Forty-one-year-old Adam Joiner isn’t the cocky con artist you might expect. After all, when you hear “Hollywood scammer steals $14 million,” you probably picture a certain kind of scam-happy dude: youngish, good hair, ultra-white teeth and clothes from stores with two nouns and a plus sign. Not to mention, a coke habit, disarming vibe and smooth social manner.
But that’s not Adam Joiner. (Although stealing $14 million is what he did.)
Joiner looks like what he is: a deeply balding, middle-aged white man from a conservative semi-rural suburb of Sacramento. He looks like someone who was raised in Roseville, California, a sleepy bedroom community for Kaiser Permanente employees and state workers who operate the machinery of the California capitol. He looks like a salesman, or maybe a sales director. Which is what he was, for a company called Sportgenic, a business that appears to make sports-centric online banner ads and content filler.
These days, though, Joiner mostly appears broken and humbled. He doesn’t have it. Whatever it is. That Hollywood (or scammer) commodity. At least, not in any obvious way. Maybe it’s the fact that he’s facing a possible 20 years in federal prison. That tends to dim a person’s shine.
How, you ask, did Joiner wind up staring down that kind of jail time, and looking more like someone who got busted in a strip-mall massage parlor than a mastermind scammer who used Bradley Cooper — yes, that Bradley Cooper — to steal $14 million?
Well, it all begins in 2014, when Joiner has a script he feels is perfect to make into a movie. His brother Andrew wrote it. And so, in September of that year, Joiner incorporates his first production company, Dark Planet Pictures, and starts shopping his brother’s script around. It’s called Legends. Per IMDb, the film will be an “anachronistic mash-up of legendary and historical figures from 19th-century America, such as Davy Crockett, Calamity Jane, Paul Bunyan and John Henry.”
A year later, Joiner gets lucky: He meets a money guy, John Yi, who likes his pitch and knows a guy at a Korean investment firm who might be curious about Joiner’s project. This is a huge development for a newcomer like Joiner, who has no real credits to his name.
To sweeten any potential interest, Joiner adds a white lie to his Hollywood dealmaking: He tells Yi that his proposed film has a distribution deal at Netflix. Based on that fabrication, Yi eventually introduces the Hollywood amateur to a real international money man — Paul Huh, who works for Korea Investment Partners Co. (KIP). It’s the sort of investment fund that might single-handedly back a small-budget film with millions, especially one with a distribution deal with Netflix. Since Huh is primarily located in Korea and Joiner in California, the two men discuss the project over the phone and email.
On February 9, 2016, Joiner emails Huh and informs him that “things have begun to pick up steam with Netflix as a potential investor in the film. I have another meeting with them this week.” Three days later, Joiner emails Huh with a new update: “On Netflix, had another good meeting with them yesterday and expect to receive a contract from them by the end of the week.”
Before finalizing any investment deal, however, Huh requests some proof of Joiner’s proposed deal with Netflix. “Per our conversation, please ask… someone at Netflix to fax it again tomorrow and also send it to the gmail accounts below from Netflix domain email,” Huh emails Joiner on April 5th.
The next day, Huh writes to Joiner again: “In regards to validation on closing of the agreement between Netflix and [Dark Planet Pictures] on Legends, please make sure that we have both in fax and email by tomorrow morning.”
As requested, 24 hours later, a fax shows up in Huh’s Korea office. The cover sheet says it’s from Netflix. The letter that follows is to “confirm an agreement between Netflix, Inc. and Dark Planet Pictures, LLC was executed on March 31st, 2016.” It’s signed by an executive at Netflix, a man listed as the “Vice President, Business and Legal Affairs/Content Acquisition.”
Joiner also forwards an email from this same Netflix executive. The email originates from a Netflix email domain. The forwarded email contains the proposed distribution agreement.
To set his hook deeper, the following day, Joiner forwards an email chain between him and a second Netflix executive. The Netflix executive writes that he’s “looking forward to making this movie!” The distribution agreement is also attached in the email chain. It’s signed by a third Netflix executive, the Chief Content Officer.
Later on, when the FBI interviews the three Netflix executives mentioned in the forwarded emails and distribution agreement, all three claim no knowledge of Joiner, Dark Planet Pictures or any project called Legends. In fact, one executive isn’t even a Netflix employee (Joiner did, however, get his title right). He works for Viacom and was involved with some contract work with Netflix, but he would’ve never been involved in such a contract for Netflix.
Huh and his Korean investment firm, though, have no way of confirming this at the time. They must rely on faxes, email chains and the forwarded distribution agreement, which they receive from a Netflix email domain. And all of it looks convincing enough. Thus, after one day of review, KIP enters into a formal investment agreement with Joiner. The deal is worth $8 million.
Five days later, the investment firm wires the first $4 million to Joiner’s Bank of America account for Dark Planet Pictures. Seemingly to celebrate, Joiner immediately withdraws $800,000 and transfers the sum to a joint account belonging to him and his wife, Allison.
Next, Joiner decides to try his luck again.
He negotiates with a second set of Asian investors. This time, they’re money men from China: Star Century Pictures Co., Ltd., an affiliate of the Chinese investment firm PGA YungPark Capital Ltd. He uses the same fraudulent Netflix agreement that’s he just used to defraud Huh and the KIP investors. This time it only takes Joiner a month to win their confidence. Money attracts money. In turn, YungPark Capital wires an additional $6 million to Joiner’s Dark Planet Pictures bank account.
Within three weeks, Joiner transfers $160,500 to California Investor Escrow. It’s for a security deposit on a nearly $5.4 million Manhattan Beach dream house. The home is 4,265 square feet and boasts five bedrooms and five baths.
In fairness, despite his sudden interest in real estate, it does seem like Joiner still plans to make Legends. In fact, he reaches out to the exact sort of Hollywood player who could make one phone call and turn Joiner’s dream project into a real Hollywood deal: Don Murphy.
Somewhat like Joiner, Murphy was once a brave Hollywood dreamer, an outsider who bet on himself. Fresh out of his graduate film program, Murphy produced Natural Born Killers, based on a script from Quentin Tarantino. He was able to attract Oliver Stone to direct. The film launched his career. He went on to make big Hollywood movies. Now, he produces Michael Bay films for a living.
Joiner promises to pay Murphy a kingly sum for his time. It’s an offer that’s hard to resist, and so, Murphy doesn’t. He agrees to shop Legends around Hollywood.
On June 29, 2016, Joiner writes to Huh with an update: He’s “expecting to secure Don Murphy by this Friday to be our ‘name’ producer for the film. Don has done all the Transformers movies and several others. He has discussed wanting to bring in Michael Bay to direct so we plan to explore that.”
The term “name producer” refers to the strategy of paying a successful producer to lend their “name” to an independent project in order to make it seem like more of a sure thing. The name producer does little to no work. They basically get paid to let others repeat their name in business meetings. It’s a time-tested Hollywood scam. But it’s not illegal; it’s just costly. Case in point: To lend his name to Legends, Murphy will be paid $1.2 million.
Meanwhile, that same summer, Joiner closes on his dream beach house. He quietly transfers $5,192,916.92 to California Investor Escrow to cover the remaining balance. But he’s not done. Five weeks later, on September 12th, Joiner transfers another $120,000 to the joint account he shares with his wife.
This leaves $3,126,583.08 for Legends.
* * * * *
On October 1, 2016, Joiner offers a new lie to his foreign investors: “We agreed to terms verbally yesterday with [Oscar-winning The Shape of Water director] Guillermo del Toro and his agent.” Legends has also acquired a new title. Joiner is now calling the project Folkwar.
Yet months pass, and no deals (or directors) are announced. Joiner’s investors grow slowly anxious. To keep their hopes high for his Hollywood dream, Joiner brightens the wattage of star power: He brings in Bradley Cooper and Steven Spielberg. Not in reality. He just adds them to his sprawling lies.
Joiner tells his investors he’s shopping the project to Amblin, Spielberg’s production company, and Storyteller Distribution, his distribution company. There’s talk of bringing Cooper aboard. But this will mean they’ll need to leave their Netflix deal behind so they can jump to Universal and Spielberg’s company.
On December 1st, Joiner emails his Korean investors a new “memorandum of understanding” between Amblin and Dark Planet Pictures. Yi forwards it to his supervisors to calm any growing worries about the stalled project. Of course, there’s no new deal with Spielberg. The new “memorandum of understanding” is just another convincing forgery.
Two weeks later, Joiner sends his investors the termination of agreement he’s just reportedly executed with Netflix. Later on, when the Netflix executive mentioned in the termination agreement is interviewed by the FBI, he tells the agency he’s never seen the contract. It’s not his signature. Furthermore, he’d already left Netflix by that point. So there’s no way he could have signed any such contract for the company on the date it was allegedly executed.
In the meantime, Joiner’s foreign investors want to update their contract, to put the changes in writing. The amendment states: “The existence of the Distribution Agreement between Dark Planet and Storyteller Distribution Co., LLC is material basis for KIP’s decision to invest in the Motion Picture.” In other words: “The only reason this dude Joiner has our money is that he has a deal with Spielberg’s company. If Joiner loses Spielberg, we want our money back.”
Somehow, though, Joiner convinces KIP to still transfer the second half of its $8 million investment on January 11, 2017. (He’s now collected $14 million for a pack of Hollywood lies and some forged paperwork.) Then Joiner does with it what he always does: Two days after the millions hit his corporate account, he transfers $4.3 million into a new business account.
All the while, Joiner continues to string his investors along with infrequent updates. This, however, exhausts their trust and arouses suspicions. By March, they’re demanding hard proof of where their money is. In return, Joiner sends them a new forgery. The falsified document shows $11,799,670.55 as the business account’s current balance. This buys him time. (Later, when FBI investigators request records from Bank of America for that same period of time, they discover that the true monthly balance for Joiner’s Dark Planet LLC/Legends account was actually $32,628.93.)
On March 31st, Joiner shares some bad news: They lost Bradley Cooper.
Thus, filming has been delayed due to “internal politics with Universal/Amblin,” Joiner emails Huh; things went badly after “Bradley Cooper turned down the agreement with Universal. … Universal decided to refuse payment to Amblin.” In Hollywood terms, the project is in turn-around.
Joiner’s investors are now done with him. They want all their money back. But their worst fears are about to be confirmed: It’s gone.
* * * * *
The foreign money men do some investigating into where their money might be. They discover that Joiner is the new proud owner of a $5 million home in Manhattan Beach. There’s only one way to get their money back now: On April 26, 2017, lawyers representing Star Century and YungPark Capital file a lawsuit in the L.A. Superior Courthouse. They demand Joiner’s Manhattan Beach house be sold and all proceeds from the sale be returned to them.
For months, Joiner’s lawyers try to stall with court motions. His lawyers cite the Homestead exemption to keep the house. But after six months, the motion is denied, and the judge grants a sheriff’s auction of the home.
Meanwhile, KIP contacts “name producer” Don Murphy. They want to know where their money is. Murphy has no answers for them. Murphy contacts Joiner. He wants out and dissolves their business agreement. He accepts $200,000 of the promised $1.2 million as payment for his time. Joiner transfers the money from the escrow account, closes it and keeps the remaining $400,000 for himself.
After settling up with Murphy, Joiner emails Yi, the man who first brought his project to the Korean investors. Joiner’s tone is terse and threatening: “I understand you attempted to contact Don Murphy and his office this afternoon. Please cease and desist any attempts to contact Mr. Murphy, whether in person or by phone, or it shall be deemed harassment.” In a follow-up email, Joiner promises to return KIP their $8 million.
The jig is all the way up. On August 27th, the FBI arrives at the Manhattan Beach dream house with an arrest warrant for Joiner. Joiner, however, is gone. He’s traveling with his family. Working through his lawyers, Joiner contacts the FBI and arranges his own arrest. He promises to surrender himself as soon as he’s home from vacation.
This promise he upholds.
Joiner also eventually admits his guilt and works out a plea agreement with the U.S. Attorney’s office. When I ask Alexander Baier Schwab, who prosecuted Joiner’s case and works in the L.A. Division of the Office of the U.S. Attorney, Major Frauds Section, if the plea deal requires that Joiner pay back the stolen millions, he explains, “Yes, the plea agreement calls for complete restitution.”
But what about jail time? I mean, if Joiner stole a car in California, he’d face at least one year in county jail. “Ultimately the sentencing will be up to the judge,” Schwab responds. “The sentencing is currently scheduled for March 6th. If you look at the filed plea agreement, it provides for an agreement on the sentencing guidelines. There are various factors that judges look at in terms of whether to give a sentence in those guidelines or above it. But it would be difficult to ballpark it at this point.”
As for the dream house, it finally sold earlier this month — for a profit, no less, fetching nearly $6 million. Joiner’s foreign investors should be pleased. On that count, the moral of the story seems obvious: If you can’t make it in Hollywood, try real estate. Because if nothing else, California home prices will at least pay for your crimes.