If you played McDonald’s mega-popular Monopoly game in the 1990s that offered spoils like new cars, vacations and even a grand prize of $1 million, turns out you never really had a chance to win.
At least the big-ticket items and prizes, anyway. Maybe you peeled off a game piece that earned you a free order of French fries or a Big Mac. “But for the most part of the scam, $25,000 and above, you had no chance of winning,” says James Lee Hernandez, co-director of McMillion$, a thrilling six-part HBO series produced by Mark Wahlberg that digs into the wild scam behind the famed promotion, one involving FBI stings, mobsters, drugs and, naturally, Ronald McDonald. “No one really had a chance, and I think that’s one of the reasons why were so captivated, and why so many people are captivated by this story,” explained the series’ other co-director, Brian Lazarte. “For 12 years, how is it possible that this whole thing was essentially a lie in front of us?”
It was a simple headline about the fraud that captured the attention Hernandez while he was scrolling Reddit one night before bed in 2012. “It was just a really small local Jacksonville news blurb about it,” remembers Hernandez, who felt a personal connection to the story having worked his first job with the fast food giant at the age of 16. “But it stopped me dead in my tracks. I needed to know everything because I was obsessed with the game as a kid growing up.”
Hernandez began researching the case, which was opened by the FBI’s Jacksonville bureau in 2000, but couldn’t find much. So in 2014 he put in a Freedom of Information Act request with the U.S. government — one that took three years to go through. The wait, though, was worth it. Suddenly Hernandez had valuable intel on not just the ins and outs of the case, but the identities of the FBI agents who worked it. And the agents, surprisingly, were fully onboard. “They said this one of their favorite cases and nobody’s ever talked to them about it before and they would love to work with me,” explains Hernandez, who then called his longtime friend Lazarte. I said, ‘Hey man, I think I’ve got something big here. Let’s grab some lunch and talk about it.'” (It was not at McDonald’s.)
Hernandez and Lazarte originally imagined McMillion$ as a 90-minute documentary feature. But the more they dug into the sordid details of the case, which leads to a shadowy figure named “Uncle Jerry” who mysteriously managed to steal the winning prize pieces at some point in the manufacturing process and then arranged for friends and family members and various other associates to claim the prizes, and met the surprisingly gregarious and charismatic agents involved in cracking it, the project evolved into a three-, then four- and ultimately a six-part series.
It was also then that they took the project to Unrealistic Ideas, the production company formed by Mark Wahlberg and producers Archie Gips and Stephen Levinson. The co-directors insist it never dawned on them that Wahlberg was already in the restaurant business with Wahlburgers, which the Boogie Nights and Ted actor owns with brothers Paul and Donnie and has 31 locations across America (and was the subject of a reality-TV series). But McDonald’s was fully aware. When the documentary team met with execs from the Golden Arches, “The first thing they said was, ‘So we’re assuming you guys are here and working on this project because this some sort of scheme to figure out the secret sauce for Wahlbergers,'” Hernandez laughs.
The fascinating, compelling and surprisingly comedic series, which relies on re-creations almost as much as talking heads, unfolds almost like a heist thriller as Agents Doug Mathews and Richard Dent investigate an anonymous tip in 2000 that the game was fixed. The tension quickly ratchets up in the first episode. It soon feels more like we’re watching a film like David O’Russell’s American Hustle or Ben Affleck’s Argo than it does a true-crime docuseries.
That approach came naturally, said Hernandez and Lazarte, for two reasons. One: The FBI agents are so entertaining — Mathews, especially, who comes off like a less clueless but just as quirky Michael Scott from NBC’s The Office. He’s a sparkplug in the Bureau, as unboundedly excited about the idea of going undercover as a teenager would be playing laser tag, and he has the perfect foil across the hallway from in the older, straight-laced, stoic, more “FBI-like” Agent Dent. He provides a constant through-line of humor over the course of the series. “He’s the Energizer Bunny,” Lazarte quips.
And two: The tangled web the FBI had to weave in getting to the bottom of Jerry’s ability to game the system for almost 12 years, conning McDonald’s out $24 million in the process, involved the Colombo crime syndicate and seedy characters aplenty. It’s a case that feels fairly simple at the start, but grows more and more complex with each installment.
As portrayed in McMillion$, the FBI had a challenging time convincing McDonald’s to cooperate in the investigation, and it was a case of life imitating art for Hernandez and Lazarte as they attempted to persuade the corporation to take part in the series. McDonald’s initially passed, and understandably so, given the not-so-glowing attention the chain has received in recent years via projects like Super Size Me, Fast Food Nation and The Founder.
But Hernandez and Lazarte re-approached them once Unrealistic Ideas and HBO were attached. “We were certain that there’s probably somewhere in a mandate that if any documentary ever reaches out to us, it’s an automatic no,” Lazarte says. “But in this particular case we felt that it was important for them to share their side of the story. … It felt like if their voice wasn’t heard, it would be unfair to only have the FBI tell their side of the story. In a lot of ways it really said a lot about their company to us, not only because how they helped and participated with the FBI back in the day, but really with us. We’re unknown documentary directors. They’re taking a huge risk in agreeing to sit down with us. But ultimately they felt like it was the right thing to do.”
McMillion$ is drawing wide acclaim and attention for documenting one of the most unbelievable true-crime stories of the past quarter century, but there’s good reason why details around the McDonald’s Monopoly fraud case are not more widely known.
“The arrests happened a little over a week before Sept 11, which means the arraignments started Sept. 10, 2001,” Hernandez said. “It was all over the news cycle in the week leading up to Sept. 11,” Lazarte followed. “And then any new advancements that happened with this story after 9/11 just hit the back page of the paper.”
Adds Hernandez: “It was gone in an instant.”