The McMillion$ Files Atlanta’s role in one of America’s favorite new documentaries By Mi chae l J . Pa l l e r i no
J ames Lee Hernandez was reading Reddit one night before falling asleep when he noticed a headline about a fraud case where an ex-cop turned security officer rigged McDonald’s widely popular Monopoly game promotion, stealing millions and building a vast network of co-conspirators across the country. To say Hernandez was intrigued is putting it mildly. A huge fan of the game back in the day, he immediately filed a Freedom of Information request to find out more about one of the biggest scandals nobody apparently had ever heard of (thanks to a verdict rendered days after 9/11). The request took three years to process. In Hernandez’s anticipation to dig deeper into the story, he tracked down the federal prosecutor on the case, Mark Devereaux, and a few of his FBI colleagues to be a part of what he was sure would be a must-see story. Adding his documentary director friend Brian Lazarete to the team, they set out to pitch the story to Unrealistic Ideas Productions, the production company run by veteran documentary filmmaker Archie Gips, actor/producer Mark Wahlberg, and his longtime manager/producing partner Stephen Levinson. In what may end up being a documentary about the making of a documentary, a story in the Daily Beast about the scandal set off a Hollywood firestorm, with Ben Affleck and Matt Damon securing the eventual narrative rights. But Hernandez and Lazarete were undeterred. Nailing down their pitch in record time, they slam-dunked their presentation, struck a deal with HBO, and McMillion$ was born. We didn’t set out to paint this as a black and white picture, positive/ negative situation. It is very much about the gray that exists in our lives.
McMillion$ team at the Sundance World Premier Activation Party. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.
“Sometimes good people make bad decisions,” Hernandez says. “That was really the underlying fascination about this whole story. For me, it was an idealistic view of something from your childhood, something beloved that you really cared about. And then you find out it was entirely fraudulent. We didn’t set out to paint this as a black and white picture, positive/ negative situation. It is very much about the gray that exists in our lives.” The gray that Hernandez and Lazarete reference pertains to the cast of unwitting characters who sold their souls for easy money. People who, when presented with an ironclad way to win a million dollars by telling a little white lie, lied. Therein lies the heart and soul of the McMillion$ story—what would you do? Sara Elizabeth Timmins says the human side of the story is the most attractive part of the tale—participants who end up becoming victims themselves. Timmins, producer and creative director for Atlanta-based Life Out Loud Films, originally worked with Lazarete 20 years ago on a film in Cincinnati. Their relationship came full circle when the directors reached out to her to help coordinate the parts of the story (the perpetrator, Jerry Jacobson, lived in Atlanta) that had local, state, and regional ties. Since Timmins is from Atlanta, she worked closely with the Unrealistic Ideas and HBO teams, managing the shoots on the ground and in the field here, Florida, and South Carolina.
“We had a talented splinter crew from our area and worked with several local rental houses to bring this show to life,” Timmins says. “Since the documentary got greenlit quickly and was timely, we were moving insanely fast with tight resources. Everyone involved literally worked magic to make that shoot possible.” In the story behind the story, Timmins says that the passion Hernandez and Lazarte had for the project resonated with everyone involved. “We can learn so much from following what lights us up, being prepared and getting your timing right. They had the courage, faith, and confidence to follow what inspired them.” The arc that made McMillion$ an HBO must- watch show is that it takes viewers behind the headlines and sensationalism, especially when it involves a story nobody saw coming. “We are drawn to truth and as humans, we are curious,” Lazarte says. “We all make mistakes. It is just that our mistakes often are not in the public eye like this. It is easy to assume that this was just a victimless crime—people are taking something from a big corporation. Who is getting hurt? But these people who were involved lost job opportunities, relationships, their freedom. There were some tragic ramifications. The whole thing makes you be more skeptical of promotions like this.”
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