to keep quiet. Sickening.”

However, they also noted that they had not looked into the specifics of the “Holdovers” accusations.

Splitting the difference, writer Benjamin Siemon (“DuckTales,” “Tiny Toons Looniversity”) shared his appreciation for the layers of the situation. “This seems messy and complicated for such an established screenwriter to make this claim, not sure who is right or wrong, but either way an unfortunate claim on what is such a delightful and wonderful movie right before the Oscars.”

Audio drama writer Mac Rogers posited that Payne could have kept the screenplay’s structure in his mind and unconsciously drew upon it while developing “The Holdovers.”

Arts writer Louis Peitzman summed up the sides, writing, “The people who don’t like ‘The Holdovers’ are posting alleged examples of plagiarism with ‘This is so damning’ captions, and the people who do like it are posting the same examples with ‘This is a joke’ captions.”

How hot this debate remains will likely depend on whether “The Holdovers” takes home that Best Original Screenplay award at Sunday’s Oscars.

The allegations of plagiarism were first published by Variety.


One response to “Prominent Screenwriters Skeptical of Claims ‘The Holdovers’ Was Plagiarized”

  1. Pat Avatar

    Funny. I wrote a screenplay called “Bottle of Jinn” in 1990. Gave it to RSO, they showed it around. A few years later “Kazaam” was released. Was almost a Xerox copy. Sad.

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