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"They were definitely running a boiler room," Hewitt says. "To me it was amazing they were getting away with what they were getting away with."
Forbidden Warrior was cheaply made, and looked it. But Hartford spent a lot on an orchestra. He was certain he could win the Oscar for best score.
Steve Austin was nervous about being an informant. To satisfy the government, he would have to get people to make explicit admissions to wrongdoing. How could he do that in a casual conversation? And what if somebody patted him down? But cooperating would result in a shorter sentence, so he did his best.
He knew several movie producers who relied on boiler rooms — including Glen Hartford. They all knew of each other. That's because they would buy their sales leads — the lists of potential investors — from the same source. That source would sell the same names over and over. So when Austin called up a potential investor, the investor might say that he'd gotten a similar movie offer the previous week. Austin would ask about it and, in that way, he learned who his competition was.
One of those other producers was Michael Sellers, a former CIA agent who was raising money for a series of films about dolphins. Through his contacts in the industry, Austin was introduced to Sellers in early 2009. He offered to help Sellers raise money.
Sellers had learned to be suspicious from his years of spying on the Soviets. And he was wary of dealing with Austin, because Austin had been convicted of fraud. Sellers suspected the government would be keeping an eye on Austin.
Sellers said they would have to practice "expert tradecraft" to avoid surveillance. He told Austin to take canyon roads to make sure he wasn't being followed. He also gave Austin a prepaid cellphone and told him to call only on that.
Over several recorded conversations, Sellers admitted that investors in his new film, Way of the Dolphin, were being told that his earlier film, Eye of the Dolphin, had been profitable. It hadn't. Such lies, Sellers acknowledged to Austin, "downstream could be trouble."
That was a clear admission of fraud. From there, Austin went to work raising money for Cinamour. There, it was his job to get Glen Hartford on tape.
But Hartford was even more cautious than Sellers. He delegated fundraising to his boiler rooms. And he refused to talk to Austin — either in person or over the phone. He was the most paranoid producer in the industry.
It was clear that the salesmen were lying to investors. As one boiler room operator told Austin, they "lie their fuckin' ass off."
"That's what we pay them to do," he said, according to an FBI affidavit. "To give a good story."
To them, it wasn't really lying. It was just good storytelling. In one recording, a telemarketer said he had been trained on three bullet points for enticing investors: greed; enthusiasm; provide a story.
A good story is grounded in reality. It can't be too fantastic. A 300 percent return is too much. A 100 percent return is better. Where the story departs from reality, it has to remain internally consistent. And it has to engage with some deep feeling or emotion — hope, excitement, fear. In other words, it's not so different from a good screenplay.
The trick was to get the investor to see himself as the reluctant hero, destined for success if he could be smart enough to take the risk.
One of the best at it was Joe Roth (not to be confused with the former studio head and producer of films such as Alice in Wonderland). He was considered one of the industry's top closers. He was also, as Michael Sellers put it, a "psycho" — quick to anger if he felt he was being cheated.
Roth had done stunt work, attended acting school and doubled for Nicolas Cage. His stunt career was cut short when he was hit by a bus and dragged several blocks. He got into telemarketing because he was a good salesman, and it was a way to stay in the film industry — however tenuously.
He was so good on the phone that some of his victims still have fond feelings for him.
"We developed a relationship, and I trusted him," says John Orlando, a retired music teacher from a town near Santa Cruz; he lost $35,000 on Roth's movie investments. "He said basically you'll get your money back and then some."
Roth falsely claimed that one film, There for Hope, would feature Britney Spears and Nick Nolte. It was never made.