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Oscar-nominated movie accused of ‘line by line’ plagiarism from screenplay

Oscar-nominated movie accused of ‘line by line’ plagiarism from screenplay

A screenwriter has come forward to accuse the director of an Oscar-nominated movie of 'brazenly' stealing from his screenplay.

A screenwriter has come forward, accusing an Oscar-nominated movie of plagiarising his own screenplay.

Ahead of the 96th Annual Academy Awards ceremony which is set to take place later today (10 March), news of alleged coping has arisen.

An email exchange between screenwriter Simon Stephenson - who worked on projects such as Paddington 2 and Wonka - and several different members of the Writers Guild of America (WGA) has revealed Stephenson believes a movie up for not just one but five Oscars is guilty of plagiarising his work.

According to emails viewed by Variety, Stephenson sent an email to WGA's senior director of credits, Lesley Mackey, on 12 January asking to set up a call to discuss the Oscar-nominated film The Holdovers.

The Holdovers is a comedy drama which was released in 2023, written by David Hemingson and directed by Alexander Payne.

In a follow-up email after having a call with the WGA, Stephenson issued 'an urgent plea for help from a WGA writer in a truly extraordinary situation' stating there is 'overwhelming' evidence The Holdovers' screenplay copies one of his own screenplays titled Frisco.

His email reads: "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.

"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.

"By ‘meaningful entirety’ I do mean literally everything- 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."

Simon Stephenson wrote a screenplay titled Frisco.
Simon Stephenson website

In 2013, Frisco appeared on a list of the top unproduced scripts of the year. The synopsis for the screenplay details the story focuses on a 'forty-something pediatric allergist' on the brink of divorce who goes to San Francisco for a conference and ends up living with a 'wise-beyond-her-years terminally ill 15-year-old patient' and how the two navigate their unexpected companionship.

The synopsis for The Holdovers describes the tale as being a 'Christmas story' set in 1970 centered around 'three, lonely shipwrecked people' who've ended up at a boarding school in New England over the holidays - 'an odiferous, optically-challenged adjunct professor of ancient history,' a 'head cook of the school' whose child was killed in Vietnam and a student at the school who is 'smart, damaged' and a 'troublemaker but a good kid underneath'.

But how could Payne have plagiarised Stephenson's screenplay?

Stephenson has accused director Alexander Payne of plagiarism.
Getty Images/ Jeff Spicer

Well, in the emails and documents sent between Stephenson and officers as well as board members and the general counsel of the WGA, Stephenson alleges Holdovers' director Payne saw his script for Frisco in 2013 as well as 2019 .

An email from United Talent Agency (UTA)'s Geoff Morley - the agency which Stephenson was with before moving to the Creative Artists Agency (CAA) which is the same Payne is under - sent in 2013 seemingly confirms Payne read Frisco and 'did like it' but didn't fancy producing or directing it.

Similarly, in 2019, more emails seemingly confirmed Payne had taken another 'read' of Frisco but said 'it [was] not quite what he [was] looking for'.

Later that same year, Payne began work on The Holdovers and despite only being listed as the director of The Holdovers, Payne said in an interview he helped Hemingson with the script.

The Holdovers has received five Oscar nominations.
Focus Features

Among it's five nominations, The Holdovers has been nominated for best screenplay.

Stephenson's email to Azari concluded: "I’ve been a working writer for 20 years - in my native UK before I came to the US - and so I’m very aware that people can often have surprisingly similar ideas and sometimes a few elements can be ‘borrowed’ etc.

"This just isn’t that situation. The two screenplays are forensically identical and riddled with unique smoking guns throughout."

In supporting documents, the screenwriter has compared scenes, particular moments and lines of speech from both scripts.

WGA's Azari responded stating claims of plagiarism or copyright infringement 'are not arbitrable under the MBA' and are not an issue for the guild.

She resolved: "A lawsuit remains the most viable option under the circumstances."

However, the matter is being discussed internally, according to two board members who reached out to Stephenson, although no resolution has been publicly revealed.

Payne declined to comment to Variety. UNILAD has contacted Payne, Stephenson and the WGA for comment.

Featured Image Credit: Focus Features

Topics: Entertainment, Film and TV, Oscars, US News