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Behind Hollywood’s A-List Bidding War for a McDonald’s Monopoly Article
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.)......MORE