In the '90s there was nothing bigger than the McDonald's Monopoly game. It was massive and gave everyday people a chance to win prizes simply by collecting game pieces found on McDonald's food or promotional items. You could also win instant prizes, including food, cars, or cash, up to one million dollars.
What was not known at the time was that someone was undermining the whole thing and taking the large value prizes for themselves. Americans never had a chance.
Filmmakers James Lee Hernandez and Brian Lazarte uncover the two-decade-old scandal in a six-part HBO docuseries. Below the directors share the hurdles in getting it made, including a Daily Beast article that could have ruined their shot.
From Reddit to HBO: How 'McMillions' Brought McDonald's Monopoly Scandal to Series
NFS: How did you first hear of the story?
James Lee Hernandez: It started back in 2012. I was in bed cruising Reddit on my phone. In between funny videos and other random articles, I saw a TIL – Today I learned nobody really won the McDonald's Monopoly game. That game was a huge part of my childhood. My first job when I was 16 was at McDonald's during its heyday in the '90s.
I opened the link, and it had a very basic blurb from a Jacksonville local newspaper telling about the story, and it set me on fire. I looked into it, and I couldn't find much, which I was surprised about. In this day and age, if you can't learn every single detail about a topic in 30 seconds, it's enraging. So I looked into over the next year and hit a wall.
NFS: How did you get over the hump?
Hernandez: I put in a Freedom of Information request in with the U.S Government. It took a little over three years to go through.
NFS: Three years?!? Holy patience, grasshopper. And here I'm complaining about how long my Caviar food order is taking.
Hernandez: Yes, it was insane. But once we received the info, we were able to find out the FBI agents working the case and who was the federal prosecutor. Before speaking to anyone, we reached out to FBI headquarters to get permission first. Once they approved everything, we started talking to the guys in Jacksonville. They said it was one of their favorite cases – and that one had ever reached out to them before. This would have been in the summer of 2017.
Credit: Courtesy of HBO
NFS: What was your next step? Did you have to attain any rights?
Hernandez: Because it's a federal case, it is in the public domain so anybody can do anything with the material.
NFS: So it was only a matter of creating the pitch and getting it in front of the right production company?
NFS: So you were on the trail before the Daily Beast article came out?
Hernandez: Yes. When that article came out, I had a mini-meltdown.
NFS: How so?
Hernandez: The article hit when we were deep into everything. It's a well-written article that anybody could have written because of its public knowledge. Before it came out in the summer of 2018, we were contacted by the federal agents and the federal prosecutor we were working with. They mentioned that a reporter was doing a story on the case and if he was part of the documentary. He wasn't, but we were thinking it was going to be just another article. It turned out it wasn't. It was a calculated effort to sell it as a movie idea. The article came out on a Saturday and then it was reported a few days later that Ben Affleck and Matt Damon purchase the rights to make it into a movie.
Lazarte: When the article came out, we realized if we didn't focus on this 100%, we might not be able to make it because it was getting so much attention. We basically crammed a month of work into 48 hours.
NFS: Yikes. I'm sure No Film School readers can relate – having an idea and then seeing someone else make it.
Hernandez: Yes. All these years of work and waiting. Brian and I were about to start pitching the project, and I thought the world was ending, but it ended up helping in a big way.
FBI Special Agent, Doug MathewsCredit: Courtesy of HBO
NFS: How did it end up helping?
Lazarte: We already had a sizzle cut together. We had exclusive relationships with many of the subjects who were only talking to us. Our pitch was this is the greatest story about McDonald's no one has ever heard of. Then the article came out, and it surprised us with how popular it became. It validated in a lot of ways how good of a story we were on to. It also helped us get the attention of other networks.
NFS: Did the article help open the door to Mark Wahlberg, Stephen Levinson, and Archie Gips at Unrealistic Productions?
Hernandez: Actually, Brian had a prior relationship with Archie [Gips] that got everything going.
Lazarte: Ya, a lot of my background has been in post-production, and I edited the Katy Perry: Part of Me movie for Paramount, and Archie was a producer on it. We stayed in touch and lived almost next door to each other. I ended up talking to him about it before the article came out that we'd love to show to him when it was ready.
Million Dollar winner Michael HooverCredit: Courtesy of HBO
NFS: With HBO giving the greenlight, how did you approach the production?
Hernandez: We had all the amount of information we could get from the case and court transcripts, but it wasn't until we went to Jacksonville and talked to people in person that we really locked in the framework of the story. We started by filming FBI agent Doug Mathews, his superior Chris Graham and the prosecutor for the case Mark Devereauxit. Those first three interviews laid the foundation, and everyone we talked to afterward would move the story out larger and larger.
NFS: Did you have any hurdles getting people to speak on camera?
Hernandez: Many people we talked on the "winners" side were reluctant to share their stories on camera. It was a dark spot in their life and didn't necessarily want to rehash it. But we shared with them that the FBI will be talking about you and this would be their chance to talk about it from their point of view. The audience will ultimately relate to them even if they had a criminal background or just were roped into it. Everyone wanted to win that game in the '90s.
NFS: How did you find the arc for each episode?
Hernandez: The most fascinating thing about this is how the FBI works. Anyone who has seen TV shows about the FBI paints them as boring people in suits who know everything with a phone call. But that's not how it works. We were really intrigued by how they take a little bit of information and turn it into a full-fledged case. We never wanted to be ahead of their investigation, so in the first episode, we explore FBI's point-of-view. Then we start to flip the perspective to the criminal side and start to understand the people behind it and what motivates them do it.
Lazarte: The point of view in a documentary or docuseries is so important. You can certainly hear from everyone's perceptive, but being able to have a very specific POV from the FBI helped ground the story. We found that the series didn't have to maintain the same tone. We have so many different characters and people, and we felt it gave us the liberty to be creative, and we shifted the tone between the different worlds. At the same time, we were hypercritical about making the series too long.
Credit: Courtesy of HBO
NFS: Anything left on the cutting room floor?
Lazarte: Actually, yes. We're doing a companion McMillions podcast with the series where we'll talk about things that couldn't fit in each of the episodes. We'll play deleted scenes, have guests on each episode that was a subject from that show and try to answer questions viewers may have.
NFS: Did you want the series to have a specific visual feel?
Hernandez: The '90s was the end of the analog era, so we wanted it to feel not just analog, not just Super 16, but to have scope too. We have a drone shot hovering high over a neighborhood to open the show to illustrate how this game was massive. It didn't matter what your social class was…at this time, going to McDonald's was a treat. We wanted everything to feel larger than life to let the viewers know how big it was at the time.
NFS: Ya, this doc will be total nostalgia for many viewers. It was huge back then.
Lazarte: There wasn't another company out there running a promotion like this at the time. In some small towns across America, a McDonald's opening up down the street gave them something to identity to. This game gave people the opportunity to get ahead. To win a million dollars from buying a box of French fries. They just didn't know they never had a chance.