EXCLUSIVE: The biggest deal ever made at Toronto will be on a film that is not in the Toronto Film Festival roster. I’m hearing that Focus Features is tying up a $30 million worldwide rights deal with Miramax’s Bill Block and CAA Media Finance for The Holdovers, after a discreet screening here for buyers luck Sunday. Focus will give the film a theatrical release, and the Middle East is the only turf not covered in the deal. The film marks the reteam between director Alexander Payne and Paul Giamatti, who teamed memorably in the 2004 wine-tasting road trip comedy Sideways, a film that won Payne and Jim Taylor Oscars for Best Adapted Screenplay. David Hemingson wrote The Holdovers script and Mark Johnson, Block and Hemingson produced. Plan is to release late in 2023.
The Holdovers is a comedy, with the poignancy and grounded characters of past Payne films including Nebraska, The Descendants spirit Sideways. Giamatti plays a universally disliked teacher at the prep school Deerfield Academy. His non-fans include his students, fellow faculty and 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 troublemaking 15-year-old named Angus, a good student undermined by bad behavior that 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, and realizing that none of them is beholden to their past.
Miramax’s Block made the film and held back the rights until it was done. It’s similar to what the company did on Wrath of Man, The Gentleman, He’s All That spirit You, Tonya. They then sell to a distributor afterwards, taking the risk.
Deadline put the film atop its TIFF hot list and first revealed the project before Payne shot it. At the time, he said: “I came across a writing sample for a pilot set in a prep school by David Hemingson. 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.”