Hulu outdoes Netflix in Fyre Festival faceoff

Both films expose the staggering scope and scale of the scam

billy-mcfarland-entrepreneur-2014

Billy McFarland speaks at a 2014 Magnises event. 

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Both Netflix and Hulu produced documentaries on the disaster that was Fyre Festival, and both films make for entertaining viewing because everyone involved in the situation was, quite frankly, the worst. Top of the list, of course, is Billy McFarland, the man behind the con — a career grifter whose most ambitious, most brazen, most successful and most harmful scam was the Fyre Festival itself. But, as both documentaries note, one of the main reasons Fyre Festival became such a social media sensation at the time was because it was kind of fun to see the mostly rich, mostly white, extremely obnoxious “influencers” who’d bought tickets to the festival panic as they realized there was no festival, much less food and shelter, on the island. 

For those who missed the deluge of tweets, videos and posts on social media at the time of the event, Fyre Festival was marketed as a luxury music festival on a private island in the Bahamas, complete with big-name performers, lavish accommodations and five-star catering. When the guests arrived, none of those things were there, and all of the attendees spent a night essentially out in the wilderness on the island. Those clips of YouTubers, Instagram models and other social media personalities in a “Lord of the Flies”-type situation on a Bahamian island are probably the extent of most people’s knowledge of the Fyre Festival, but the two documentaries — Netflix’s “Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened” and Hulu’s “Fyre Fraud,” which were both released last week — dig deeper into a staggering network of fraud and deception with McFarland as the sociopathic, incompetent con artist at the center of it all. 

The two documentaries take somewhat different approaches to telling the story. Hulu’s includes interviews with McFarland and takes a more comedic tone, but the real difference is that Netflix allowed Jerry Media — the social media marketing company that handled the promotions for Fyre Festival — to produce their documentary. 

It’s unclear as of yet why Netflix would choose to let the very people complicit in this malicious scam redeem themselves by telling their own story. Maybe it got them more inside information, better access to footage, who knows — but after watching the whole story unfold in Hulu’s “Fyre Fraud,” it becomes clear how unforgivable Netflix’s decision was. 

One of the strengths of Hulu’s “Fyre Fraud” is that it digs in to McFarland’s background. McFarland, the audience learns, has been scamming people literally since grade school. He achieved some success with a credit card company called “Magnises” by building a popular brand around a black, metallic card marketed to young city dwellers. But when the con caught up to him — the card apparently offered no discernible benefits except access to a “club” that McFarland trashed — he was on to the next scheme. He began to sell tickets he didn’t actually possess to Beyonce and Jay-Z shows and even to “Hamilton”. Fyre Festival and the Fyre app — a booking app to allow people to hire celebrity performers for private events — were intended to pay off his debts from those previous failed scams. 

When it comes to telling the story of the Fyre Festival itself, both documentaries are quite similar. The dominant theme that emerges in both is simple — there was no way this festival would happen, and everyone involved knew it from the beginning. Every step of the way, everyone — from local workers on the Bahamian islands, to event planners working with McFarland, to the marketing firms that helped promote it — consistently told McFarland that there was no way to pull off such a massive event, in such a compressed time frame, on an island with nowhere near enough existing infrastructure. All this serves to establish McFarland’s absolute guilt — there is no way he didn’t realize he was defrauding every investor and ticket holder. 

And yet, hundreds of people were still involved in pushing forward as though the event would happen, even up until the scheduled date of the festival itself. One of the lawyers representing plaintiffs in a lawsuit against McFarland distills the concept perfectly in a clip near the end of “Fyre Fraud.” “Don’t just focus on Billy,” he says. “There are people who helped Billy commit fraud so that they could make their money.” The question of who, besides McFarland, is to blame for the disaster is one of the most interesting points the two documentaries explore. As disastrous as the festival itself was, the marketing was undeniably a huge success in creating buzz around this exclusive, luxury event, and that effort involved a lot of different contributors — from social media personalities like Kendall Jenner and Bella Hadid to rapper and co-founder of Fyre Festival Ja Rule, to the media companies hired to help with promotion. 

Netflix’s “Fyre,” of course, doesn’t spend as much time exploring this point because one of the most complicit actors, Jerry Media, is also their producer. And Jerry Media is not in any sort of gray area here — “Fyre Fraud” very intentionally makes it clear how involved and how complicit, the media agency was in helping McFarland commit fraud. In the weeks leading up to the event, as more and more people became suspicious, Jerry Media compiled lists of keywords to filter out of Fyre Festival’s promotional posts — in other words, they helped to automatically delete any comments on Instagram or Twitter posts promoting the festival that might be questioning or criticizing the event. 

The story of the Fyre Festival seems on its surface like a tidy drama which, though filled with conflict, ends up more or less with everyone getting what they deserve. The annoyingly privileged influencers spend an uncomfortable night on a deserted wasteland in FEMA tents, McFarland goes to jail and the Fyre app fails. But in reality, there are plenty of loose ends that haven’t been so nicely tied up. Hundreds of Bahamian workers still haven’t received pay after working exhausting days trying to make up for McFarland’s poor planning. Though two festival attendees won a $5 million lawsuit against McFarland in July 2018, many people who bought tickets to the festival haven’t recovered their stolen money through lawsuits as of yet. 

And perhaps most infuriatingly, the people most intimately involved in perpetrating the scam don’t seem to have learned anything from it, or changed their ways at all. Jerry Media certainly still seems to be doing fine, given their work with Netflix. And McFarland — who was sentenced to six years in prison in Oct 2018 — sent emails out to the list of Fyre Festival customers trying to fraudulently sell tickets to the Met Gala and the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show while he was out on bail. One can only hope that the true story being shared to the world will do enough damage to their reputations that no one else will have to be victimized by them again. For the most complete, honest, unbiased version of that story, check out “Fyre Fraud.”

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