EXCLUSIVE: Miramax has acquired worldwide rights to The Holdovers, the Alexander Payne-directed film that reteams him with Sideways star Paul Giamatti. David Hemingson wrote the script, Mark Johnson is producing, and the film is now greenlighted for a January start date in New England.
“The vision of Alexander Payne is cinematically singular, and his realization of David Hemingson’s script and its central character Professor Hunham by Paul Giamatti will be one for the decade,” said Miramax CEO Bill Block in confirming the deal to Deadline. “With Mark Johnson producing, we are grateful to bring this to the world.”
In the deal made by CAA Media Finance (domestic) and FilmNation (international), Payne gets to make his movie without territories needing to be pre-sold. After coming through a pandemic during which WarnerMedia surprised filmmakers and stars by putting its entire 2021 slate simultaneously on HBO Max and other studios sold finished films to streamers, the feeling was that when possible with a director with the stature of Payne, the best way to have a say in distribution is to make the movie and sort the distribution later. The rich Netflix deal that was made for Rian Johnson, Daniel Craig and Ram Bergman for two sequels to Knives Out at around $450 million (possible because they’d made the original on a single-picture license), is evidence of what can happen when the filmmakers have more of a say.
Deadline previously identified the Payne-Giamatti pairing on The Holdovers as a Cannes Virtual Market buzz title. Here again, the plot: Nobody likes Deerfield Academy teacher Paul Hunham (Giamatti) — not his students, not his fellow faculty, not the headmaster, who all find his pomposity and rigidity exasperating. With no family and nowhere to go over Christmas holiday in 1970, Paul remains at school to supervise students unable to journey home. After a few days, only one student holdover remains — a trouble-making 15-year-old named Angus, a good student whose bad behavior always threatens to get him expelled. Joining Paul and Angus is Deerfield’s head cook Mary, an African American woman who caters to sons of privilege and whose own son was recently lost in Vietnam. These three very different shipwrecked people form an unlikely Christmas family sharing comic misadventures during two very snowy weeks in New England. The real journey is how they help one another understand that they are not beholden to their past — they can choose their own futures.
Payne and Giamatti teamed memorably on the 2004 wine-tasting road-trip comedy Sideways, which won Payne and Jim Taylor Oscars for Best Adapted Screenplay. The Holdovers is a comedy, with the poignancy and grounded characters of past films including Nebraska, The Descendants and Sideways.
“I came across a writing sample for a pilot set in a prep school by David Hemingson,” Payne told Deadline two weeks ago. “I called him, told him the idea, and he jumped at it. Ever since I worked with Paul in Sideways, I’ve wanted to work with him again, and this role is tailor made for him. I continue to think now as I did then. … I hate to use the term ‘the finest actor of his generation’ because there are so many wonderful actors, but when I worked with him on Sideways, I was astounded by his range. As a director you want actors who can make even bad dialogue work, and he can do that. He can just do anything. I think it’s a matter of time before he gets his Oscar.”
He becomes the fulcrum for the unlikely trio.
“The story focuses on one kid in particular, a real smart-ass troublemaker who’s 15 years old and a good kid underneath,” Payne said. “His widowed mother has recently married a rich guy, and she wants to use this vacation as her honeymoon. At the last minute, she breaks the kid’s heart and tells him he has to stay at the school. Selected this year [to watch the stranded students] is Paul Giamatti, this curmudgeonly walleyed disliked history teacher. Eventually, the other three or four boys find other places to go and it becomes a two-hander, but actually a three-hander because of the cook who stays behind and it becomes about the adventures of these three over a very snowy Christmas holiday in New England.”