Glen Hartford returned from the Cannes Film Festival two years ago with soaring hopes. His boxing movie was due out in a few months, and he was sure it would be his breakthrough success.
He had done what it took to get the movie made. He had hustled. He had cut corners. He had lied. At last, it was about to pay off.
But then he was raided by the FBI. On Wednesday, May 27, 2009, agents swarmed his office in Encino, seized his computers and took his paperwork. They were rooting out fraud in the movie business, and Hartford was their top target.
Hartford had trusted no one in his business dealings. His friends called him the most paranoid producer in the industry. But he wasn't paranoid enough. One of his fundraisers had worn a wire.
The next day, the 45-year-old businessman shuttered the offices of his Cinamour Entertainment. He fired all his employees and got a lawyer.
He had faced adversity before. As a young man, he was in a horrible motorcycle accident, which put him in a coma and left him without the use of his left arm. He spent years bouncing around the B-movie world, with little to show for it.
But at Cannes, his life seemed finally to be unfolding as he had always hoped.
Then came the raid. After talking to his lawyer on Friday, Hartford went home to Westlake Village. He saw two options: Either face the charges, or find a way out.
On Sunday morning, he left a note for his wife on their unmade bed. He got into his BMW and drove to a nearby strip mall. In his right hand, he held a Smith & Wesson .38-caliber revolver. He put it to his head and fired.
Academy Award–winning screenwriter William Goldman once wrote about a producer who rattled off exaggerated grosses and casting choices, then put his hand over the phone and asked, "Which lie did I tell?" — all without a trace of shame.
Glen Hartford was like that — a hustler in the fine Hollywood tradition. He told a good story. He hooked investors with predictions of riches, or access to the elite, or the chance to be a power player.
But he took it too far. Instead of wooing them carefully, one by one, over lunch at the Palm, he raised money on a mass scale. He set up boiler rooms. In each one was a row of phones. Each phone was attached to a salesman, who spent all day calling housewives and small businessmen, trying to lure them to invest in a Hollywood fairy tale. The operation, the FBI alleged, was "permeated by fraud."
A telemarketer offering a movie investment has no incentive to tell the truth, because the truth is that maybe the movie will get made and maybe it won't. Either way, the producers will get paid and the investors will lose everything.
On one recording, Hartford tried to raise money from an undercover agent. "There's no risk," he said. "All of our films are profitable." With lies like that, he raised $20 million.
Such scams "have always been around, but definitely in the last couple years we saw an increase," FBI agent Steven Goldman tells L.A. Weekly. "We've started to get a lot more complaints from investors."
So the feds have been cracking down, going after more than a dozen producers. Some are heading to prison. Hartford was not the only one to choose suicide.
Hartford, however, was not merely a con artist, because the dream he was selling was his dream, too. He had a gift for making others share in his delusions. In Hollywood that's an essential skill, provided you're slick enough to avoid being caught.
As William Goldman wrote in his screenwriting manual, "Storytellers tell lies, too. ... What we must try and learn is which are the best lies, best in the sense of helpful."
Hartford learned to tell lies from a master: his father. Even in Hollywood, which churns out grifters by the pallet, Ken Hartford was one of a kind. His antics inspire amazement even after his death. Glen was both embarrassed by his dad and desperate to top him.
"One of the things that was really difficult in Glen's life was that he wanted to live up to some aspect of his father," says screenwriter Rod Hewitt. "But his father was an awful, terrible person."
He was best known for distributing low-budget horror movies, like the 1962 drive-in film Carnival of Souls. (Years later, the director would accuse Ken of having "absconded with all the profits.")
Ken Hartford was born into a family of film costumers. His name was Kenneth Herts, which he later changed to Hartford, some say to evade his creditors.
"He was paranoid schizophrenic and probably a crook," says nephew Monte Cook.