Look, I’m a firm believer that there’s no such thing as a spoiler in a documentary. This is something that happened in real life! Real life doesn’t have spoilers! It’s not about the end result, it’s how we got there. However, I’m going to go light on the details of the new upcoming HBO series, McMillions (or McMillion$, if we must) that just premiered its first three episodes (of six) here at the Sundance Film Festival. I mean, yes, we now know that the McDonald’s Monopoly game was rigged. Yes, we probably all won a free shake, or whatever, in our lives. But the big prizes — the million-dollar winning prizes — were handed out in a grand conspiracy that involved a marketing firm and, of course, the New York mafia. (If you’re not familiar with the details, this piece is a must read.)
But there are so many twists and turns along the way, it becomes difficult to believe any of this is true. (One interviewee even says, “don’t believe it.”) There are points where the filmmakers doing the interviews (James Lee Hernandez and Brian Lazarte) will do double-takes and simply ask, “Wait, what?” There are colorful FBI agents — one agent, Doug Matthews, has obviously been waiting for this moment his entire life and there’s no doubt the directors have to consider him a godsend; like, this guy was born to be a talking head in a documentary — there are Florida hucksters, and there are New York mobsters. Look, once Sherman Hemsley (yes, George Jefferson) somehow got dragged into all of this, it seems pretty obvious this was a story for the ages. And, yes, it does appear this will be a narrative feature film someday and it will be a crime if it doesn’t become one of the most rewatchable movies of all time.
But, since I don’t really want to get into too many details, this puts me at a disadvantage when writing about it. I’m basically here to say, look, when this comes on HBO in a week or so, yes, you need to watch it. It is insane. Every single person involved in this story — from the FBI agents, to the mobsters, to just the people who knew them — are characters. When this is made into a movie, hardly any embellishing needs to be done. It’s all right there. This story is a gift for these directors, and for the lucky director who eventually directs the movie.
The story, in a nutshell, is that the fun little Monopoly game we used to play at McDonald’s was impossibly rigged. McDonald’s itself wasn’t involved (in fact, a McDonald’s employee helped set up and work on the FBI sting involving past winners), but the head of security at the outsourced marketing firm, known as “Uncle Jerry,” had direct access to the winning pieces and distributed them out as he saw fit. And a lot of these people wound up all being related to one another. Eventually, as the operation got bigger, he brought in a “connected” fellow named Jerry Colombo (yes, of the Colombo crime family) and the scam was in full force. “Winners” would pay $50,000 upfront for the million-dollar ticket, that all went to “Uncle Jerry.” (Yes, there are a surprising amount of Jerrys involved in this story.) Then the “winner” agreed to pay Jerry Colombo half of the million-dollar winnings.
Now, in episode three, things get pretty interesting when the filmmakers get one of the “winners” on the record. Basically, they got scammed, too. Because after they’d pay Jerry Colombo half the winnings, they’d learn, oh, right, you have to pay taxes on that money. As the “winner” tells her story, when it was all said and done, she was getting around $10,000 a year of the “$50,000 a year for 20 years” she was promised. And on top of that, she had to mortgage her house to afford the $50,000 upfront fee. So her monthly mortgage payments tripled. It was interesting how this series successfully presented this woman, who we first met as a scam artist, into just a working mother trying to do the best for her son, and yet another victim of this elaborate scheme.
Alright. That’s all I’m going to say. There’s so much more and I’ve only seen half the story. But, yes, it involves McDonald’s. It involves Monopoly. It involves the mob. It involves Florida (of course it does). It’s all here. And it’s insane.
You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.