HBO’s ‘McMillion$’ docuseries shows how cheaters scammed McDonald’s Monopoly game

February 3, 2020, 4:00 PM UTC

A paunchy ex-cop nicknamed “Uncle Jerry” and a Mafia-affiliated strip-club owner leaked million-dollar prize tickets to dozens of larcenous Americans, who, in turn, cheated McDonald’s wildly popular “Monopoly” promotion by claiming they’d won the game fair and square. Their scam unraveled in 2001 when a live-wire FBI agent cast himself in the role of a TV commercial director and staged a seemingly preposterous sting operation. For filmmaker James Lee Hernandez, the little-known case screamed “killer documentary” ever since he’d happened upon a one-sentence item on Reddit in 2012.

For six years, he obsessed over the scheme with partner Brian Lazarte. After securing Freedom of Information Act documents and court transcripts, they traveled cross-country to the East Coast on their own dime and interviewed participants, determined to leverage their nonfiction spec project into a career-making breakthrough.

And then, one summer morning in 2018, Hernandez woke up to learn that the Monopoly scam story had become the talk of Hollywood—as told by somebody else. Posted on The Daily Beast, Jeff Maysh’s article sparked a bidding war among studios including Netflix, Universal Pictures, and Warner Bros. Six days after its publication—lightning speed by show business standards—20th Century Fox, Ben Affleck, and Matt Damon sealed a deal to make a movie based on the article.

Hernandez tells Fortune, “When Fox announced they’re going to do a feature film—after all the years of work I’d put into this thing? I had a full-blown meltdown.”

Hernandez needn’t have worried. Suddenly a hot topic, the Monopoly scandal fascinated industry executives including Lazarte’s friend Archie Gips, who worked with Mark Wahlberg and Stephen Levinson at the Unrealistic Ideas production company. Armed with a five-minute “sizzle” reel, Lazarte and Hernandez sold their concept in the room. Financing from HBO followed a couple of weeks later. Hernandez and Lazarte, previously employed primarily as TV editors, suddenly found themselves writing, directing, and producing a six-part documentary titled McMillion$. The series, which debuted last month at the Sundance Film Festival, launches Monday on HBO.

Directors Brian Lazarte and James Lee Hernandez attend HBO’s “McMillion$” Experience at Sundance 2020 on Jan. 27, in Park City, Utah. “We always looked at ‘McMillion$’ like a Coen Brothers movie,” says Hernandez.
Daniel Boczarski—Getty Images for HBO

Drawing on surprisingly enthusiastic cooperation from the FBI and the McDonald’s corporation, Hernandez and Lazarte designed their project to flow like an extended feature film complete with cliffhangers, dramatic reenactments, split-screen graphics, pulsating music from Captain Marvel composer Pinar Toprak, and, most important, a riveting cast of real-life characters.

“We always looked at McMillion$ like a Coen Brothers movie,” says Hernandez. “It’s funny because of the characters, but there are also big things at stake here. Lives were truly affected. The federal government was involved. Once everybody saw our early cut, they got the tone we were going for: Okay, this documentary can be funny and serious at the same time.”

FBI agent Doug Mathews sets the tone for McMillion$ early on, explaining how he became fixated on catching the crooks after spotting a Post-it note on his boss’s desk about an anonymous tip alleging “Monopoly Fraud.” The wildly energetic Mathews swears with abandon, makes fun of his colleagues, and wears gold lamé suits to strategy meetings. “The entire first episode is from the FBI point of view,” says Hernandez. “When people worried that we’d just have a bunch of boring guys in suits, we’d respond: ‘You don’t know Doug Mathews.’”

In their first interview, he recalls, “Mathews talked for three hours straight, and he could have kept going.” Compelling as a hotshot narrator, Mathews describes how he enlisted fellow FBI agents to pose as lighting and sound technicians working for the fake Shamrock Productions, supposedly hired by McDonald’s to film Monopoly winners for a “reunion” celebration. Lazarte says, “We wanted the viewer to understand this very specific FBI point of view out the gate, and then flip it.”

FBI special agent Doug Mathews “talked for three hours straight, and he could have kept going,” says Hernandez of their first interview.
Courtesy of HBO

Enter Robin Colombo. Her Mobster husband, Jerry, dominated the Monopoly scheme. “Robin has a checkered past and could do bad [things], but no matter how crazy the situations she told us about, Robin had a certain kind of charm and likability,” Lazarte says. In McMillion$, Colombo and her tiny Boston terrier command during the so-called Red Interview conducted at her East Coast home. Hernandez recalls, “Robin’s friend answered the door and let us in. Then Robin walks into the room wearing all red in red hair that matched her red couch, and the drapes are red. We’re like, ‘What else could she be but a Mob wife?’”

In the first three McMillion$ episodes previewed by Fortune, Gloria Brown emerges as the most affecting victim/culprit. A churchgoing single mother, she got roped into the scheme by her old friend Robin. In the “reunion” video directed by Mathews in 2001, Brown, visibly tense, lies about how she found her winning ticket. Seventeen years later, Brown tearfully details the rationalizations and torment behind her forced smile.

“Going into this, you might think it’s about good guys and bad guys and the people on the bad side deserve what they got,” Hernandez says. “But once we met Gloria for breakfast at a Cracker Barrel in Jacksonville, we started to understand how you can say yes to something without fully understanding the consequences. She truly believed this [million-dollar Monopoly ticket] would be her chance to get ahead, but it turned out to be the complete reverse.”

As for the Daily Beast piece that indirectly paved the way for McMillion$, reporter Maysh says the movie based on his article is moving forward, fueled by a screenplay from Deadpool writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick. “The script is genius,” according to Maysh. After being alerted to the case by movie producer David Klawans (Argo), Maysh spent about two years doing research.

“I remember my phone interview with Robin Colombo was the wildest tape I had ever recorded,” he tells Fortune. “I’ve had stories go viral before, but this was a new level. It was the No. 1 trending topic on Twitter. Radio stations all over the world called me.”

And the big call, finalizing the deal for a reported $1 million?

“My agent Joel Gotler handled the sale,” Maysh says. “I remember sitting down on the floor of my apartment when they told me the price.”

Whether an online article, documentary film, or Hollywood movie, the Monopoly scheme that unfolded between 1995 and 2000 serves as a cautionary tale of uncommon potency.

“This is the ultimate story of American greed,” says Maysh. “Everyone played the game, so in a way, all of us were victims. That’s what makes it so powerful.”

As Hernandez sees it, “There’s a certain [mentality] nowadays where it’s like, ‘No matter how hard you work, you’re not going to get ahead, so you have to be an opportunist.’ And sometimes, those opportunities might be on the wrong side of the moral compass. How many people would say no to this same situation? How many people, if given the same ability to get these tickets—as much as people want to say they wouldn’t do it—maybe they would.”

Lazarte adds, “I mean, everybody wanted to win.”

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