The “Mexican Film Director” Scam

If a rash of solicitations over the past few months are to be believed, there’s a major rush down in Mexico to acquire film rights to books.

Solicitation email supposedly from Guillermo del Toro offering to buy movie rights

Solicitation email supposedly from Alfonso Cuaron offering to buy movie rights, largely identical to the del Toro email

Solicitation email supposedly from Amat Escalante offering to buy movie rights, largely identical to the two previous emails

These virtually identical emails are, of course, laughably bogus–from the peculiar capitalizations, to the anonymous “Hollywood Movie Agents”, to the implausibility of these supposed directors bollixing up their own movie titles, to the unlikelihood of famous film folks personally soliciting authors via funny-looking Gmail accounts–but they have been briskly doing the rounds since this past summer, and I’ve collected quite a trove of them thanks to the many authors who’ve sent them to me.

Obviously a scam, in other words. But what’s the endgame?

Writers who respond to their “Mexican Film Director” receive a long spiel about turning books into movies, in which the Director claims that the writer’s book is in his “top 5”, and promises a “guaranteed film” with a huge budget and “advance royalties” to the tune of “$400K – $2M”.

Just one thing is needed for all this to happen: a screenplay! Does the author have one on hand? If not (or if they do and it inevitably fails to meet Hollywood’s exacting standards), the Director is happy to provide a referral to a “movie investor” who will foot 70% of the cost of creating one.

Email supposedly from Alfonso Cuaron instructing author to call The Spotlight Media Productions

(Charlie McDowell, by the way, is another well-known film director. In what appears to be an earlier, nationality-neutral iteration of the scam, his name is used in solicitation emails identical to the ones above.)

Here’s The Spotlight Media Productions. Its homepage is plastered with Netflix content scraped from other websites, and things go downhill from there, with a false origin story (the claimed 2002 founding date is belied by a web domain that as of this writing is just 125 days old), a page of sad-looking current projects that are all “coming soon” (and are definitely not Netflix), and fake testimonials with the names of real authors attached. Impressive! If perhaps not in the way intended.

If you’re not put off by all of that and make the call, The Spotlight Media Productions will promptly send you a welcome email.

Welcome email from The Spotlight Media Productions, supposedly from Charlie McDowell

The email includes two attachments: a Movie Project Screenplay Service Agreement (see it here) and a Movie (Film) Non-Disclosure Agreement (see it here). The Service Agreement reveals the hit to your bank account:

Page 1 of "Movie Project Screenplay Service Agreement", showing author fee of $33,000

And what you get for the money:

Page 2 of "Movie Project Screenplay Service Agreement", showing list of services author gets for their fee, including "Submission to Film Production Companies"

But wait. A screenplay, yes; the other stuff, very nice–but “submission to Film Production Companies”? Your Director promised you a “guaranteed film”, not a bunch of screenplay submissions! Hang on, though. Maybe everything’s okay, because the Non-Disclosure Agreement definitely comes from Netflix–well, at least the logos do–and even though you haven’t gotten a contract yet, it definitely says that there’s going to be a film of your book:

Page 1 of "Movie Non-Disclosure Agreement", supposedly from Netflix, indicating production of a film of the writer's book

It’s even signed by your Director!

Fake signature of Alfonso Cuaron

Note all the confidentiality/non-disclosure language in this crude document. It’s followed, on page 2, by an Indemnity clause that threatens legal action for “any use or disclosure of Confidential Information”. A similar notice appears at the bottom of every page of the Service Agreement, claiming that sharing that document “may constitute criminal lawsuit” [sic] . The scammers really, really don’t want their marks to pass these documents on to people like me.

I can imagine what my readers are thinking right now. Who on earth would fall for something so transparently, painfully bogus? But if it didn’t work, the fraudsters wouldn’t keep doing it. Like the Nigerian prince scams, they only need a small percentage of people to respond in order to make a killing. None of the many writers who’ve shared “Mexican Film Director” solicitations and documents with me have handed over $33,000…but without a doubt, there are those who have.

Remember: other than a fee for a service you shouldn’t have to pay for, out-of-the-blue solicitation is the number one sign of a scam these days–especially if it seems too good, or too outlandish, to be true.

POSTSCRIPT: What about “Brullen Excel Film Production”, whose logo appears on the Service Agreement alongside The Spotlight Media’s?

Google can find no such company, but there is a Brullen Excel, a “website design, SEO, and digital marketing” enterprise with a cheesy website and content that links it to another scam, Vellumme Innovations, which also does business as Impact Media Press & Publishing (you can see how convoluted these operations can be). It’s a reasonable guess that Spotlight Media is run by the same people, but apart from the cohabiting logos, I don’t have independent evidence of that at this point.

UPDATE 1/11/23: Diego Luna has been added to the list.

21 Comments

  1. It is unfortunate that people fall for scams that are pretty obvious. As you say, they only need a few marks to fall for it and they’ll make a decent profit.

  2. “Director del Toro.” Good gods!

    One of the “sad-looking current projects” shows a book titled “The Power of Passion,” written by “Dennis W C Wong.” That book was published by “Writers’ Branding.”

    1. Poor Mr. Wong has been ripped off by multiple scammers, of which Writers Branding (on my list of overseas scams) is just one. That’s often the case for people who fall for these schemes.

  3. That’s the thing about scammers; they don’t want to waste their time on people who aren’t gullible enough to take them at their word. So most of these scams that are blatantly obvious are like that on purpose. If someone is willing to believe the first step, they’re way more likely to believe anything going forward. Whereas if it was convincing on step one but step two starts falling apart, they’ll have way more people bailing out.

  4. I just got a call the other day claiming to be from Amazon film production. I think this is someone impersonating them. What do you think?

  5. Dear Victoria,

    I received an email this morning from American Bookstore Mexico (ABM) claiming to have received a pitch for my book from Pen Culture Solutions whom they have worked since 2015.

    ABM intents to carry out a “Book Acquisition” from me through Pen Culture Solutions. The initial purchase will be 1200 books display on their shelves over 18 months period. If profitable, they will purchase a further 1500 books. They want me to contact Richard Torres, a Senior Literary Agent of Pen Culture Solutions to conclude an Agreement before ABM initiate the purchase.

    I understand Pen Culture Solutions is one of your Blacklisted agency of Scammer. I am unsure now and would be grateful if you may advise me the following questions:

    1. Could ABM be part of a scam link?
    2. Should I proceed to contact Pen Culture Solutions under the circumstance?
    3. ABM offers of my Book Acquisition appears to be an opportunity for book sales. Is there a possible trap?

    Your prompt and early reply would be greatly appreciated.

    Many thanks,
    Jeremy

    1. “1. Could ABM be part of a scam link?”

      Yes.

      “2. Should I proceed to contact Pen Culture Solutions under the circumstance?”

      If they want to buy 1,200 of your books, they would have done so already via wherever you have them for sale: certainly they need not contact you to do so. Note also that their domain is misconfigured and uncertified: one should avoid looking at their website.

      Their website’s “About us” page says nothing at all about them / him / her.

      “3. ABM offers of my Book Acquisition appears to be an opportunity for book sales. Is there a possible trap?”

      I looked at “American Bookstore Mexico” (Bolivar 23, 06000 Mexico City, Mexico City, Mexico) and it is not a bookstore, and it is marked “closed” (I presume out-of-business). It appears that this is a location once used by AUTHOR SOLUTIONS, and operated out of the Philippines .

    2. Hi, Jeremy,

      Pen Culture Solutions is definitely a scam; I’ve gotten many reports of its deceptive solicitations and high fees. To answer your questions:

      1. I know of two pay-to-play bookstores that are associated with Philippines-based scams like Pen Culture. However, if ABM is a real store and not a front for Pen Culture to run a scam, my guess would be that it doesn’t know that its name is being used.

      2. No. My advice would be to have nothing to do with them.

      3. It is not an opportunity for book sales–it’s an opportunity for Pen Culture to get your money. I suspect they haven’t yet revealed this, but they will tell you that you have to pay some large amount of money for the 1,200 books, or for some aspect of printing them or securing some sort of bogus legal service associated with them. It’s also possible that you’ll just be told you have to let Pen Culture re-publish your book. At any rate, once you’ve handed over the money, Pen Culture will press you to spend more. Eventually, when you get suspicious and start asking questions, or when they judge that you’re tapped out financially, they will ghost you.

      Bookstores purchase books from book wholesalers or distributors, not marketing companies or literary agencies or whatever Pen Culture is presenting itself to you as. When bookstores buy books, _they_ pay for them. You do not. None of what’s being presented to you is how the real world of publishing and bookselling operates. It is, however, a fairly common scam.

      Would you share the email with me that you received from ABM? My email is beware@sfwa.org

      1. Dear Victoria,

        I appreciate very much receiving your comments.
        I have taken notes of your advice, it means a lot to me.
        You reckon ABM doesn’t appear to be “scammy” but I found their website; americanbookstoremx.com is not even registered. Here is their email I received, happy to share it here…

        Quote:

        [Hi Jeremy,

        Greetings!

        We are elated to inform you that our Bookshop would like to offer you and your book an Acquisition Partnership. We received a pitch letter from Pen Culture Solutions and have been doing business with them since 2015.

        American Bookstore Mexico would like to order 1,200 copies of your book and display it for a period of eighteen (18) months on our shelves. After (18) months, if your book is profitable, we will order 1,500 more copies of the book.

        This Acquisition Partnership will commence once You and Pen Culture Solutions have come to an Agreement. Kindly coordinate with your Literary Agent Richard Torres regarding this matter.

        Sincerely,

        Fernando Pascual
        Senior Director for Strategic Planning
        American Bookstore Mexico
        support@americanbookstoremx.com
        República de Cuba 33, Centro Histórico de la Cdad. de México, de la, Cuauhtémoc, 06000 Ciudad de México, CDMX, Mexico

        The content of this email is confidential and intended for the recipient specified in the message only. It is strictly forbidden to share any part of this message with any third party, without the written consent of the sender. If you received this message by mistake, please reply to this message and follow with its deletion, so that we can ensure such a mistake does not occur in the future.]

        Unquote.

        If you find any further suspicion from ABM email, please advise. Thanks.

        1. Hi, Jeremy,

          I’m intrigued, so I did some research. The bookstore itself does exist at the address mentioned in the email, although it’s called American Bookstore, not American Bookstore Mexico. Here’s its Facebook page. Here’s its website: http://americanbookstore.com.mx/. Notice the subtle difference between that URL and the dot com URL in the email.

          Both the slightly different business name, and the slightly different URL, are a common trick used by scammers who are impersonating real people or organizations, so that if someone targeted by the scam does a websearch, a real company will show up, and hopefully the person won’t notice that the company name and web domain are not quite the same as those cited by the scammer.

          The americanbookstoremx.com URL in the email is just 26 days old, according to WhoIs. There’s no website at that address, maybe because the scammers haven’t yet had a chance to slap one up. I would guess that the real American Boookstore knows nothing about this scheme.

          1. Thank you once again, dear Victoria.
            I appreciate your research works highlightiing a subtle difference in domain. Absolutely, spot on. The scammer can’t get away with this evil scheme. Damn evil!

  6. I have checked ABM domain name; americanbookstoremx.com and I found out it is not even registered. Looks like ABM is a Scam, too!

  7. Thank you so much, David Michael Rice for your insightful comments. It makes sense to me, now. You have just verified this is a Scam! I will block this scammer, Richard Torres of Pen Culture Solutions, previously Paper Leaf Agency from doing all means to carry out his evil scheme.

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