“I thought they were playing a prank on me,” McMillions co-director James Lee Hernandez says of the first time the FBI set him up to talk with Doug Matthews, the larger-than-life special agent who became the breakout star of HBO’s six-part docuseries on the McDonald’s Monopoly game scam. “The second he walked in the room, it was like the cannons blared and the heavens crumbled and I was like, ‘All right, we’ve got something here.’ “
The scam, which ran from 1995 until it was busted in 2001, started when Jerry Jacobson — security director for the marketing company running the promotion for McDonald’s — rigged the game by giving out perhaps 60 winning peel-off stickers to people he knew, who would then give him a cut of the prize money. The fraud netted more than $24 million. The docuseries is the culmination of an eight-year quest that started with Hernandez reading about the scam on Reddit and finding out from the FBI “that this is their favorite case and no one’s ever contacted them about it.” (The trial occurred the day before 9/11.) This led to years of convincing fraudulent winners to talk on camera. After many conversations about their plan to show winners as real people rather than villains, co-director Brian Lazarte says, “Little by little, we got them to sit down with us and then tell their story. McDonald’s was by far the hardest participant to agree, but after about 18 months of back and forth —” Hernandez chimes in: “We wore them down!”
One subject who has remained elusive is Jacobson, despite years of calling, writing letters and speaking to those in his inner circle. “We talked to tons of people, lots of his wives [he’s said to have married six or seven times]. He’s the type of person that it’s out of sight, out of mind. He just wanted to not have to deal with it,” Hernandez says of the fraudster who spent 37 months in prison.
With a project that so carefully balances comedy and tragedy while maintaining a true-crime documentary style, Hernandez and Lazarte say they took a gamble on the mix of tones. “We always looked at it like the story was almost from the Coen brothers and treated it as cinematically as we could and allowed for the real humor that we saw within the story to come out,” Lazarte says.
After the docuseries put a spotlight on the case, the fact that Ben Affleck and Matt Damon bought film rights to the story in 2018 has resurfaced, with Damon set to play Jacobson and Affleck directing. But Lazarte says the two takes aren’t in competition: “If they need any help with anything, they can always give us a call.”
This story first appeared in a June stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.