How a B-movie actor duped friends and family out of $690M for ‘Hollywood’s biggest Ponzi scheme’

An aspiring actor who moved from Indiana to Tinseltown starred in “Hollywood’s biggest Ponzi scheme” — raising over $690 million from family, friends and other investors by convincing them that he ran a successful movie licensing business.

Zachary Horwitz — who snagged bit parts under the stage name Zach Avery in films starring Bryan Cox, Bruce Dern and Olivia Munn — claiming he was negotiating with HBO, Netflix and Sony to license the rights to Spanish-language films, according to court records.

During the five-year scheme, Horwitz preyed on three of his closest college friends, who in turn persuaded their parents, grandparents, siblings and in-laws to raid their life savings.

business, fraud, hollywood, ponzi schemes, microsoft, how a b-movie actor duped friends and family out of $690m for ‘hollywood’s biggest ponzi scheme’
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Zachary Horwitz, 37, is serving a 20-year sentence in federal prison for running what has been dubbed “Hollywood’s biggest Ponzi scheme.” Lions Gate/Courtesy Everett Collection

Horwitz, 37, promised investors returns in excess of 35%, and for many years paid supposed returns on earlier investments using funds from new investments, the Securities and Exchange Commission said.

He pleaded guilty in 2021 to securities fraud and was sentenced to 20 years in prison in 2022.

His brazen plot involved securing loans from his friends in order to finance deals for the rights to movies that would then be sold to large streaming services for a profit, according to authorities.

Horwitz who used the illicit proceeds to live a seemingly idyllic life with his wife and child in a $6 million mansion near Beverly Hills.

But investigators said that Horwitz simply fabricated the tale to his friends and family by discovering old distribution contracts then copy-and-pasting them into Microsoft Word documents that were fake.

Horwitz would forge signatures of executives whose names he looked up on LinkedIn in order to convince investors to loan him money.

He would also show his investors fake text messages that he claimed were from Netflix and HBO executives

business, fraud, hollywood, ponzi schemes, microsoft, how a b-movie actor duped friends and family out of $690m for ‘hollywood’s biggest ponzi scheme’
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Horwitz has acted alongside such stars as Brian Cox and Olivia Munn. IFC Films/Courtesy Everett Collection / Everett Collection

Jacob Wunderlin, who was a friend of Horwitz from their days as undergraduates at Indiana University in Bloomington, was persuaded to invest $37,000 after Horwitz showed him a contract that made it appear as if he was selling Sony the rights to a Mexican rom-com called “Deseo.”

Within 90 days, Wunderlin was repaid the principal plus an additional $9,000 in profit, according to The New Yorker magazine.

Horwitz also claimed to Wunderlin that his movie company, Rogue Black, was being backed by former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz.

He even showed Wunderlin an email that appeared to come from Schultz’s own account, The New Yorker reported.

Wunderlin was in awe of the returns to the point where he convinced his parents to put up half their retirement savings.

business, fraud, hollywood, ponzi schemes, microsoft, how a b-movie actor duped friends and family out of $690m for ‘hollywood’s biggest ponzi scheme’
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In 2022, Horwitz was sentenced to two decades in federal prison for orchestrating a $690M Ponzi scheme. Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Horwitz’s friends said they were seeing returns upwards of 20% — which whetted their appetites even more and prompted them to loan him even more money.

“We’re getting paid on time. Real cash. Without fail,” Joseph deAlteris, another college friend, told The New Yorker.

Some of Horwitz’s friends took out more loans to allow him to do more deals. They even mused about quitting their full-time jobs in finance to help Horwitz grow his business.

DeAlteris convinced his widowed mother, who is a retired physician’s assistant, to invest $40,000. In a two-year period, Horwitz’s friends made a profit on some 27 fictitious movie deals, according to The New Yorker.

Horwitz was able to get away with the scheme for five years by covering his tracks, according to investigators.

He hired a woman to impersonate an HBO executive who would then speak to his investors by phone in order to answer questions they may have about prospective deals.

business, fraud, hollywood, ponzi schemes, microsoft, how a b-movie actor duped friends and family out of $690m for ‘hollywood’s biggest ponzi scheme’
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Horwitz acted in films under his stage name, Zach Avery. He is seen above in the 2020 film “Last Moment of Clarity.” Lionsgate

Horwitz also told investors not to contact the streaming platforms directly because he had signed nondisclosure agreements with them.

According to prosecutors, Horwitz used the money to pay for private jet flights and yacht trips as well as $605,000 for luxury cars that included a Mercedes-Benz and an Audi; $174,000 for party planners; a $54,600 for a “luxury watch subscription” service.

As an actor, Horwitz was beginning to see modest success in the movie business. In 2020, he appeared in a supporting role alongside “Succession” star Cox in the film “Last Moment of Clarity.”

The next year, he co-starred in “The Gateway” which featured Bruce Dern and Munn.

But the Ponzi scheme collapsed in 2020 when Horwitz ran out of investors to plow more money into the fraud. When earlier investors started demanding their money back, Horwitz would delay, prompting them to threaten lawsuits.

Eventually, duped investors started contacting law enforcement, who launched an investigation.

business, fraud, hollywood, ponzi schemes, microsoft, how a b-movie actor duped friends and family out of $690m for ‘hollywood’s biggest ponzi scheme’
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Horwitz is seen right in the 2017 film “Curvature” with co-star Lyndsy Fonseca. Everett Collection / Everett Collection

One of those investors was Robert Henny, a screenwriter who told the federal judge who presided over Horwitz’s case that he lost $1.8 million in the scheme.

Another investor, a 64-year-old, said that he had to come out of retirement just to make ends meet after losing $1.4 million.

“I cry every day and have stopped seeing friends or family because of the shame of this financial loss and have a now severe distrust of other human beings,” the unnamed investor told Los Angeles federal court on Feb. 14, 2022 — the day that Horwitz was sentenced to two decades behind bars.

The mother of a 46-year-old special needs daughter said that she “will never be able to earn what has been taken from me and my daughter” but “the emotional damage…is even greater.”

Horwitz’s wife filed for divorce after his arrest.

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