Review: ‘Bad Actor: A Hollywood Ponzi Scheme,’ starring Joslyn Jensen, Craig Cole, Robert Henry, John Verrastro, Michael Finnegan, Nancy Dillon and Doug Thompson

June 12, 2024

by Carla Hay

A blended photo of convicted fraudster Zachary Horwitz, also known as actor Zach Avery, in “Bad Actor: A Hollywood Ponzi Scheme” (Photo courtesy of Neon)

“Bad Actor: A Hollywood Ponzi Scheme”

Directed by David Darg

Culture Representation: The documentary film “Bad Actor: A Hollywood Ponzi Scheme” features a predominantly white group of people (with one person of South Asian heritage) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: Zach Horwitz, an actor using the stage name Zach Avery, conned people out of an estimated $690 million in a Ponzi scheme where he sought investors for his fraudulent movie licensing company.  

Culture Audience: “Bad Actor: A Hollywood Ponzi Scheme” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in true crime documentaries about con artists.

Joslyn Jensen in “Bad Actor: A Hollywood Ponzi Scheme” (Photo courtesy of Neon)

“Bad Actor: A Hollywood Ponzi Scheme” is a true crime documentary with details that are so outrageous, they sound like they could be in a scripted Hollywood movie. This compelling documentary doesn’t reveal any new information about the case of convicted fraudster Zachary Horwitz, also known as actor Zach Avery. The film’s surprise ending is gimmicky but proves a point about false perception versus factual reality.

Directed by David Darg, “Bad Actor: A Hollywood Ponzi Scheme” is one of those true documentaries that takes most of its information from what was already reported in the news media and then turns it into a non-fiction film. The movie has a twist that is clearly intended to make “Bad Actor” stand out from other documentaries. However, the twist will probably be divisive to some viewers. “Bad Actor: A Hollywood Ponzi Scheme” had its world premiere at the 2024 Tribeca Festival.

Horwitz was arrested in 2021 on federal fraud charges that he swindled about $690 million from people through his company 1inMM Productions (pronounced “One in a Million Productions”) through phony licensing deals for movies. He was a Los Angeles-area actor and producer (mostly in obscure independent films that were dramas or action flicks) but lived a lavish lifestyle that ended up leading to his downfall. He was convicted in 2021, after pleading guilty to one count of securities fraud totaling $227 million. In 2022, Horwitz was sentenced to 20 years in federal prison and ordered to pay $230 million in restitution.

The case of Horwitz has gotten a lot of media coverage, so the documentary doesn’t waste time with a “whodunit” format. “Bad Actor” is a retrospective look at how Horwitz was able to fool and defraud so many people. He forged a lot of convincing-looking documents and had meticulous records to keep track of his lies. Horwitz, who frequently dropped the name of on-again/off-again Starbucks CEO Schultz as someone who endorsed him, also faked email and text messages from executives at major media companies such as HBO and Netflix.

Joslyn Jensen appears on camera as the interviewer, she does the voiceover narration, and she talks about her choices regarding what will be put in the movie. Viewers will draw their own conclusions about her role in the making of this documentary. “Bad Actor” also features footage of the audition process for people being cast for the documentary’s re-enactment scenes. Robert Jumper has the role of Horwitz in these re-enactments. The auditioning actors are also asked for their thoughts on this case, and some of those comments are in the movie.

Born in Berkeley, California, on December 5, 1986, Horwitz was raised in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where he was a popular football player at Carroll High School. Steve Clark, a former Carroll High School classmate of Horwitz, says in the documentary that Horwitz never pursued acting in high school and was known mostly for being an athlete. Even though Horwitz didn’t show a public interest in acting when he was in high school, Clark and fellow Carroll High School alum Robbie McKerr remember that Horwitz was known for exaggerating or outright lying about himself. For example, McKerr says Horwitz lied about playing football for Indiana University Bloomington.

After graduating from Indiana University Bloomington in 2010, Horwitz moved to Chicago with his live-in-girlfriend Mallory Hagedorn, an aspiring wedding planner. Horwitz’s mother inherited “millions” from her deceased second husband Robert Kozlowski, who was Horwitz’s stepfather. It’s widely presumed that some of this inheritance was used as the seed money for the juice bar that Horwitz opened in Chicago.

By all accounts, the juice bar was a legitimate business, even though Horwitz would lie to some people by saying that Starbucks billionaire Schultz was an investor in the juice bar. Horwitz would later use Schultz’s name for his criminal fraud schemes. Horwitz would falsely claim to various people that Schultz was an investor and mentor.

The juice bar ultimately failed, so Horwitz and Hagedorn moved to Los Angeles, where he began a career as an actor named Zach Avery. Horwitz and Hagedorn were married from 2014 to 2021, and they have two children together. It was in Los Angeles that Horwitz began his fraud of being the leader of the start-up company 1inMM Productions, which claimed to license movies overseas for major movie studies and companies such as HBO and Netflix. It’s mentioned in the documentary that Horwitz purposely chose real titles of obscure movies to make everything look legitimate.

The Chicago-based investment firm JJMT was listed as an “advisory firm” for 1inMM Productions. Over time, as widely reported, Horwitz would use the millions of dollars that he stole to fund a lavish lifestyle and “pay for play” schemes, where he would pay money to filmmakers to cast him in their movies and sometimes be listed as an executive producer of these movies. “Bad Actor” doesn’t name any specific movie where Horwitz bought his way into an acting role. However, the documentary pokes fun at all the bad acting he has in these movies with cleverly edited film clips from movies such as 2018’s “Farming,” 2018’s “The White Crow,” 2020’s “Last Moment of Clarity,” 2021’s “The Devil Below” and 2021’s “The Gateway.”

“Bad Actor” has the expected interviews with other people who knew Horwitz as friends or acquaintances who describe him as being very convincing and charming, which was a personality mask for the cold-blooded way he committed his crimes. Horwitz and his family members are not interviewed. However, the documentary includes some archival interview clips that Horwitz did with independent media outlets, as well as some personal videos that were recorded when he was amongst friends and family members.

Some of his fraud victims are also interviewed. Craig Cole (an aspiring actor who said he was Horwitz’s best friend for years) and screenwriter Robert Henry are the two victims in the documentary who get the most screen time with their heart-wrenching stories about losing their life savings to Horwitz. Cole says that Horwitz went as far as targeting Cole’s parents, who also lost their life savings in Horwitz’s elaborate con scheme.

Also interviewed are law enforcement officials (FBI agents Doug Thompson and John Verrastro) and journalists (Michael Finnegan of The Los Angeles Times and Nancy Dillon of Rolling Stone) who were involved with or very familiar with the case. “Bad Actor” interviewees also include Bill Witte (a retired Indiana University Bloomington professor of economics, who explains how Ponzi schemes work) and Doug Lynam, Ph. D., who describes the psychology of a narcissistic, possibly sociopathic con artist.

“Bad Actor: A Hollywood Ponzi Scheme” at times has a very dark comedic tone aimed at Horwitz, but the movie never glorifies him or exploits his victims. It’s yet another story about how easy it is for some people to be fooled by fake images and false hope if all of it is presented in a way that they think is credible. The ending of “Bad Actor: A Hollywood Ponzi Scheme” is meant to place doubt in the minds of viewers who think they could never be fooled by a scam.

Neon will release “Bad Actor: A Hollywood Ponzi Scheme” in select U.S. cinemas on June 14, 2024.

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