You can learn some pretty wild stuff on Reddit’s Today I Learned thread. Sometimes it’s that there’s a universal law of urination that states that all mammals larger than about 1 kg take about 20 seconds to empty their bladder, regardless of size. Sometimes it’s that only 3% of people in the U.S. donate blood, and blood transfusion is one of the most common hospital procedures in the United States.
And sometimes, it’s that the McDonald’s Monopoly game was scammed for years back in the ’90s, with millions of dollars stolen from the insanely popular fast-food promotion.
When filmmaker James Lee Hernandez read that last one in 2012 during his nightly bedtime Reddit scan, he immediately snapped to attention.
He was obsessed with McDonald’s Monopoly as a kid. His first job at 16 was at McDonald’s. But now all he could find was a short blurb about the crime from a local Jacksonville, Florida, newspaper. He needed to know more. So he started digging. And digging. But he kept hitting a wall, unable to unearth enough details on what actually happened. Finally, in 2013, he filed a freedom of information request with the Department of Justice and FBI.
It took three years to get an answer, but it was worth the wait. “I got the information on which agents worked the case, the federal prosecutor on it, and then got permission from the FBI to reach out,” says Hernandez. “Once I talked to some of them on the phone, my immediate thought was, this is massive.”
That’s when he called up his college pal and fellow filmmaker Brian Lazarte, and the two started the ball rolling on what would become HBO’s newest documentary series.
McMillions is a six-part docuseries that chronicles the true story of how $24 million was stolen from the McDonald’s Monopoly game, the mystery mastermind behind the scam, and the FBI agents who unraveled the case after an anonymous tip in 2001.
This story has everything: a quiet FBI outpost, a rookie agent, organized crime, an elaborate undercover investigation, a guy named Uncle Jerry, and french fries.
Who wants to talk conspiracy?
With at least a decade between the end of the original crimes and the case, one of the biggest challenges for Hernandez and Lazarte was getting anyone to talk about it. Somewhat surprisingly, it was the FBI that was the most willing to open up about it. Lucky for them, the first FBI agent they talked to was Doug Mathews, easily a contender for best character in the entire story, who even in their first meeting regaled them for hours with all the juicy details.
“That proved to us that it was a great story that had some great storytellers to tell it,” says Lazarte. “The FBI really helped us understand the complexity of this case and what they did to complete it.” “This was also one of their favorite cases, so as long as we were straight with them, they were happy to talk about it,” says Hernandez. “I think they were also a bit surprised that no one had ever reached out to them about this story.”
Convincing the past winners tied up in the conspiracy proved to be a more significant challenge. The fact that this crime went underreported for so long had allowed them to avoid having a spotlight shone on a less-than-proud moment in their lives. Hernandez and Lazarte spent a lot of time talking to them about how they wanted to tell this story. “We approached it as wanting to make sure that everyone who wanted to share their voice could be included. We were very interested in the human side of it [and] not just frame it as cops and robbers,” says Hernandez. “We spoke to everyone about getting their voice and viewpoint heard, rather than it just coming from one angle. If it was just the FBI, wouldn’t you want to get your side told? So we were grateful so many decided to share their side.”
The toughest nut to crack was McDonald’s itself.
Almost as soon as the filmmakers had started connecting with the FBI and federal prosecutors on the case, they reached out to McDonald’s head of global security Rob Holm. Holm said he remembered the case but would have to check with his superiors before agreeing to talk about it. The next day they got a polite email declining the invitation. But they kept gently working to convince Ronald’s people that participating was actually in the company’s best interest.
“We approached it very similarly to how the FBI approached McDonald’s back then,” says Hernandez. “McDonald’s didn’t have to help them, and we used that same parallel. We told them the FBI is sharing the story, it involves you guys, they talk about you guys, to have you share your story is important, and people are going to want to hear it. And if they don’t hear it here in the series, you’re going to get hit up a lot after it comes out for your take on it, so why not include it here? They really thought about it and eventually came around on it.”
Holm and senior director of global marketing Amy Murray plays a prominent role, both in the series and in the original FBI investigation, with Murray even participating in some of the undercover operations.
Crafting an IRL caper flick
One thing that becomes clear pretty quickly watching McMillions is how Lazarte and Hernandez crafted it to feel like a fun heist or caper flick. The multiscreen edits, overlaid graphics, and a funk-infused soundtrack are all there. They also use dramatizations to bring the audience right into the investigation, with the goal of making a 20-year-old case feel like it’s happening right now.
“We wanted to make you feel like you were along for the ride in the investigation, almost like you’re an FBI agent trying to figure out the crime as they are, and not get too ahead of it,” says Lazarte. “As we were building the visual world, as the stories were coming to us, it really played like a movie in our head. What was it like to be in that room when the FBI brought McDonald’s in to tell them what was going on? That moment of suspense was incredible. The story is fun, and we wanted that reflected in those moments.”
They also aimed to make the graphics and production feel of its time. “We wanted it to feel like it was made in the ’90s,” says Hernandez. “We wanted you to feel like you were there with these guys.” One of the best ways that the series is able to do that is by using commercial and interview footage from those years. The interviews with scam winners lying about how they got their winning Monopoly pieces is both compelling and darkly hilarious.
The other story
For years, Lazarte and Hernandez had been pitching this project as the greatest McDonald’s crime story that no one’s ever heard. That ended on July 28, 2018, when The Daily Beast published a story by Jeff Maysh chronicling the conspiracy. It went viral almost immediately, and within days had its film rights snapped up by Fox, with Ben Affleck and Matt Damon attached. At first, after years of working on this same story, it felt like a gut punch. But they had put enough work into it and, crucially, had enough exclusive interview agreements with past winners and others that it soon became clear this could play to their advantage.
“After having a full-blown meltdown, Brian and I relaxed knowing we had so much of the story, access no one else has, and that’s when we started to talk to (production company) Unrealistic Ideas, and subsequently HBO, and we were off to the races.”
‘McMillions’: The podcast
As it’s done with series like Chernobyl and Watchmen, HBO is also producing a companion podcast for McMillions. It will allow Hernandez and Lazarte to dig a bit deeper into the cast of characters and stories that weren’t quite ready for prime time. “The story was so sprawling that there are a lot of things that hit the cutting-room floor that are still great stories but didn’t quite fit into the flow of the series, so we wanted to be able to talk about that in the show,” says Hernandez. “People will hear new things about the case and stuff that’s not in the show.”
McMillions premieres on February 3.