NEW YORK — Do not pass Go, and do not read this interview if you have not watched the HBO documentary series “McMillion$.”
The series, which details the 1990s conspiracy to defraud the McDonald’s Monopoly sweepstakes, debuted at January’s Sundance Film Festival, and is now available to view all over the world. It was nominated for five Emmy awards last week, including for Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Series. It’s another “true crime” tale, but one with comparatively low stakes and a gallery of characters each more unbelievable than the last.
In addition to Ronald McDonald, it involves members of New York’s Colombo crime family (and a quintessential “mob wife”), the wackiest FBI agent you’ve ever seen, and a mastermind criminal who almost got away with the ultimate head-scratcher “how the hell did he pull this off?” scheme.
“McMillion$” was produced by Archie Gips, one of Hollywood’s finest Jews, and his partners at Unrealistic Ideas, which include, in Gips’s words, “Steven Levenson, also Jewish, and Mark Wahlberg, who sounds Jewish.”
Something that doesn’t get much attention in the finished show is that the villain at the heart of the series, Jerome “Uncle Jerry” Jacobson, is also Jewish, but, to be frank, maybe it’s for the best that no one goes out of their way to point this out. The last thing anti-Semites need to see is a conniving Jewish man pulling the strings of a grand conspiracy, even if it is, admittedly, a very clever one. (Remember, for every Bernie Madoff there’s a hundred Jonas Salks, Sandy Koufaxes, and Sammy Davis Jrs.!)
Even at six hour-long episodes, there are still some lingering questions. With that, check out this interview with Gips, which has been edited for clarity.
The Times of Israel: Mazel tov on the Emmy nomination.
Archie Gips: Five Emmy nominations!
Oh, wow. Five?
One for writing, one for editing, one for sound editing, one for music composition, and one for us, for Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Series.
I did notice that the music was terrific — the opening had a bit of that crime jazz thing going, then the last episode really was quite touching.
We’re very happy it got noticed.
For the big award you are up against “Tiger King”; the Michael Jordan documentary “The Last Dance”; the Hillary Clinton documentary, “Hillary”; plus PBS’s “American Masters.” Tough competish! Are you ready to conquer? Do you feel confident?
Uhhhhh… let me say it is an honor just to be nominated.
I’ll say this: our company does a lot of premium documentaries, but also a lot of classic “reality television.” And I feel like “Tiger King” is a phenomenal reality television show. I wouldn’t call it a documentary. It’s great, but I feel like it is hitting that lowest common denominator. I would be a little upset if that won, to be honest.
“The Last Dance” is extremely well-done. Maybe a little bit of a puff piece on Michael Jordan, but that’s a minor criticism. If you were to ask me what would win, it’s probably that.
“McMillion$” is my pick, and not just because I’m on the phone with you. It’s a great crime mystery, but also incredibly funny, and just when you think you’ve got it sussed out — what?! Car crash?! — you are drawn to the next episode. When you are sculpting this in the editing room, is there a formula you use to balance the comedy versus the criminal drama?
We always wanted an “Ocean’s 11”-type caper. It’s one of the few “true crime” series where there isn’t a murder; nothing truly horrific happened. So it could be a little lighthearted. A scam against McDonald’s is quote unquote “harmless,” right?
Then you see how these FBI agents actually have a sense of humor. When I first saw footage of the lead agent Doug Mathews it was like — what? This guy deserves his own TV show. He’s just so naturally funny. So we knew the tone was comedy. But then as you’re watching this series, it slowly reveals itself not to be a victimless crime. You learn the specific stories of people like Gloria Brown and George Chandler, who were somewhat roped into this thing, and their lives got completely screwed. You have to care about those people.
The tone shifts back and forth with the absurdity, and it was tough to find that balance. Initially HBO wanted five episodes. We realized we couldn’t land it with just that, we needed six. We basically begged them to go to six episodes. And I’ve heard criticism, people say “they drew this out to six episodes! It could have been told in a two-hour film!” And to those people, I say: you’re exactly right, but then you wouldn’t have gotten the deep dive into these people’s lives. And the amazing part of the series is learning how it affected all these people in a very personal way.
Part of why this connects, obviously, is the kitsch factor. McDonald’s holds such a spot of “wholesome Americana” in the culture, and the game Monopoly we remember being 8 years old playing with our grandparents. But what is actually going on here? McDonald’s food is poison giving people diabetes, and Monopoly indoctrinates youth to become ruthless capitalists.
Yeah, little kid Trumps. Plus the FBI, which depending on your point of view, aren’t necessarily the good guys. But this story resonates with people because almost everyone is involved.
Everyone touched this Monopoly game at some point. So when you find out this thing was rigged for over a decade? You are personally invested immediately, like holy shit! No wonder I never won
Everybody played that Monopoly game at McDonald’s. This isn’t like a typical documentary series. I just watched “The Keepers” on Netflix, which is terrific. It’s about a school nun who gets murdered in the 1960s. It’s a thrilling story, but a regular person watching it didn’t live through it.
Everyone touched this Monopoly game at some point. So when you find out this thing was rigged for over a decade? You are personally invested immediately: “Holy shit, no wonder I never won!” It’s a true crime story that everyone’s involved in. And you want to know, “who was the asshole who prevented me from winning?”
Did anyone ever win one of the big prizes legitimately?
The first year someone won $1 million. Then for the 13, 14 years it ran and only small prizes were won legitimately. Nothing over $25,000 was legitimate, it all went through Uncle Jerry. The $1 million prize, the cars, the $100,000 prizes. At the end he had $26 million in stolen goods.
So the big question is about Jerry. He is living quietly, an old man in Atlanta, out of jail. Why didn’t he appear in the film?
We spoke to him many times. So many times. We said “look, you are going to look really bad, we want you to tell your own story.” Dozens of times. We even approached him after the series ran. We said “look, HBO is ready to add an extra episode if you want to tell your side, a bonus episode.” He said “no” every time. We made contact, asked him countless times. Spoke to him on the phone. He turned us down.
Do you think justice was served?
No. He got off very easy. He copped a plea and got off too easy for masterminding a huge crime. He should have spent 10 years in prison.
He copped a plea and got off too easy for masterminding a huge crime. He should have spent 10 years in prison
What have been some of the more surprising reactions to the show?
There’s a throwaway moment, added in by an editor almost as a joke. Frank Colombo and his wife go to a drive-thru McDonald’s, and they get coffee. He gets it with 10 creams and five sugars, his wife gets 10 creams and five Equal. The internet went insane.
And then there’s just Agent Doug Mathews. He’s beloved, which I knew he would be. My notes throughout were “as much Doug Mathews as possible, he’s a superstar.” We’re actually developing a new non-scripted show with Doug.
It’s the cavalcade of colorful characters that makes it impossible to stop watching. And Frank Colombo is part of it; he is just so likable. Even though he seems significantly removed from the violent element of the Colombo crime family, this is someone who, in life, has certainly benefited from ill-gotten family wealth. It gets a little thorny.
I’ve spent a lot of time with Frank and he’s just a crack up. He’s tame compared to some other projects I’ve done. I mean, I worked with Sammy “The Bull” Gravano, and it sounds weird to say, but I consider him a friend of mine. He did 25 years in prison, and he’s not the same guy after that experience. He’s… almost like an uncle of sorts now. So it’s all relative. What Frank and Jerry Colombo did is small potatoes compared to that. If you can’t change and become a better person, what’s the point?
You mentioned that Jerry Jacobson didn’t want to talk to you; did you have any others you had to convince?
Yes, Gloria Brown, because she kept everything secret. Her own sister had no idea about any of it. It took a lot of convincing. And as it happens, I ended up sitting next to her at the Sundance premiere. She’d not seen any of the film, she was terrified how it would be received. It was so overwhelming for her, it was very touching and cathartic. There were parts when she was grabbing my hand. She was like a new person, such a weight was taken off of her chest. I got to witness that personally.
“McMillion$” is a success because you can’t stop talking about it once you’ve seen it. I watched with my wife, and we got into the weeds a little bit. Let me play devil’s advocate here. The FBI comes to McDonald’s and says “your game is corrupted” and they decide that to find the villain they need to run the game another time. A “blue dye test,” as it were. Now, if McDonald’s just said “no” and shut it down, all of the economic fallout, the worldwide closing of Simon Marketing, the closing of Dittler Brothers printing, economic hardship for people like Gloria Brown and George Chandler, none of that destruction would have happened.
I actually commend McDonald’s for running it again, though. If they’re running a game, just like you said, they could have just quietly gone into the night. No one would know. But they decided to find out who was doing the criminal activity. Remember, it could have been a McDonald’s employee. The crook could have been in their own house. And honestly, they would have stopped the game anyway. They had a compromised game, they would have cut bait with everyone.
I do remember the game from years ago, but I must say I completely forgot about the scandal. Total memory hole. The show offers a good explanation of this, as it was completely overshadowed by 9/11, which happened just after the news came out. Did you remember it?
No. Completely faded in memory. 2001 was a different time — no social media, the internet was totally different.
This all got rolling for us when one of the two directors, James Lee Hernandez, was up late one night in 2014 or 2015, and poking around the internet and saw a weird story, “Today I Learned No One Actually Won McDonald’s Monopoly.” He found some old articles and said “this is insane!”
I was shocked to learn the game is now back!
How surreal is that? I live in Los Angeles, and go to the supermarket Pavilions. And at Pavilions they had the Monopoly game while “McMillion$” was first being broadcast! They were running at the same time. I would purposely go to Pavilions and get the cards, and say to the cashier “oh, wow, these cards,” and they’d say “hey, are you watching that thing on HBO? Wow that story is crazy!”
I would get feedback at the supermarket from cashiers. They’d say “can you believe they are still doing this? It was a rip-off years ago!”
It was the best surprise marketing you could ask for.