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.
Ken was short, and he often struck people as shifty. There were allegations that he routinely sold the same rights to two companies. He would try to sell rights he did not own, sometimes to the companies that already owned them.
Fred Olen Ray, a low-budget director, remembers stories about a mysterious garage fire, which some believed Ken had set, and stories of him paying to have rivals beaten up.
Later in life, Ray says, Ken had a place in the Hollywood Hills. The housekeeper reported that he would get down on his knees in the bathroom and pray for money.
Growing up in that environment left a lasting mark on Glen.
“He had a strange relationship with his father,” says Cord Douglas, a business partner of the younger Hartford. “He felt like his father didn't like him enough. And he wanted to show his father he was succeeding.”
Ken had introduced his son to the business by casting him in his own productions. His schlock masterpiece was Hell Squad, released in 1986. Glen plays the son of a U.S. ambassador who is kidnapped by Arab terrorists. To rescue him, the Army recruits an elite squad of Vegas showgirls, who often interrupt the mission to show their breasts.
The story behind the story was even more bizarre. The director walked off the set, leaving Ken to direct it himself. The screenwriter, Don Glut, withheld the last third of the script when he learned he would not be paid. That forced Ken to write the climactic scenes.
“It was a berserk kind of direction it took,” Glut says. “It was just an amateurish type of movie.”
Ken Hartford took the finished product to the American Film Market, an international movie bazaar held annually in the L.A. area. To attract buzz, he parked an Army tank on Sunset Boulevard.
Though the film flopped, he remained a fixture at such film markets, where he distributed B movies all over the world. In his book about Cannes, film critic Roger Ebert recounts meeting him as he sold videos in the basement at the Palais des Festivals. Ken Hartford “cheerfully explained that he sold movies by the pound.”
Even more bizarrely, Ken Hartford had an Oscar. In 1961, he won for a 10-minute Yugoslavian cartoon. He had no hand in creating it. He simply bought it and distributed it. Later on, friends said, he sold the Oscar to raise money. But for the rest of his life he would be able to call himself an Oscar winner.
Acquaintances say Glen sometimes would brag about it, too. It also gave him something to measure himself against. Jimmy Nickerson, who directed Glen's films, recalls the pressure he put on himself: “He was always saying, 'I gotta win an Academy Award like my dad did.' ”
For a long time, he did not try. When he was still a young man, Glen Hartford was in a motorcycle crash. He was in a coma for a month and was left with a limp and without the use of his left arm.
The accident “threw me off track for about 10 years or so,” he said in an interview with an Asian film site.
He did different things. He became close friends with a kickboxer named Hector Peña, and for a while managed his career. He ran a videotape conversion studio with his cousin Monte Cook. When that business collapsed, he left Cook holding the bag.
“The leases were in my name,” Cook says. “It cost me a lot of money. … He didn't really care.”
After that reversal, Hartford grew steadily more ambitious. He began to see himself as a rising entertainment mogul.
“He was more ambitious than anybody I knew,” says another cousin, Adam Herts. “He talked a big talk, and not to B.S. anybody. He really believed what he was telling you.”
Hartford started a distribution company — just like his father — selling TV shows such as Cheaters. He also produced his own show, Saving the Endangered Species, which featured a different animal every week.
He could be controlling, and had a habit of burning bridges.
“We'd argue a lot,” Herts says. “Glen was a guy that always had to be running the show, no matter what.”
Rod Hewitt was a writer and producer on Endangered Species; he left that project after Hartford failed to pay him $1,500. But there was a sweetness to Hartford that kept him coming back.
“Glen was a scoundrel,” Hewitt says. “But he was also, at times, a very lovable scoundrel.”
Herts agrees. “Deep down, he cared about people,” he says. “He wasn't out to screw anybody.”
As his business grew, Hartford began to play the role of the Hollywood producer. Though he lived in a relatively modest house in Westlake Village, he drove expensive cars.
“He always lived above his means,” Cook says. “He liked limos, partying, doing lots of stuff.”
His driving ambition was to break into film, and eventually to win an Oscar. Around 2000, he devoted himself full-time to a new production company, Cinamour Entertainment.
His new lifestyle moved too fast for some of his old friends.
“He started getting too Hollywood for me,” Peña says.
They had a falling-out and parted ways. But the friendship left Hartford with an idea for a movie. It would focus on a Mexican fighter. It would be Rocky but with a Latin twist. He had a title: From Mexico With Love.
There was one obvious problem: the language barrier. The movie would be in English. Its natural audience was Spanish-speaking. But Hartford didn't care.
“It was an ego thing for him,” Cord Douglas says. “He never thought about whether there was a market for that particular kind of movie. … Glen just thought if he came up with the idea, people were going to love it.”
The trouble was where to find the money to turn his visions into reality.
“He didn't really know how to do it for a long time,” Douglas says. “He ended up meeting these people to raise money. … It turned into this monstrosity that took everybody down.”
Around the same time, another independent movie producer named Steve Austin was struggling with the same problem. Like Hartford, he needed cash to finance his films. He and Hartford stumbled on the same solution: boiler rooms.
Austin did not grow up in the industry. He came from Indio, the last stop on the 10 freeway before you hit open desert. He was blond — with a wholesome, Southern California look — and bored. He was working in a liquor store in Palm Springs when an agent walked in and asked him if he'd ever done any modeling.
“It was my escape,” Austin says.
He did some modeling, some acting, and stumbled into producing. At a two-day seminar on filmmaking, he met a producer who showed him how easy it could be to raise money. He could simply call people and ask for it. Austin watched in amazement as the producer made a cold call and closed a deal for $25,000.
“This is like printing money,” he thought.
Austin turned out to be a good salesman. It helped to be pitching a movie that would play well in the Midwest — a family movie, pro-military, with an uplifting message. Investors also could be enticed with promises of red-carpet premieres.
“There's lots of emotional hooks,” Austin tells the Weekly. “In order to get the client to buy into the dream, you've got to throw a lot of sizzle out there.”
At his peak, Austin was raising $500,000 to $700,000 per month. He didn't have to account for any of it. Much of it was going into his own pocket. He dined at the Palm and the Grill on the Alley, rubbing elbows with Hollywood legends. He bought a $14 million house in Malibu.
“There's an addiction that goes along with it,” Austin says. “You start to live expecting that money will be there.”
He had started out trying to raise money to make films. But after a while, the filmmaking was secondary. He was mainly focused on raising money.
The addiction proved to be unsustainable. In 2008, Austin pleaded guilty to conning investors. He was sentenced to 36 months in federal prison and ordered to return $17 million.
In exchange for a reduced sentence, he agreed to wear a wire.
Glen Hartford raised about $1 million to make his first movie, Forbidden Warrior. He knew he was playing a high-stakes game, and he wasn't sure he would pull it off. He had come up with the idea for a samurai film, and raised the money, but he didn't have a screenplay. He placed an urgent call to Rod Hewitt.
“I've got to make a movie in a couple months or I'm going to jail,” he said. “Can you write a script?”
Hewitt hadn't heard from Hartford since the producer cheated him again, this time out of $1,000 on an infomercial project. Hewitt never got into why Hartford thought he was in trouble, but while they talked, Hartford had a courier deliver a $1,000 check. Hewitt agreed, and churned out the script for Forbidden Warrior in nine days.
Through Peña, Hartford had met Nickerson, who did stunts on Rocky and Raging Bull. He was brought in to direct.
Nickerson and Hewitt grew to hate each other. Each blames the other for the shortcomings of the film, which was released on DVD in 2005. But both noticed something was not right with how Hartford was raising money. Nickerson said he was stunned when he heard that one of Cinamour's closers had made $50,000 in commissions that week.
“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.
“There's people out there who want to think positively, and that makes them vulnerable,” Orlando says. “I have to admit that I've been naive.”
The pitch also worked on Carl Bruno, a phone company employee from Mt. Laurel, N.J., who was persuaded to invest $25,000 in From Mexico With Love.
“They dress it up really nice,” Bruno says. “They were going to have a video game associated with it. They had beer distributors and all that in the background. … All these things seemed very intriguing and entertaining, to say the least.”
The pitch worked on Connie Hurd, of Salina, Kan. She got a call from Bart Slanaker, who convinced her to invest $5,000 in From Mexico With Love.
“Bart was one of these Danny DeVito–type guys — just take the world by the tail and take you for a ride along with him,” she says. “You just kick yourself. You feel like you're being stupid.”
So far, the only one of the above investors who has received any money back is Orlando. He got $216.
“This problem is widespread in L.A. for sure,” says Debbie Fontaine, a National Telemarketing Victim Call Center fraud specialist, who referred several victims to the FBI. “We hear complaints about different film companies all the time. The problem is getting law enforcement to take action.”
The failure of Forbidden Warrior had not discouraged Hartford. It only spurred him to go bigger with his second film.
From Mexico With Love tells the story of an underdog fighter who wins in the end. It was how Hartford saw himself. The odds were against him, but that would only make his triumph more heroic.
“We're going for Oscar, baby,” a Cinamour salesman told an undercover agent. “This is the first time I've ever seen an Oscar staring me in the face.”
Hartford told Nickerson it would be a $15 million film. But as the fundraising totals increased, the budget decreased. First it was $10 million. Then $8 million.
The fundraising numbers were a closely kept secret within the company. But Nickerson had a mole in the boiler room. Every two weeks, the mole would go behind Hartford's back and give Nickerson updates — until he was let go.
“Before he was fired, they were up to $13 million,” Nickerson says.
Nickerson was stunned, then, when Hartford told him, three weeks before cameras were set to roll, that the final budget would be $3.5 million.
“I knew there was much, much more money,” Nickerson says. “I knew something was wrong — really wrong.”
It got worse when they started filming on location in San Antonio, in October 2006. There are conflicting allegations, but there is agreement that it was a disaster.
“Nickerson apparently went crazy and was stoned out of his mind on drugs,” Hewitt says.
Nickerson denies that, saying it was Hartford and his co-producer, Daniel Toll, who lost control.
“It's like they were two little kids who'd never been anywhere before,” Nickerson says. “It was a fiasco. They'd come out in the morning and have shades on, because they'd been up all night doing their thing. All of a sudden they were trying to make suggestions.”
In one scene, Nickerson needed someone to buy a cheap rubber snake to use as a prop. Hartford suggested using a tree branch instead and fixing it with CGI.
“He really did want to be a filmmaker,” Nickerson says, “but he didn't know how to do it.”
The war between Nickerson and the two producers filtered down to the crew, damaging morale. Ultimately, it got out of hand. Nickerson says that one night, the producers tried to set him up for a drug arrest. The police visited his hotel room, but they didn't find anything.
By the time the film was finished, so was Nickerson's relationship with Hartford. He delivered his cut, and then Hartford hired a new editor and recut it.
Despite the difficulties, Hartford still believed the film would be a hit. In July 2007, he held a screening for investors.
“I sat next to Glen,” recalls his cousin Adam Herts. When the credits rolled, “He made me stand up and applaud.”
Some of the investors were less enthusiastic.
“The movie wasn't as thrilling as I thought it was going to be,” Carl Bruno says. “It was terribly edited. On a scale of 1 to 10, I gave it a 5 or a 6.”
Soon after he left the company, Jimmy Nickerson got on the phone to the District Attorney's Office and tried to interest its staff in investigating fraud at Cinamour.
At some point, Hartford's ambition became self-defeating. Throughout his career, he would turn down good opportunities in hopes of making an even bigger score. On From Mexico With Love, he turned down TV offers because he was certain it would be a theatrical success. But then nothing happened. With each delay, investors were getting more agitated, and more likely to complain to the authorities.
“It was like watching a guy burn his own house down,” Hewitt says.
By the time Steve Austin worked his way into Cinamour in early 2009, the boiler room salesmen were raising money for the next film: Red Water: 2012.
But they were struggling. The recession was taking its toll, and the flow of easy money had dried up.
Austin, who was still trying to get Hartford on tape, offered up the name and number of an investor who might put in $250,000.
When Cinamour's salesmen contacted him, he said he was interested but wanted to talk to Hartford. For a while, Hartford resisted. But when it seemed like the deal would fall through, Hartford got on the phone, unaware that he was talking to an undercover agent.
He said that investors in Forbidden Warrior had gotten 60 percent of their money back. False. He said that all of Cinamour's films were profitable. False. He said Cinamour had $5 million in presales for Red Water. False. (The actual figure was $300,000.)
He had put his head in the noose.
The FBI raided Michael Sellers, the CIA agent–turned-producer, on the same day in May 2009 that they struck Hartford's company. One of Sellers' employees, Pamela Vlastas, had worked with Sellers for more than a decade, helping produce movies like Eye of the Dolphin. As far as she knew, everything was on the up-and-up.
Then the FBI showed up. “There were about 26 of them, and they were all really young and beautiful,” Vlastas says. “They had us all go into the conference room, and got our IDs, and scanned our computers and took our notebooks. It was just a big mess.”
At Cinamour's office in Encino, the employees were similarly caught off guard. They thought success was around the corner. They had secured a $5 million loan to pay the distribution costs for From Mexico With Love. It was due in theaters that fall. They had just returned from Cannes, where they were raising money for Red Water. Now they had FBI agents tromping through their offices.
The next day, a Thursday, they were all let go. The last Cord Douglas heard from Glen Hartford was on Friday, just after Hartford had returned from his lawyer's office.
“The attorney said he probably had a problem,” Douglas recalls. “He was sort of making light, but it looked like he was upset.”
Hewitt called Hartford on Saturday and left him a message saying, “Don't quit.”
“He didn't think of himself as a con man,” Hewitt says. “He thought of himself as a guy who was going to have some huge financial success and pay everybody off. He was a crazy dreamer. I think he saw his dream was ending.”
When his wife got home on Sunday morning, she found the note on the bed and called the police. Hartford's body was found an hour later, in the driver's seat of the BMW.
“It hurt everybody,” Adam Herts says. “It caused a lot of hardship and sadness and shock.”
After Hartford's body was found, one of his investors, Robert Rao, got a call from his contact at Cinamour. Rao, of Staten Island, N.Y., had invested $50,000 in From Mexico With Love. He had persuaded his girlfriend to put in $35,000.
“The bad news is Glen killed himself,” the contact told him. “The good news is, the movie's still coming out.”
As far as Rao was concerned, both were good news. He was glad that Hartford was dead. He had long suspected he had been scammed, and now at least he knew Hartford wouldn't be out spending his money.
The release date gave him some hope of getting that money back. That goal had taken on added significance a few days earlier, when his girlfriend died of cancer. Hartford had refused to return $5,000 of her investment to pay for experimental treatments. Her last request was that Rao get her investment back to give to her kids.
From Mexico With Love was released that fall. It played on just 270 screens, mostly in Latino markets. Rao had to drive to New Jersey to find it.
“There were a couple people in each theater,” Rao tells the Weekly. “I knew that day it was a bomb.”
It grossed $500,000. That was not enough to pay back the distribution loan. All the investors — about 450 of them — suffered total loss.
“It's the typical Hollywood heartbreak scene,” says attorney Michael Ireland, who represents Cinamour in bankruptcy court. “A lot of folks like to rub elbows with celebrities and be part of Hollywood. If things don't work out, that's also part of Hollywood.”
The heartbreak did not end there. Joe Roth, one of Glen Hartford's top closers, was arrested earlier this year. He was scared to go to prison, and thought he would be unemployable if he ever got out.
He sent a friend a text message saying he had gone to the top of a parking garage and had thought about jumping off but decided not to because he didn't want to injure anyone below.
“He looked at the situation left, right, up and down,” says James Cain, another friend. “He didn't see an exit.”
In June, Roth was found dead in his apartment, hanging by an electrical cord from a closet door. There were notes all over. One said he did not wan t to become homeless. Another said he had tried to kill himself by drinking three gallons of water in two hours. On several, he had written, “I am not a criminal.”
After a life spent on the margins of the film industry, his family plans to bury him at the Hollywood Forever cemetery. “I think that's the perfect place for him,” Cain says.
Steve Austin earned a measure of redemption by helping to build a case against 18 defendants. Michael Sellers pleaded guilty to fraud and tax evasion. The others are awaiting trial.
Austin served 15 months at Lompoc and came out a new man. He had been through a recovery program. His house in Malibu had been sold to pay back investors. He and his wife moved to an 800-square-foot mobile home in Orange County. He wanted to get far enough from Hollywood that he wouldn't be drawn back in. He joined a megachurch and works a minimum-wage job in construction.
It was a difficult transition, and he thinks he understands why Hartford couldn't manage it.
“It's the vanity,” Austin says. “If someone doesn't humble themselves, some guys will jump off the top.”
Up to the end, Hartford was still telling the story of his own success. He did it in a handwritten will. It amounts to a list of his life's achievements — most of which were illusory.
“To my family go my ownership and/or profit participation in From Mexico With Love, and any sequel or prequel rights,” he wrote. He also bequeathed “my ownership in the Kurt Mahoney money-raising success,” along with interests in several TV movies, his house, some land in Kern County, his artwork and “my book, and all revenue generated by it, currently entitled Passport to Heaven.”
After his death, his wife and a probate lawyer inventoried his assets. He had about $165,000 in two brokerage accounts — all that was left of the $1 million the FBI says he pocketed from Cinamour. He had a watch, worth $1, and a men's gold wedding band, worth $150.
They didn't know who Kurt Mahoney was.
From Mexico With Love was worthless.
And if there was a book, they couldn't find it.