Photo: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images
This story was originally published without the necessary disclosure that its author has a previous professional relationship with one of the primary characters, film producer David Klawans. It has subsequently been added.
On a Saturday in late July, the Daily Beast posted a story titled “McScam: How an Ex-Cop Rigged McDonald’s Monopoly Game and Stole Millions” — a picaresque, stranger-than-fiction conspiracy tale involving drug traffickers, mobsters, psychics, strip-club operators, and even a Mormon family who falsely claimed more than $24 million in cash and prizes over a decade of criminal collusion. As the sun began to set in Los Angeles, where the article’s British-born author Jeff Maysh lives, dozens of movie offers came rolling in. And by Sunday, the story was the top Twitter trending topic in the world. “I didn’t know there were so many producers in Los Angeles,” Maysh tells Vulture. “Anyone who’d ever thought about becoming a producer emailed me. I was getting literally thousands of emails.”
Within days, an all-out bidding war erupted between several major studios and a deep bench of Hollywood’s A-list leading men. Warner Bros. attempted to buy “McScam” for a film to star Steve Carell (with Whiskey Tango Foxtrot co-directors John Requa and Glenn Ficarra attached to direct). Netflix bid at the behest of Robert Downey Jr. and Hangover filmmaker Todd Phillips. Universal attempted to snap it up as a star vehicle for Kevin Hart. As Vulture can exclusively report, Martin Scorsese came to the bidding table late in the game with the expressed interest of Leonardo DiCaprio for the lead (ex-cop Jerome Jacobson). Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg separately pursued the project. And Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment made a play for acquisition rights, according to sources with knowledge of the negotiations.
“It literally was movie fantasy league for this thing,” says David Klawans, who will co-produce the project. “In these times, it’s harder than ever to get a bidding war. And you don’t have this sort of talent attached.”
But in the end — just about 72 hours after the story’s publication, to be precise — only one group would emerge victorious: 20th Century Fox and Matt Damon and Ben Affleck’s production company Pearl Street Films, which bid an eye-watering $1 million for the 8,700-word online long read (most articles command option fees of less than $1,000). That’s the highest price ever paid for an optioned article in Hollywood history, according to agents who worked on the deal. The plan is for Affleck to direct and Damon to star (presumably as Jacobson) with hot-shot Deadpool writers Paul Wernick and Rhett Reese handling script duties.
Which would all be a happy Hollywood ending for any ink-stained wretch trying to pump out long-form narrative nonfiction these days. Except this wasn’t just good luck or some kind of fluke that “McScam” had so thoroughly connected with Hollywood: Klawans and Maysh had been developing the article with the specific aim of turning it into a film since 2016.
Klawans (Nacho Libre, Amazon Prime’s The Legend of Master Legend) is the independent movie and TV producer known for his meticulous research: reading through countless niche journals, RSS feeds, police blogs, library microfiche and clippings from news outlets from around the globe in pursuit of ripped-from-the-headlines movie fodder. Seizing upon the oddball and the obscure — often long-forgotten spot news about people with hidden lives doing weird, wonderful, often shocking things — he enlists a small cadre of professional journalists to re-research the subjects, then write long-form articles that get published in reputable magazines, newspapers, and websites. The idea is that articles are better than pitch meetings — that development executives will be more likely to open their checkbooks if the “planted” story is arranged into a linear narrative with a three-act structure. Klawans buys the story subjects’ life rights and will often circulate an unpublished article to Hollywood production companies before publication to gin up interest.
The foremost example of this M.O.: 2012’s Argo. In the late ’90s, the producer had read the then-recently declassified testimony of CIA exfiltration expert Tony Mendez in a CIA journal, detailing how he helped American diplomats escape the 1979 Iran hostage crisis by posing them as a group of Canadian filmmakers. Hiring journalist Joshuah Berman to pitch and “plant” the piece in Wired, Klawans then sold the project to George Clooney’s Smokehouse Pictures with Ben Affleck starring and directing. Argo went on to gross $232 million and win the best picture Oscar in 2013.
Maysh, a former American-based “stringer” (read: freelance reporter) for British tabloids, got into cahoots with Klawans in 2013 when the Chicago-born, Belgium-raised producer reached out to compliment him on a story. And over the years, the two have collaborated on a number of articles that are now in various stages of film development: “A Catfishing With a Happy Ending” (The Atlantic) about a woman deceived into falling for an older man on the internet only to later fall in love with the male model he was impersonating; “The Uncatchable” (BBC News Magazine), about a Robin Hood–like Greek bank robber; and “The Spy With No Name,” (Amazon Kindle Single) a le Carré–esque espionage story about a Cold War spy who broke the heart of an innocent woman who thought she had found her long-lost son. (Another of their collaborations, “The Pez Outlaw,” about a Michigan farmer who made $4 million smuggling rare Pez dispensers into the U.S., was published in Playboy and set up at Warner Bros. but expired.)
“I think we share the same eye for story,” says Maysh. “I’m big on three-act structure. I speak the same language as film producers.”
“It’s definitely a strength,” adds Klawans. “With my research and the story ideas, it makes a powerful combo. That’s why I think we’ve been able to set so many of these up.”
In 2014, a studio film executive approached Klawans looking for a “Wolf of Wall Street–type of movie,” sending the producer scouring the web. Klawans came across a story from the New York Post dated September 10, 2001, detailing cop turned security auditor Jerome Jacobson’s arrest for stealing million-dollar “Instant Win” McDonald’s Monopoly game tickets from the company that printed them and selling them to family members, friends, and acquaintances for kickbacks. “What catches my eye is this paragraph where the FBI went undercover doing a fake promotion, filming it, giving the guy a fake check,” the producer says. “And there was a Ronald McDonald there. And I’m like, ‘Oh my God, this is crazy!’” (Disclosure: prior to working at Vulture, this writer had a business relationship with Klawans attempting to set up movie projects based on articles.)
The story had effectively been buried by the bigger news that broke the next day: the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Klawans attempted to contact Jacobson by phone and email, also reaching out to the McScammer’s brother and children to no avail. Jacobson’s lawyer told Klawans to basically get lost. He enlisted a Vanity Fair journalist, who similarly failed to persuade the convict to cooperate with them. Maysh took on the project in 2016, “gathering string” for months, flying to Jacksonville, Florida, to obtain 25 pounds of court documents from the trial of Jacobson that provided a timeline of the whole ordeal and taxonomy of its players. Then came the serious reporting — interviews with at least 50 people — at the end of last year. The writing took four months.
“Andrew Glomb, who was convicted of cocaine smuggling and had this long criminal record, had been on the run from police for 16 months,” Maysh recalls. “I thought, ‘He’s never going to talk.’ He called me because once the word gets around that you’re reporting, people start to contact you. I had one confidential source who was an insider at the company and he or she gave me the full character work on Jacobson. Without that, I wouldn’t have gotten Jacobson’s character down.” (No one at the FBI agreed to be interviewed, but the bureau helped him fact-check the story.)
All the while, Klawans was providing background research material — ads and commercials featuring the fraudulent McDonald’s Monopoly winners — and even latched onto a wider web of McScammers that the FBI had failed to prosecute. “I discovered in the archives that there was a patter of other winners the FBI hadn’t known about or didn’t care about,” Klawans says.
Maysh had previously published another story with the Daily Beast, “The Scarface of Sex,” about a millionaire playboy who murdered his way to the top of the porn industry, which also went viral. He negotiated to publish “McScam” with the site, crucially keeping his ancillary rights to the article (meaning he wouldn’t have to share any money from the sale of its adaptation rights). Nevertheless, even with the gold rush of industry interest upon its publication, neither man could have predicted their historic payday.
“When it started rolling, I said to Jeff, ‘I have the feeling we’re going to get at least a $250,000 option,” Klawans recalls. “He was like, ‘Nothing’s ever been optioned for 250.’ I said, ‘No, I can feel it coming. I can feel the tsunami of this whole thing.’”
In addition to the princely price tag — a $350,000 option fee against $1 million if the movie gets made — the producer’s already-established working relationship with Affleck persuaded him the Batman star’s team was the best fit. “Ben reached out to me, said that he really wanted to do it, that he really loved the project,” Klawans says. “The screenwriters had just done Deadpool 2. I just figured that it was a good package and there was a good chance it would be made into a high-quality film.”
In an era when grown-up mid-budget studio movies like the eventual McScam film are becoming an endangered species in Hollywood, it would be hard to overstate how thoroughly and successfully Maysh and Klawans captivated the entertainment-industrial complex with their planted story. Not that the town’s populace of agents, development executives, and stars looking for flashy projects seems to care.
“It was an intense experience,” says Klawans. Adds Maysh: “It was quite overwhelming. But I can’t say I didn’t enjoy it.”