How ‘Bad Actor’ Documentary Unpacked a Notorious Hollywood Ponzi Scheme While Pulling Off Its Own Deception

SPOILER WARNING: This story contains plot details from “Bad Actor: A Hollywood Ponzi Scheme,” which premiered Thursday at Tribeca Festival.

Just how easy is it to get duped?

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It’s the central question of “Bad Actor: A Hollywood Ponzi Scheme,” a documentary that premieres this week at Tribeca Festival and details aspiring movie star Zach Avery (aka Horwitz) who defrauded investors of out $227 million and pulled off the entertainment industry’s biggest Ponzi scheme. Nobody ever believes they’d be the ones dumb enough to ignore the red flags and fall prey to such a hoax. So then how exactly did Horwitz, a D-list actor with no notable credits, deceive so many people? Director Joslyn Jensen, who appears throughout the film while interviewing law enforcement, scam victims and people who know Horwitz, ultimately discovered it’s way easier than you’d think to get tricked.

After all, she didn’t actually direct the film.

Though Jensen introduces herself as the filmmaker to everyone she encounters in the documentary, it’s revealed in the final moments of “Bad Actor” that Jensen is just an actor who is playing a director. Documentarian David Darg, whose credits include the Oscar-nominated short “Body Team 12,” was actually the one behind the camera.

“I knew it would be very unlikely that we’d get access to Zach Avery,” Darg says during a joint Zoom interview with Jensen. “So I started thinking about creating a film that was an act of deception; how we might dupe our audience so that we could show how easy it is to be fooled.”

So, Jensen has been pretending on and off-screen for months that she helmed a documentary for Neon that’s now in competition at Tribeca. To blend the lines of fiction and reality, she’s been posting about the project on Instagram, where her friend, Oscar nominee Lily Gladstone, is one of many who have commented to offer Jensen congratulations on her directorial debut.

“It was uncomfortable to present myself as the director of this movie to family members and friends,” Jensen says. “But it was worth it because our goal is to give the audience the experience that we had, which is the revelation that anyone can be scammed.” As for Gladstone, the faux-documentarian adds, “I may have told her about doing this movie a while ago, but she’s had a busy year. I don’t expect her to remember all the details. Should I text her? I probably should.”

It also meant that Darg couldn’t tell most people what he’d been working on — nor could he have his name attached to the movie prior to its release. That kind of humility is probably alien to someone like Zach Avery. “I’ve had to let a bit of my director pride fall aside for the experiment,” he says. “But the deception hasn’t run that deep. Fortunately, family and friends knew what I was up to.”

Horwitz, 37, declined to be interviewed for “Bad Actor,” not that this was surprising to Darg. “If I was being prosecuted,” the director cracks, “I would never speak to a documentarian.”

Horwitz was arrested in 2021 for operating a Ponzi scheme that raised as much as $650 million and was sentenced in 2022 to 20 years in federal prison. He told investors that he would acquire international film rights and then license them to platforms like Netflix and HBO. But the whole business was fake; Horwitz forged documents and fabricated email and text message exchanges with executives to keep up the scam. He then used the money from victims to repay earlier investors and buy a $6 million Los Angeles, luxury cars and travel by private jet, according to prosecutors.

“For a Ponzi scheme to be successful, the investment should be slightly confusing to the investor,” Darg says. “It worked to Zach’s benefit that he wasn’t preying on people in Hollywood. A lot of his investors came from the heartland, from his hometown, who bought into the glam of Hollywood. I barely understood what the actual scheme was because it was quite complex.”

Zach Avery (pictured right) with his best friend turned Ponzi scheme victim.
Zach Avery (pictured right) with his best friend turned Ponzi scheme victim.

For research, Darg and Jensen devoured articles in the press and then hit the road to visit Horwitz’s birthplace in Indiana, where they interviewed his classmates and professors, as well as Chicago and Los Angeles, where he lived with his wife at various points. That’s where the filmmakers started to uncover inconsistencies in Zach Avery’s self-described rags-to-riches story. For example, Horwitz told a podcast interviewer that an injury prevented him from playing football at Indiana University. He did tear his A.C.L., but it was playing intramural sports.

“We started to unpack so much of his story that actually wasn’t true,” Darg says. “He would say something in the media, and then we would realize it was a movie quote. It was apparent that almost everything in this guy’s life was a lie.”

Pretending to be the director, Jensen says, helped her get in the head of someone trying to pull off a con. “The more victims we spoke to, the more I realized that if you present yourself a certain way — as someone you aren’t but aspire to be — you can be convincing to people.”

One challenge for Darg was figuring out how much to feature Jensen in “Bad Actor.” The real director wanted to show his avatar as often as possible without revealing the ulterior motive for having her in the film.

“It was a juggle to make sure that Jocelyn appeared enough to remind the viewer, ‘This is the director,'” Darg recalls, “but also retain her for being on screen so much that they’d say, ‘Wait a minute, is that person acting?'”

The duo had tricks to keep up the illusion while ensuring that Darg could offer notes while filming.

“We went to the FBI headquarters, and I was already nervous because we had to get background checks,” Jensen says. “David was behind the camera. So my way of saying, ‘Do you have any adjustments for me in the next take?; was [How does it look?[ And he’d say either, ‘It looks great’ or ‘Scoot over a little and slow down.’ He was giving a lot of direction. But no one would have clocked it, like, ‘Hey, who’s in charge here?’ It felt collaborative.”

Despite the film’s deceptive nature, Jensen was heartened to learn that humans instinctively want to trust each other. But she cautions people against thinking with their wallets. “Do your diligence. Be careful,” she warns. “If something doesn’t seem right, trust yourself.”

Darg offers another life lesson. “We had a recurring joke on set that you can never trust an actor,” he says. “I don’t believe that. But if someone who is a professional liar by trade is asking you to invest in a dubious company, maybe ask more questions.”

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