SHELLI RYAN // COURTESY OF HBO
Fast food ephemera, big money and the Mob, all wrapped up in an easily binge-able package: HBO’s McMillion$ captures Americana at its seediest in the form of a quirky six-episode true crime docuseries. Centering around McDonald’s recurring Monopoly promotion — the one in which customers can trade game pieces peeled from Big Mac boxes for prizes — the show chronicles an FBI investigation into a conspiracy that rigged the contest’s results from 1989 to 2001, scamming the burger chain out of $24 million.
Unlike most true-crime series, McMillion$ isn’t much of a whodunit mystery. After providing a brief history of the Monopoly promotion and introducing the unexpectedly charismatic team of agents tackling the case, the documentary wastes no time in identifying its key culprits by the end of its second episode. Instead of leaving audiences in the dark, McMillion$ chooses to explore the complex and bizarre network of characters whose lives intersected with the scam: folks who were both wittingly and unwittingly implicated as fraudulent prizewinners, McDonald’s employees enlisted as FBI collaborators and even members of the Mafia.
In producing the series, University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music graduate and director Brian Lazarte and his co-director James Lee Hernandez made a conscious effort to highlight the real, human impact of the conspiracy.
“There were victims here. We’d hear often, ‘Oh this is a victimless crime, and it didn’t hurt anybody,’” Lazarte says. “You know, it’s McDonald’s, a billion-dollar company. But when you really break it down, hopefully people will walk away realizing that there were real consequences that affected the victims’ friendships, their families and their job prospects.”
Telling that story wouldn’t be a simple task, however. Before McMillion$ went into production, there had yet to be a detailed account of the investigation published in any medium, largely due to the trial, which started one day before the September 11 attacks.
Though both Lazarte and Hernandez have fond memories of the McDonald’s Monopoly game itself, neither had heard of the scandal until 2012, when Hernandez happened upon a post on the TodayILearned subreddit about the fraudulent contest results.
“I was obsessed with that game as a kid,” Hernandez says. “I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Then, at the same time, this was referencing a blurb in a small Jacksonville newspaper. There had to be some big exposé on the whole thing. For the next year, I’d just randomly look into it and would just constantly hit this wall of articles using the same regurgitated information.”
Dissatisfied with what the internet had to offer, Hernandez filed a Freedom of Information request with the U.S. Government. Three years later, he was given access to the case files and the agents involved, many of whom regarded the McDonald’s scam as their favorite investigation.
From there, he reached out to his friend Lazarte to bring some experience in documentary filmmaking onboard. After graduating from CCM in 2004, Lazarte worked as an editor on reality series like Kitchen Nightmares and Shaq Fu, but recent credits included documentaries The Last Animals, a conservationist film about species at risk of extinction, and Under The Gun, which examined the NRA’s response to the Sandy Hook massacre.
In turn, Lazarte made it a point to bring local talent onto the production, offering CCM student, now graduate, Jared Bailey an internship.
“James and I both moved to L.A. around the same time, around 2005. We know how hard it is to have springboards and support. We always felt that if we could make this project happen at the level that we wanted to, we’d try to give back and give others a chance,” Lazarte says.
Ask either McMillion$ co-director who their favorite interview subject was and you’ll get an immediate answer: FBI agent Doug Mathews, an audience favorite and the series’ breakout star.
Brimming with confidence and bereft of patience, the twangy agent serves as a de facto protagonist, spearheading the McDonald’s fraud investigation simply because he’s “bored to death.”
Mathews’ on-screen presence is as much of a hook as the McMillion$ story itself. For each plot twist or new character introduced into the conspiracy, he serves up another can’t-miss anecdote about attending a board meeting in his “golden fry suit” or persuading his higher-ups to let him incorporate undercover work into the investigation.
“How he is on the show is exactly how he is in real life, every hour of the day,” Lazarte says. “There’s never really a dull moment, but he talks about a thousand miles a minute. The only problem with him is keeping up, if, for example, he might skim over an important talking point.”
According to Hernandez, the FBI agents interviewed were able to give a surprising amount of detail on the investigation, considering that it was in the “sweet spot” of being closed for years and containing little sensitive information.
“The agents themselves were really excited to talk about it because there are so few things that they do that they can actually talk about,” he says.
The pair was even more surprised to be able to bring two McDonald’s employees into the production as subjects — then-current head of global security Rob Holm and director of global family marketing Amy Murray, who assisted Mathews in founding a decoy production company for his undercover work.
Hernandez says that earning the trust of McDonald’s executives took time, but that their reaction to the finished product has been extremely positive.
“Ultimately, they did something we don’t really expect a major corporation to do,” he says. “You start out thinking ‘evil corporation,’ but then you realize they took the ethical approach to actually trying to do the right thing.”
And, Lazarte and Hernandez may very well have (unintentionally) paid McDonald’s back for their cooperation in sales.
“It always started on the road doing interviews,” Hernandez says. “We’d meet up with a person or crew member and say, ‘Oh, McDonald’s is right next to this person’s house,’ sort of as a joke. And that joke turns into getting fries.”