A California man was charged with fraud after securing millions in funding – and using most of the money on himself, prosecutors say.
n paper, Legends looked like a box-office hit. Adam Joiner billed his movie as an anachronistic mash-up of legendary 19th-century American figures, a steampunk Avengers – tailor-made to satiate the ever-expanding appetite for big-ticket, fantasy-action pictures.
With Endgame, the latest Avengers installment, grossing more than $1.2bn in its opening weekend, it isn’t hard to understand how Joiner was able to secure a relatively measly $14m in investment for the project.
The only problem? Beyond its screenplay, Legends didn’t exist – and it never would.
Joiner, 41, was arrested on 27 August and was charged in a Los Angeles federal court with wire fraud, money laundering and aggravated identity theft. Prosecutors allege he orchestrated an elaborate scheme of fraud, convincing at least two foreign firms to invest millions in Legends. Through email and telephone communications, and a series of forged documents, federal prosecutors say, he claimed to have executed distribution agreements with companies like Netflix and Amblin Partners, Steven Spielberg’s production outfit.
In reality, no such agreements were made, the prosecutors charge, and Joiner did very little with the ill-gotten funds to produce a film. “He spent much of the money on himself,” including on the purchase of a $5m home in Manhattan Beach, California, the FBI special agent Nathan Cherney wrote in an affidavit to the criminal complaint.
Sweeping epics in the style of Game of Thrones or the recently Disney-fied Star Wars universe have inspired an undeniable gold rush for premium content – so much so that the genre has, in some ways, come to define the contemporary economics of the film industry.
The success of Marvel, the comic publisher turned studio juggernaut, has been particularly game-changing, building the concept of epic “film universes”.
“Its success inspired a slew of other franchises to pursue film-verses,” the media reporter Ashley Rodriguez wrote for Quartz in 2017. “Lucasfilm, also owned by Disney, borrowed the model for Star Wars, which studio boss Kathleen Kennedy hopes to carry on for another decade. Hasbro is rolling out its Transformers and GI Joe franchises into a broader movie-verse, based on its popular children’s toys. Warner Bros and JK Rowling are creating a cinematic universe set in the Harry Potter author’s magical world.”
The story behind Legends begins in South Korea, according to the affidavit to the criminal complaint. Paul Huh, a director with Korean Investment Partners Co, Ltd (KIP), told the FBI he met Adam Joiner in late 2015 through John Yi, a Korean associate. Joiner hailed from Granite Bay, California, a small town of just over 20,000 in the Sacramento area. He described himself as the owner of a film production company called Dark Planet Pictures, LLC, the affidavit says, and claimed to be seeking investment to produce a screenplay written by his brother, Andrew.
Adam had registered Dark Planet with the California secretary of state’s office in 2014, and although the company’s registration is currently inactive, he and his brother are listed as one-time officers. (Andrew Joiner has not been named in the case against Adam.)
Joiner came to the table with what he claimed was a pre-existing relationship with Netflix, Huh told the FBI. “Things have begun to pick up steam with Netflix as a potential distributor of the film,” Joiner wrote in a February 2016 email to Huh that is referenced in the affidavit. “I have another meeting with them this week,” he added.
“On Netflix, I have another good meeting with them yesterday, and expect to receive a contract from them by the end of the week,” Joiner allegedly wrote three days later.
Before KIP would agree to invest in Legends, Huh wanted to see a copy of the Netflix deal. He told investigators he received a fax bearing a Netflix-branded cover sheet two days later. It included a letter, dated 5 April 2016, purporting to “confirm that an agreement between Netflix, Inc and Dark Planet Pictures, LLC, was executed March 31st 2016”. The letter was allegedly signed by an individual titled “Vice President, Business & Legal Affairs/Content Acquisition”.
That same day, according to the affidavit, Joiner forwarded an email that purported to come from said executive, and used an email address affixed to a Netflix domain. Attached was what the FBI alleges to be a fabricated distribution agreement between Netflix and Dark Planet. The agreement was reportedly signed by Joiner on behalf of Dark Planet, and by an individual titled “Chief Content Officer” on behalf of Netflix.
The affidavit says Joiner then forwarded an email from a third executive on 8 April, 2016, which read: “Look forward to making this movie!”
Huh was convinced. Through one of its subsidiary investment funds, KIP wired $4m (half of the agreed-upon $8m) into a Bank of America account in the name of “Legends Film Co, LLC”.
FBI interviews with the aforementioned executives (all identities were redacted in the affidavit) revealed the agreement and associated communiqués had been falsified. The executives said they weren’t familiar with Joiner, Dark Planet, or Legends; and two of the executives were no longer Netflix employees (one had only ever been a contractor to begin with). They denied the signatures on the agreement were theirs.
The following month, acting on behalf of Dark Planet, Joiner allegedly entered into another investment agreement, this time with two Chinese firms: Star Century Pictures Co, Ltd, and one of its affiliates, PGA Yungpark Capital, Ltd. That agreement referenced a supposed commitment by Netflix to acquire the distribution rights to Legends, which was cited in the contract as “a material basis for [Star Century’s] decision to invest”, according to the affidavit.
Attached to the agreement was the same fabricated distribution agreement that Joiner is alleged to have provided KIP, with the forged signature of one of the purported Netflix executives. On 3 June 2016, Yungpark wired $6m into the Legends bank account.
With roughly $10m in hand, Joiner’s alleged machinations progressed.
On 29 June 2016, according to the affidavit, he wrote in an email to Paul Huh: “[W]e are expecting to secure Don Murphy by this Friday to be our ‘name’ Producer for the film.” Murphy is perhaps most famous for producing the high-budget, CGI-heavy Transformers trilogy. In the email, Joiner claimed Murphy had proposed bringing in the director Michael Bay, who also directed the Transformers films, as well as other battle-scene-packed pictures such as Armageddon and Pearl Harbor.
In a later email to Huh and Star Century executive Ma Xue, Joiner allegedly wrote: “We agreed to terms verbally yesterday with Guillermo del Toro and his agent.” Del Toro is another director-darling of the fantasy and sci-fi genres, having directed two Hellboy films as well as the critically acclaimed Pan’s Labyrinth.
Murphy later told the FBI he had been retained by Joiner to produce Legends – though the project had been pitched under an alternate title, Folkwar. Under the agreement, Murphy was to receive $1.2m in exchange for producing services. Half of that amount was paid to an escrow account linked to the project.
In hiring Murphy, Joiner may have been trying to make good on earlier alleged representations to KIP and the Chinese investors – as part of the production agreement, Murphy was expected to secure a distributor for the film.
“Though Murphy had taken steps toward the production of the film, such as contacting agents and film talent, no actor or director had committed to the film – including Guillermo del Toro,” the affidavit reads.
Joiner later notified Murphy that he would be closing the escrow account due to lack of interest in the project, the affidavit says, and transferred him $200,000 – possibly some form of kill fee. Murphy told the FBI he emailed Joiner in the summer of 2017 to formally end their business relationship. Joiner never responded, and Murphy hasn’t heard from him since.
Still, the web of lies seemed to expand. Joiner soon informed KIP executives that he was courting Amblin Partners to replace Netflix as the distributor for Legends. On 2 December 2016, John Yi, Huh’s Korean associate, circulated a “memorandum of understanding” between Dark Planet and Amblin to KIP personnel. According to the affidavit, it provided that Amblin would take over distribution rights to Legends and was signed by Joiner and, purportedly, Michael Wright, formerly the CEO of Amblin.
Wright, currently president of the Epix cable network, later told the FBI he did not know Joiner, and was not familiar with Dark Planet or Legends. He denied having entered into any of the purported agreements and claimed the signature on the memo circulated to KIP staff was not his.
In March, Joiner emailed Paul Huh a statement for the Legends bank account, investigators contend, indicating a balance of more than $11.7m. FBI analysis of the account revealed the statement to be a forgery, and that during the period reflected, it only held $32,628.93.
Later that month, Joiner allegedly told Huh that production was delayed due to “internal politics with Amblin”. He claimed that the actor Bradley Cooper had turned down a lead role, according to the affidavit, and as a result, a newly brought on co-producing studio, Universal, had refused payment to Amblin.
Perhaps catching on to the grift, or perhaps believing Joiner failed on a good-faith effort to produce an ambitiously high-value movie, executives at KIP requested their investment be returned. Joiner agreed, and allegedly promised to immediately reimburse them.
But the payment, the FBI says, never came through. On behalf of KIP, Yi contacted Don Murphy to inquire about the holdup. This allegedly caused Joiner to email Yi on 13 July 2017 with what appears to be a veiled legal threat: “I understand you attempted to contact Don Murphy and his office. Please cease and desist any attempts at contacting Mr. Murphy, whether in person or by phone, or it shall be deemed harassment.”
The FBI says accounting of the bank account allegedly maintained by Joiner for producing Legends revealed that, aside from the amounts wired from KIP and the Chinese investors, only two deposits were made: a $10,000 transfer from an account in the name of Allison Joiner, whom FBI officials believe to be Adam Joiner’s wife, and a $600,000 counter credit that appears to be a recalled check for the same amount.
There were several withdrawals, according to the analysis: in June 2016, $165,500 went to an escrow account seemingly unrelated to production – FBI investigators believe that was a security deposit for the purchase of a Manhattan Beach, California, property. A payment of $5,192,916.92 was made in August of that year – allegedly the full payment for that property. Investigators speculate two transfers amounting a total of $4,360,000 to a bank account under the name of Stock Car Willie, LLC, were linked to a film project of the same name Joiner may have been developing. And between April of 2016 and June of 2017, a total of $1,345,000 was transferred to another account in the name of Adam and Allison Joiner, according to the analysis.
Joiner’s case is hardly the only Hollywood content con to have made headlines. As of publication, the so-called “Con Queen” of Tinseltown – an evasive, thus-far unidentified figure who stands accused of stealing thousands of dollars from film-makers and producers by impersonating studio honchos like Amy Pascal of Sony – remains at large.
“Hollywood is more susceptible to impersonation-type frauds,” says Snežana Gebauer, executive managing director and head of the US investigations and disputes practice at K2 Intelligence, a private firm currently investigating the Con Queen case. “Identity theft is becoming more prevalent everywhere, but it’s easier to do on high-profile people, because there’s so much information out there. [Producers] put their persona out there, there’s a name recognition. It’s easier to impersonate these people than someone who is high-net-worth but might be more private. They have a file of information to leverage.”
Foreign investors can be especially vulnerable to these ploys, Gebauer says. “Hollywood has been very successful at winning the world over with the film industry,” she explains. “Everybody loves American movies, everybody loves American music. If you are a newly minted Chinese millionaire or billionaire, of course you’re going to want to put money in what appears to be a renowned Hollywood production.” If you get lucky, Gebauer adds, you may get significant return on your investment. “Or you get invited to all these parties, and get to mingle with the stars.”
“It is possible it was not necessarily clean money,” Gebauer speculates on the funds in Joiner’s alleged accounts, noting that foreign intermediaries have sought to launder money through Hollywood productions before. Riza Aziz, a producer for The Wolf of Wall Street, is currently standing trial in a Malaysian high court for allegedly funneling funds stolen from the country’s sovereign wealth fund through the film project. Aziz is the stepson of Malaysia’s former prime minister Najib Razak, who is accused of orchestrating the embezzlement.
But there are elementary steps an investor can take to avoid becoming ensnared in plots like these, Gebauer says: “You don’t have to hire an investigative firm like ours to do the basic Googling. If you’re going to give someone $4m to produce a movie, there better be something on the internet to establish his track record. You would want to meet others involved in the project, not just him.”
On 18 September 2019, federal prosecutors entered a plea agreement with Joiner into the record under which he agreed to plea guilty to one count of felony wire fraud. Neither Netflix nor Don Murphy responded to requests for comment on this story. Adam Joiner, KIP and Star Century Pictures could not be reached for comment.
Joiner’s scam particularly resonated in the film community, perhaps because it had all the elements for what could have been an entirely legitimate, and perhaps successful, production. It could have even been a multi-installment universe. The screenplay was written adequately enough to persuade a bona fide action-flick impresario, Don Murphy, to sign on. And to be sure, $14m pales in comparison to the $356m it cost to produce Avengers: Endgame – but it’s a significantly larger chunk of change than most independent film-makers have to play with.
“That’s what really gets me,” Andy Phillips, an independent screenwriter and film-maker based in Los Angeles, says. “This guy had a viable script, and resources most indy film-makers would kill for. He wasted it all.”