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UC alumnus exposes fast-food fraud

CCM grad Brian Lazarte co-directs HBO documentary series ‘McMillion$’

In 1987, McDonald’s began peppering its offering of burgers and fries with a popular promotion. Customers could collect Monopoly game pieces peeled off food wrappers and drink cups in the hopes of winning cars, cash and — more likely — free McDonald’s grub. But it turns out for more than a decade, there were almost no legitimate winners of the grand prizes that were redeemed, including million-dollar payouts. 

An HBO documentary series co-directed by a University of Cincinnati alumnus exposes this fast-food fraud. “McMillion$” reveals the largely untold story that involves the FBI and the mafia, elaborate undercover stings and a slew of fascinating characters.

Video link: https://www.youtube.com/embed/n8zHfScOWO8?rel=0

It all leads to one man — Rich Uncle Pennybags, if you will — who stole and distributed the coveted top-winning game pieces, turning a vast network of career criminals and relatable everyday people alike into his conspirators. The series ultimately poses the question: What would you do if you were offered a million dollars — and all you had to do was tell a little white lie about how you obtained the winning ticket? 

UC College-Conservatory of Music grad Brian Lazarte co-directs the series with James Lee Hernandez. The two teamed up after Hernandez stumbled upon a brief Reddit post in the “Today I Learned” feed stating that no one actually won McDonald’s Monopoly. After reading the few short news articles he could find about the case, Hernandez filed a Freedom of Information Act request to learn more. Three years later, he received the court documents and names needed to tell the story. The FBI agents involved told him this was their favorite case — and no one had ever reached out about it.

Hernandez knew Lazarte from working in production with his wife, so he reached out and the two decided to co-direct the project.

"McMillion$" directors James Lee Hernandez and Brian Lazarte pose sitting in chairs

"McMillion$" directors James Lee Hernandez and Brian Lazarte (right). Photo/Shelli Ryan/HBO

Together they interviewed dozens of people involved, from the charismatic Special Agent Doug Mathews, an ambitious FBI rookie when he first cracked open the case, to the colorful Robin Colombo, the wife of an Italian mobster, who got caught up in the scam. "Go directly to jail; do not pass Go; do not collect $200,” takes on a whole new meaning here.

The series was picked up by Mark Wahlberg’s production company Unrealistic Ideas and premium TV network HBO — home of popular shows like “The Sopranos” and “Game of Thrones” — and it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January. Currently available on HBO's streaming platforms and on Demand, “McMillion$” is captivating critics and viewers alike as a true-crime tale with a side of compassion.

“We obviously thought this was an exciting story,” says Lazarte, “but to see it out there and have people react to it, it’s been fun to watch.”

It started at CCM

In 2000, as the FBI was investigating the case, Lazarte was studying electronic media at CCM. He was driven to music and filmmaking, but wasn’t sure how that would translate to a sustainable career.

“As a student you have no idea what you’re going to do for the rest of your life,” Lazarte recalls. “I loved editing, I loved writing, I loved directing, but you never know if you can actually make a living and that you’ll be good enough to pursue a career path.”

Having a professor in your corner can make all the difference, and Lazarte found that at UC in Kevin Burke, who is now the E-media division head at CCM.

Kevin Burke and Brian Lazarte smile for a picture at a movie premiere

"McMillion$" co-director Brian Lazarte with CCM's electronic media division head Kevin Burke at the "McMillion$" premiere.

“Kevin Burke was by far the most pivotal of my professors at the time,” Lazarte says. “He championed anything that I was trying to do and was really supportive. He offered great theories and inspiration.”

Burke, who is also the Niehoff Professor of Film and Media Studies, says Lazarte was an outstanding student and recalls his student film, “Living in Technicolor,” winning a national award from the prestigious Caucus Foundation, kickstarting Lazarte’s career.

After graduating in 2004, Lazarte moved to Los Angeles and has been working in film and television ever since, from editing episodes of Gordon Ramsay’s “Kitchen Nightmares” to writing for “Under the Gun,” a documentary about the Sandy Hook shooting and gun laws.

“I was very fortunate to carve out a career path in editing for a number of years based on films that I was making and editing myself,” Lazarte says. “One job led to another job led to another and I landed in the documentary world. All these things — they add up. It’s exciting that all those efforts, those sleepless nights and what you do in college can be the seed to a career.”

“It’s wonderful to see the positive recognition he is currently receiving, but I know that Brian has been working for many years to get to this point,” UC’s Burke says.

McDonald's exterior with sign that reads MONOPOLY IS BACK

From stellar student to amazing alumnus

Burke says Lazarte is an exemplary alumnus not just because of his success story, but because of his track record of helping CCM students and recent grads through internships and mentoring. 

“There’s a lot of great, talented kids out there that are just finishing school, who just don’t have that real-world experience yet,” Lazarte says.

When it came time for him and Hernandez to bring together a team for “McMillion$,” it was important for them to include someone just starting out. Recent CCM E-media grad Jared Bailey got the job.

“James and I are very much in the spirit of trying to bring people up,” Lazarte says. “We knew how hard it was for us when we both got out of college to try to get our foot in the door. We always felt like if we got to a place in our career that we could help a student with an internship, we should do it. We offered up an internship opportunity to CCM alums and there was one candidate who really stood out. [Bailey] joined us and is still out in L.A. now. He’s staying busy.”

So is this filmmaking duo. “I have to do a Reddit trilogy at this point,” Hernandez says, laughing, though he confirms he’s found more ideas on the site. “We’ll have some announcements of things that we’re gonna be doing next coming up really soon.” 

And as “McMillion$” wraps up, it’s likely not the last time folks will hear of the rigged McDonald’s Monopoly game — actor/director Ben Affleck is working on a film based on the story, tentatively titled, “McScam.”

In the meantime, Lazarte will return to UC’s campus this spring to receive the CCM Young Alumnus Award at the college’s Convocation Ceremony — a fitting tribute for a promising grad who continues to pay it forward.

“I always try to connect with him when I am in L.A.,” Burke says, noting that Lazarte invited him to the Los Angeles premiere of “McMillion$.” “Despite the transformative impact Hollywood can often exert on people, Brian hasn’t really changed much at all from the sincere and genuine person he was when he was here at UC many years ago.”

 

Featured image at top: McDonald's Monopoly pieces displayed as evidence as seen in "McMillion$." Photo/HBO

Where to watch

All six episodes of “McMillion$” are available on HBO's streaming platforms and on Demand. Lazarte and Hernandez also host a companion podcast available on HBO.com and all major podcast apps.

Learn more about E-media at CCM