So, last week, two streaming juggernauts released last week about 2017’s most public event planning fiasco: Netflix’s Fyre and Hulu’s Fyre Fraud.
Over the weekend, I watched both – one after the other, and spoiler, but I recommend doing the same.
Their combined 192-minute runtime features surprisingly little overlap and each actually fills in some of the other’s gaps. Shockingly, only a couple interviewees overlap, which is a result of separate agendas and interests. I think that there is a really excellent, if stylistically inconsistent, two-and-a-half hour documentary that could be made by taking about an hour of Fyre and grafting it onto Fyre Fraud.
But without question, I would want the latter to serve as the base. Because watching Fyre Fraud sometimes makes Fyre feel like one.
Not in, like, the legal sense. In fact, not even in
Its fundamental problem, which Fraud actually points out in its final title cards, is that Jerry Media is one of the financiers of Netflix’s project. Jerry was the head of the festival’s marketing campaign and played no small part in its success. And you can draw a bright red line from that conflict of interest to the doc’s ultimate conclusion, because they come out with egg on their face but their hands entirely clean.
Fyre Fraud paints a dirtier picture.
Pretty much everything you need to know about the intent of each documentary can be found in its respective name. Fyre is a targeted film, one that is interested almost exclusively in Fyre the talent-booking app that the music festival was theoretically supposed to be a launching point for and then the music festival itself. It delves into the logistics of the festival – beginning just a few months before it was set to launch and then going along the process with the people who were trying to make it work. If you want a deep dive of what happened on the ground in the Bahamas in the couple of months leading up to the festival, Fyre should satisfy you. Many of the stories are mind-boggling – particularly one later on involving customs and water acquisition. It’s clear that this thing could have never worked, though many of the interview subjects seemed to somehow believe it could have.
Fyre Fraud has another story about customs. It’s less awful but more straight-up criminal.
Fyre Fraud isn’t a deep dive into the festival or Fyre Media or the Fyre App: It is a look at the broader context of all of these things. And it is about the fraudster who created them. The only Fyre employee to be interviewed in Hulu’s documentary is Fyre’s creator and the man of the hour: Billy McFarland – who doesn’t make an appearance in Netflix’s, which caused an interesting stir last week in itself. Rather, its subjects are journalists and influencers; a venture capitalist who created the “Fyre Fraud” Twitter handle and makes a small appearance in Fyre plays a fittingly large role in Fyre Fraud. There’s a lawyer who filed a $100 million dollar class action lawsuit against the company. And a former member of Jerry Media who played a particularly key role in that marketing campaign and certainly makes his old employer seem complicit.
If you didn’t know going into Fyre how Billy McFarland’s story ended, it might feel like a twist to learn that he’s a compulsive liar. I knew that and it still felt like they were uncovering some kind of mystery. So much of the film is spent building this guy up as a genius that when the house of cards falls, it’s almost bewildering. All of the failures that lead to that point felt like some sort of innocent incompetence. This young guy was in over his head, sure, but he wasn’t out-and-out malicious, right? You don’t learn until late in the game that, no, he was malicious. It’s information withheld from the audience for, I guess, narrative purposes. And key information that might have revealed it too early is generally ignored.
Again, just look at the names: Fyre Fraud shows McFarland as a con man from minute one who has been a con man from day one. And not just of Fyre, but his previous ventures as well. Where I really understood the difference between the two films was in their respective discussions of McFarland’s previous venture, Magnisis. The NYC-based fancy credit card company that I’m pretty sure I aspirationally looked at for like fifteen minutes a few year years back is considered a pure success by Fyre. It takes as fact that the brand had over 10,000 members when an employee of both of McFarland’s failed ventures claims such and just generally looks back on that time as one of a young entrepreneur doing something incredible and setting him up for more incredible things.
Fyre Fraud shows otherwise, that, for example, Magnisis never passed five thousand members – it also shows footage of McFarland once claiming that it had over 100,000. The insidiousness is exposed from the outset. McFarland was not the genius head of a wildly successful company; he was the con artist head of yet another company built on lies.
In Fyre Fraud, you know there was never going to be a Fyre Festival. And the people knew it too.
So, instead of diving into the logistics of an always-failed project, it looks out at the world and sees how the actions of marketers and influencers and the media at large served to prop this failure up. There is a lot of discussion in Fyre Fraud about “millennials,” a term whose actual meaninglessness I’m only really now coming to terms with. Millennials are folks born between 1981 and 1996. I had forgotten that, that I am in the last third of that group. And that I have a whole lot more in common with the older folks in Gen Z than I do with the oldest members of my own group.
For one thing, I watch way more YouTube.
But in 2017, millennials were the target audience, then ranging from 21 to 36. For a festival with no tickets less than $999 – not counting at least a few thousand in additional expenses – who else would even consider it? Folks older than that don’t go to multi-day music parties in the Bahamas. Folks younger than that don’t typically have the money to go to multi-day music parties in the Bahamas.
If you’re curious what a Gen Z version of Fyre Festival would look like, by the way, it happened last year: Tana Con. Literally the same thing.
Fyre Fraud’s discussion of millennialism is pretty surface and doesn’t lead to any new revelations, but it opens a broader conversation about influence that I think is worth having. There are two sides to this: there are the supermodels who blew it up in the first place – flown out to Pablo Escobar’s island in The Bahamas and filmed partying and having a great time, setting the expectations sky high. Then, there are the ones who came to the Fyre Festival on Fyre Media’s dime in order to show the world just how incredible the whole experience was going to be. The former, people like Bella Hadid who should have marked their posts #ad and never did, are probably more responsible for its success than anybody. The latter are victims too, though ones whose bottom lines weren’t as drastically affected. But even that is an oversimplification.
I don’t like the term “influencer.” You can see from my subscriber count that it doesn’t really matter how I feel about it, since it doesn’t apply to me anyway, but the commoditization of trust I think is genuinely damaging to our culture. I have a review show on YouTube. I would like to believe that if you are subscribed or have made it this far that you trust me – at least a little bit. But what happens if I sell that trust? My girlfriend worked for three years in influencer marketing, connecting YouTubers and Instagrammers with brands to sponsor their posts. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that; folks gotta eat, and if something is clearly an ad for what the “influencer” genuinely thinks is a good or useful product as opposed to just a thing that will pay them money, then it’s ultimately a win-win.
But the fact that Hadid et al posted about Fyre Festival the way that they did is genuinely terrible. And not just for the obvious reason, that not #ad-ing it was a violation of federal disclosure laws, but that she and all of them were so easily taken in by a serial con artist who has cheated people out of tens of millions of dollars. Those supermodels got to have the actual experience that Fyre Festival promised. They weren’t lying. But they trusted a con artist to do what he did for them on a massive scale and didn’t do the due diligence to learn that that was never in the cards. Everyone looks bad here.
And that’s the most troubling thing about Fyre Fraud, that it shows you just how easily trust can be built up and how long the con can go before it crumbles down. And yes, that house of cards fell, and McFarland is in jail where he belongs – though not entirely for Fyre-related reasons. But people were hurt by this. Physically, mentally, financially. It exposed just how easily our culture can be exploited.
And that this will happen again.
Fyre Fraud: Seven Point Nine out of Ten
Fyre: Seven Point One out of Ten