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Talk about supersizing it.
The bidding war that erupted over a Daily Beast story published July 28 about a decadelong scam involving the McDonald’s Monopoly contest has resulted in one of the most lucrative rights deals for a single article, sources with knowledge of the deal tell The Hollywood Reporter.
In the end, it was 20th Century Fox and Ben Affleck and Matt Damon’s Pearl Street Films’ bid of $1 million — a huge sum for an 8,700-word web feature — that beat out other bids from Universal, Netflix and Warner Bros.
Affleck has committed to directing the project, with Damon set to star, presumably in the central role of antihero Jerome Jacobson. An ex-cop hired to oversee security on the sweepstakes, Jacobson started a side hustle selling high-value playing pieces — including many $1 million prizes — to a wide network of colorful and unsavory types.
But the beneficiary of the McScam movie deal earned his paycheck the honest way: by delving into one of the strangest, funniest and most gripping capers in American history. He is Jeff Maysh, an L.A.-based journalist and true-crime author. Maysh spoke to THR about how he broke the biggest story of his career and the McMadness that has accompanied its publication just six days ago.
The story is topping Twitter worldwide and elicited a Hollywood bidding war. What about this story touched a nerve at this moment in history?
I think it was a nice break from the Trump news cycle. But as others have pointed out, this story was about an arrogant man who thought he was above the law, but who was eventually captured by the FBI. The theme of the story is that justice prevails.
What led you to this story at this point in time?
A couple of years ago the film producer David Klawans gave me an old news clipping and various research about the case. He said this should be my next article. Klawans also discovered the true story behind Argo. He is a narrative savant, who locates these amazing, untold true stories. He also gave me the idea for my book The Spy With No Name, which was optioned by Fox Searchlight, and “A Catfishing With a Happy Ending,” an article I wrote for The Atlantic which also went viral, and was picked up by Netflix. Among many other stories.
What was your big breakthrough in reporting the McScam story?
It took six months to get the court documents. They flew them from the National Archives and Records center to a courthouse in Jacksonville, Florida. Normally, I’d scan them using an app, but no phones were allowed, so I had to manually photocopy seven boxes of papers. I flew back to L.A. with 25 pounds of documents, but what I got was a treasure trove — transcripts of very emotional, sometimes comedic confessions. Also, I knew I was onto a great story when one of the convicted winners told me: “McDonald’s didn’t want anyone to know the mob was involved.”
How long did it take you to report this story? Where did it take you — geographically and emotionally?
I started “collecting string” on this story back in 2016. The reporting process is very slow for a project like this. I started seriously reporting late last year, and I flew to Jacksonville in April this year. I spent four months writing it. Emotionally, it was a roller coaster, trying to get various people to talk. I spoke to FBI investigators, McDonald’s historians, dozens of staff from the printing company and the marketing company. And even a former Ronald McDonald clown.
How many of the “winners” did you interview?
There were over 50 defendants in the trial, so I couldn’t talk to everyone. But after about a year of reporting, everyone knew I was on the case. One of the super-recruiters [people Jacobson recruited to distribute game pieces in a wide geographic area in an attempt to avoid suspicion] was a convicted drug trafficker. He’d gone on the run for 16 months. I thought he would never talk, but one day my phone rang and it was him. He gave one of the funniest, more candid interviews.
Why does this article feel like it would make a good film?
Readers say that about most of my articles, I think, because I write in a three-act structure, and I use dialogue and scenes. I’m a student of narrative structure and I like to borrow from film when writing nonfiction. For example, in the McScam story there’s a twist at the midpoint: A criminal is killed in a car crash, and the plot turns on its head.
What was your reasoning in going with Affleck and Damon? Were any guarantees made as far as it being made?
Klawans had previously teamed with Ben Affleck on Argo and that was obviously a huge success, to say the least. There were so many other offers and big names but this one made me say, “Wow.” I was thrilled at how passionate they are about the story.
Matt Damon has committed to starring. Could you dream cast the other key figures?
I obviously have zero input in casting. But the most interesting character for me is the veteran FBI investigator. He usually worked on boring wire frauds but was suddenly thrown into a world of Big Macs, mobsters, psychics and strip club owners! Sir Anthony Hopkins has the right kind of intensity I think.
What are you working on next?
I’m working on two stories — an unusual love story, and I’m teaming up with Klawans again on a bizarre true story about a rapper.
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