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‘McMillions’: HBO recaps McDonald’s Monopoly heist, and we’re lovin’ it

The jaw-dropping series premiering Monday looks back at how the fast-food chain’s 1990s sweepstakes was hijacked to the tune of $24 million.

The McDonald’s Monopoly board of the ’90s and the various food packages that include game pieces are on display in the movie “McMillions.”
The McDonald’s Monopoly board of the ’90s and the various food packages that include game pieces are on display in the movie “McMillions.”
HBO

I’d love to see the McDonald’s Monopoly game scandal become a feature film in the tradition of Adam McKay’s “The Big Short.”

Channing Tatum would be perfectly cast as FBI Special Agent Doug Mathews, who looks like one of those bodybuilder lawyers you see on bus ads and never, EVER stops talking.

Cynthia Erivo would be great as a $1 million winner who was part swindler, part victim. (Mostly victim.)

I see Melissa McCarthy as Amy Murray, the McDonald’s marketing executive who went undercover as a TV commercial producer in a crazy sting operation.

Top it off with John Goodman as the mysterious “Uncle Jerry,” and away we’d go.

Cut to a closeup of a rewind button. You might well be asking: The McDonald’s Monopoly what now?

If you’re too young to remember this story — or, like me, you’ve forgotten many details — the new HBO documentary series “McMillions” tells it in comprehensive fashion, with more than a little flair.

I’ve seen the first three chapters of the six-part series from executive producer Mark Wahlberg (which premieres Monday), and I’m champing at the bit for more of this jaw-dropper about how $24 million was stolen from the McDonald’s Monopoly game of the 1990s.

Writer-directors James Lee Hernandez and Brian Lazarte scored current-day interviews with a number of the major players in the scandal, both on the criminal and criminal justice side. They sometimes layer a few too many slices of cheese in the re-creation scenes that augment the interviews — but given the frequently ridiculous twists and turns in the real-life story, it’s not really an inappropriate approach.

In one instance, we see a hazy, memory-piece scene in which a million-dollar winner is on the beach, holding up one of those giant novelty checks as he’s being interviewed by an FBI team posing as a TV promo production team. All of a sudden, a stoned passerby grabs the prop and runs off, apparently believing he could actually cash the check.

Come on. That’s just too stupid.

Except it actually happened.

As we’re told in the first episode, the McDonald’s Monopoly game became a hugely popular promotion for the fast-food giant in the 1990s.

The game was simple. You could obtain tokens related to the famous board game at your local McDonald’s and in newspapers and magazines. (No purchase was necessary; that way, a promotion can be legally defined as a sweepstakes and not a form of gambling.)

The vast majority of winning tokens would net you a free McFlurry or an order of fries, but a tiny percentage of lucky winners would receive a trip to the Super Bowl or a car or a “dream vacation” — and, in the rarest of cases, cash prizes in the six and seven figures.

FBI Special Agent Doug Mathews recalls being tipped off to the Monopoly scandal in “McMillions.”
FBI Special Agent Doug Mathews recalls being tipped off to the Monopoly scandal in “McMillions.”
HBO

But from 1989 to 2001, there were virtually zero legitimate winners of those major prizes.

“How crazy bull--- is that?” says Mathews, who at the time was an ambitious, eager agent in FBI’s Jacksonville, Florida, office.

In 2001, an anonymous tipster had given Mathews the names of three million-dollar winners. They had different last names but were all part of the same family tree. And all could be tied to someone known only as “Uncle Jerry.”

After exhaustive research and fine investigative work (I’ll leave it to the documentary to lay out the details), the FBI started piecing together its own puzzle as it considered this might be an inside job, possibly involving someone in the McDonald’s hierarchy or the marketing firm to which they outsourced the promotion or the printing company that produced all of the winning tokens.

In one of the most fascinating sequences, “McMillions” makes it clear there was heavy, multilayered security involved in all levels of the printing and distribution of the winning tokens. Like, “Oceans” movie-level stuff.

Then again, they’re always getting away with the heist in those “Oceans” movies, aren’t they?

Working with the cooperation of McDonald’s, the FBI forms a phony commercial TV unit called Shamrock Productions (with the slogan, “Cuz You’re Just Lucky”) and announces a bogus reunion in Las Vegas for all the big winners. This gives them the intro to conduct on-camera interviews with a number of past winners in the hopes of discovering glaring, indictment-worthy discrepancies in the stories they originally told about winning — and the stories they were now telling.

Meanwhile, the back story expands to include a colorful array of characters, including a former cop turned security specialist, a mobster who actually seeks publicity and the mobster’s former wife, who looks and sounds like she watched “Goodfellas” a few too many times.

Amy Murray, a McDonald’s marketing exec who helped catch the Monopoly thieves, is interviewed at the company’s West Loop headquarters in “McMillions.”
Amy Murray, a McDonald’s marketing exec who helped catch the Monopoly thieves, is interviewed at the company’s West Loop headquarters in “McMillions.”
HBO

On the hero side, the doc travels to the West Loop headquarters of McDonald’s for an interview with Amy Murray, senior director of global marketing, 17 years since she was part of that FBI undercover operation. Go, Amy!

Three episodes in, we know “Uncle Jerry” somehow gained possession of millions of dollars of legit game pieces and orchestrated an elaborate scheme to put those tokens into the hands of a group of seemingly unrelated, average folks who would cash in their tickets, then kick back a large percentage of the bounty.

But how? How did Uncle Jerry do it?

That’s the McMillion-Dollar Question. Stay tuned.