The Unbelievable True Story of MILLION DOLLAR MYSTERY

Movies are made for all kinds of reasons. In the best scenarios, a filmmaker has a story he/she is really passionate about telling. More frequently, a studio sees an opportunity to make money by bringing some already-existing property to the screen, be it a book, a beloved superhero, a videogame, or even a popular toy. And then, every once in a while, a movie comes into being for some totally unique and strange reason. One such example is 1987’s mostly-forgotten comedy MILLION DOLLAR MYSTERY, which exists because a well-known mogul thought he could score big by staging a contest.

Dino De Laurentiis was an Italian film producer who cast a wide shadow over Hollywood. His resume included everything from BARBARELLA to RAGTIME to the ill-fated 1976 KING KONG remake. He also, for a time, had his own distribution company, known as DEG (De Laurentiis Entertainment Group). After a promising start that saw it distribute David Lynch’s BLUE VELVET and Bruce Beresford’s CRIMES OF THE HEART, among others, DEG lost some of its luster. Pictures like THE BEDROOM WINDOW and FROM THE HIP performed poorly. A box office smash was desperately needed.

According to a 1989 profile in Spy magazine, inspiration struck when De Laurentiis was driving through New York City and saw an extremely large group of people lined up on the street. He thought they were queued up for a movie. His traveling companion informed him that they were actually in line for lottery tickets; the jackpot had grown high, and everyone wanted a chance to win. It occurred to the notoriously shrewd De Laurentiis that people might line up similarly to see a movie if they thought they could win a million bucks by doing so. Better still, he figured, the sweepstakes could entice people who normally didn’t even go to the movies. And just like that, MILLION DOLLAR MYSTERY was born. De Laurentiis put the movie into production and partnered with the Glad trash bag company to promote it.

The film – which aspired to be a riff on IT’S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD – stars Glad commercial spokesman Tom Bosley as Sidney Preston, a former White House aide who has stolen $4 million belonging to the U.S. government. Just before succumbing to a heart attack in a roadside diner, he confesses to the other patrons that he stashed the money at four different locations around the country. This sets off a madcap cross-country dash among the other diners. They find, and subsequently lose, three million of the loot. At the movie’s end, there’s still a million left undiscovered.

That’s where the audience came in. As the end credits rolled, a character appeared to inform them that the final million was hidden somewhere in the United States, and that they could follow clues provided in the movie to locate it. Everyone who bought a ticket received a game piece so they could mail in their guess. Folks who purchased specially-marked boxes of Glad bags could receive clues, as well. The company was quick to point out that the money was only metaphorically hidden; they feared lawsuits from people injuring themselves trying to find a garbage bag full of cash in some remote location. According to a New York Times report from May 1987, the Frankel Company – a Chicago operation that specialized in running sweepstakes – contained the only people who knew the correct answer.

Theoretically, the whole crazy idea could have worked, but MILLION DOLLAR MYSTERY was nothing short of a catastrophe. For starters, building a story around a contest and a garbage bag promotion wasn’t the greatest way to achieve narrative coherence. De Laurentiis also hired a largely unknown cast, which included Eddie Deezen, Rick Overton, and Rich Hall. They were not exactly the A-list comedians of the day. Richard Fleischer was brought on board to direct. Fleischer had once helmed esteemed pictures like SOYLENT GREEN and FANTASTIC VOYAGE. His career was on a serious downslide by this time, though. His most recent efforts had included RED SONJA, AMITYVILLE 3-D, and the misguided Neil Diamond remake of THE JAZZ SINGER. Production also faced its share of problems, most notably the on-set death of legendary stuntman Dar Robinson, who, during a basic ride-by shot, misjudged a turn and accidentally rode his stunt motorcycle over a cliff.

When it finally hit cinemas, the movie was savaged by critics. In his one-star review, Roger Ebert wrote: “I’ve gone to a lot of movies that I could have used a Glad bag for, but MILLION DOLLAR MYSTERY is the first one to admit it.” The Washington Post’s Hal Hinson was even more savage, labeling the movie “a scam” that offered “a million bucks to whomever can hold his stomach long enough to collect all the clues scattered throughout the film.”

If the reviews were terrible, business was somehow even worse. MILLION DOLLAR MYSTERY opened on June 12, 1987 in 1,396 theaters, opposite PREDATOR, THE BELIEVERS, and THE WITCHES OF EASTWICK. It debuted in tenth place, earning a dismal weekend gross of just $513,731. For perspective, in addition to the other new releases, it was beaten out by the fourth weekend of ERNEST GOES TO CAMP and the tenth weekend of the Michael J. Fox comedy THE SECRET OF MY SUCCESS. By the time it was pulled from theaters a week later, it had earned a grand total of $989,033. The movie designed to give away a million dollars hadn’t even made that much at the box office. The contest winner would fare better than the film itself.

In spite of such a poor performance, thousands of correct entries were received, so a random drawing was held. The winner ended up being Alesia Lenae Jones, a 14-year-old girl from Bakersfield, California. She correctly guessed that the final million was hidden in the Statue of Liberty’s nose. DEG gave Jones a limousine tour of Hollywood, plus a cashier’s check for the million dollars. The girl told the Associated Press that she planned to buy a horse and get braces with her winnings, as well as help her family purchase a house. She apparently never publicly commented on what she thought of the movie.

Following its disastrous release, MILLION DOLLAR MYSTERY continued to bring bad luck. It dominated critics’ lists of the year’s worst films. Four Razzie Award nominations followed: Worst Original Song and three separate Worst Supporting Actor nods for Tom Bosley, Jamie Alcroft, and Mack Dryden. DEG wrote off its entire investment in the production, to the tune of $15.5 million – a stunning loss for a company already in financial trouble. In August 1988, it filed for bankruptcy.

In fairness, had MILLION DOLLAR MYSTERY worked, De Laurentiis would have looked like a genius. But that didn’t happen, and the movie is remembered solely for the contest it spawned, to the extent that it’s remembered at all. A previously-released DVD is now out of print. It has never been released on Blu-Ray. Some enterprising soul put the entire movie on YouTube, which remains the most convenient way of viewing it. Ironically, something like this might work better today, where social media (and not a trash bag company) could fuel the promotion, and where virtual clues could be hidden around the internet. Whether anyone will try something of this sort again is questionable.

Catastrophic as it was from a business standpoint, and excruciating as it was from an entertainment standpoint, MILLION DOLLAR MYSTERY nevertheless remains a fascinating case study in (literal) go-for-broke ideas.


Copyright 2015 Mike McGranaghan