A Writer Sued ‘Coming to America’ for Stealing His Idea — And Won

For once, Hollywood didn’t get away with swiping an idea
A Writer Sued ‘Coming to America’ for Stealing His Idea — And Won

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Screenwriter Simon Stephenson, one of the writing voices behind Paddington 2 and Pixar’s Luca, recently leveled a pretty serious charge at The Holdovers, alleging that the film heavily borrowed from his own screenplay titled Frisco. “The evidence The Holdovers screenplay has been plagiarised line-by-line from Frisco is genuinely overwhelming,” he told the Writers Guild. “Anybody who looks at even the briefest sample pretty much invariably uses the word ‘brazen.’”

But Stephenson has a few things working against him. One is that many in Hollywood’s screenwriting community believe his accusations are bogus, according to a story in The WrapThe Good Wife creator Robert King, for one, wasn’t buying it. 

The second problem facing Stephenson? Even if everyone agreed his treatment was similar to The Holdovers, plagiarism is notoriously difficult to prove in court. The aggrieved writers rarely emerge victorious and it seems like a waste of time to try. Except one time, the wronged writer won. His name was Art Buchwald and he won his case against Eddie Murphy’s comedy Coming to America.

Buchwald was a little more famous than Stephenson. In fact, at its most popular, his political satire column for The Washington Post was syndicated in 500 newspapers across the country. But he had side hustles as well, like coming up with ideas for movies. With the help of his agent, he sold a treatment to Paramount about an African prince who comes to America, is deposed at home while visiting the White House, then finds himself comically crown-less in the Washington D.C. ghetto. See where this is headed?

Paramount hired two different screenwriters to turn Buchwald’s treatment into a workable script but a movie never got the green light. A few years later, however, new Paramount executives announced an Eddie Murphy comedy that sounded awfully familiar to Buchwald and his representatives. They took Paramount to court, where a judge ruled that Buchwald’s “King for a Day” was indeed the basis for Coming to America.

From there, it’s a classic case of Hollywood’s biggest blockbusters never turning a profit, at least according to studio accountants who will do anything to avoid giving creatives their share of the spoils. Coming to America earned more than $350 million (in 1980s dollars!) yet Paramount claimed it was still in the red so paying Buchwald was a no-go. The judge disagreed, awarding Buchwald and his team nearly a million dollars while chastising movie studios for their shady bookkeeping. 

The point of the story? Writers can prove that studios steal their original works and that they’re entitled to compensation. That’s unlikely to happen in the case of The Holdovers, however, a screenplay that won an Oscar on the same weekend that Stephenson’s accusations hit the trade papers. Any similarities in this case seem so broad as to apply to nearly any screenplay with a three-act structure. Rather than winning a case, it appears Stephenson only turned himself into a jokey meme.


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