Fyre Fest: Call it the ultimate scam; call it the most ill-fated music festival of all time; call it social media schadenfreude at the expense of rich millennial influencers. However you regard the fiasco, the imploded event has entered pop nomenclature as a synonym for disaster. Which is why the Fyre Festival, created by tech-bro entrepreneur Billy McFarland and rapper Ja Rule, is the subject of not one, but two documentaries out this week.
The third week of January was apparently the prime time for Hulu and Netflix to release dueling documentaries on the same notorious festival. But which one truly captures the quintessence of Fyre Fest? And which ones should you watch?
To get to the bottom of the symbiotic streaming releases, three Polygon staffers convened to debate the merits and cross-check the facts: Karen Han watched Netflix’s Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened; Allegra Frank saw Hulu’s Fyre Fraud; and Petrana Radulovic watched both. Let the great Fyre feud begin.
Petrana Radulovic, junior entertainment reporter: Fyre Fest touted deserted island (once owned by Pablo Escobar), hot Instagram models, big musical acts, and a week of extended partying in private villas. It was all too good to be true. Festival-goers were herded onto a gravel parking lot near a Sandals resort, met with emergency hurricane tents instead of luxury accommodations, and discovered there was barely any food and water. Later, organizer Billy McFarland was met with a class action lawsuit.
There’s a lot going on with this whole fiasco, from start to finish. What would you say was the focus of the respective documentaries? What sets them apart?
Karen Han, entertainment reporter: The Netflix documentary, Fyre (subtitled The Greatest Party That Never Happened), directed by Chris Smith, paints a pretty comprehensive picture of how the Fyre Festival debacle came to pass. There’s a story there rather than just a recounting of events, as the documentary involves interviews with the people who were involved with the so-called festival, the people who fell for it, and those who essentially became collateral damage.
It’s the last aspect of the documentary that gives it weight, as impact upon the people of the Bahamian island of Great Exuma, who were duped into paying and working for an event that was never more than a scam, is clearly shown. These interviews also help fill the space left by what’s arguably the biggest thing missing from Fyre (though it’s debatable just how helpful it’d be), which is an interview with Billy McFarland, the man behind the whole operation.
Allegra Frank, deputy news editor: To the benefit of Hulu’s Fyre Fraud — ethically dubious as it may be (and we’ll get to that) — McFarland, the scam artist mastermind at Fyre Fest’s heart, sat down to talk. And directors Jenner Furst and Julia Willoughby Nason made ample use of their time with McFarland, to the point where he becomes the centerpiece.
This sounds like a dramatic difference from the Netflix doc. Fyre Fraud’s narrative isn’t so much centered on the gloriously hellish disaster that was this misbegotten music festival; instead, this is the story of how Billy McFarland managed to come up from rich-boy obscurity, get a bunch of other rich boys’ money, and somehow never learn his lesson. It’s the making of a con artist, whose taste for scamming first developed long before his days of hanging with Ja Rule in the Bahamas.
Karen: It’s definitely noticeable that McFarland isn’t in the Netflix documentary, though I think that partially has to do with the fact that he is in Fyre Fraud. The picture that’s painted of him, however, doesn’t make me think that his participation in Smith’s work would have illuminated anything we don’t know about him: that he’s an unrepentant scammer, and that he seemingly has no regard for the way that his actions affect the people around him. Fyre ends with an explanation of his latest scam — selling fake tickets to ritzy events — which he’s running while out on bail. It doesn’t seem like he’s particularly interested in being honest.
Allegra: I can’t speak to his sincerity, but I will say this: Billy McFarland is a terrible liar. It’s abundantly clear in Fyre Fraud, and it’s transfixing in the same way that Robert Durst was in HBO’s true-crime miniseries The Jinx a few years back. McFarland hasn’t been accused of murdering his wife (like Durst was), but spending 90 minutes watching him try to wrangle back the reins, contrasted with the reality of how badly Fyre Fest went down, makes for a fascinating portrait. After all, you can’t just read about Robert Durst’s or McFarland’s tells for when they’re lying; you gain understanding from seeing them. I appreciated getting a deeper look into the psychology of someone who could stick up for an out-and-out, overpriced failure even in the face of jail time — or the truth.
Petrana: For the record, Karen, the Hulu doc ends with his most recent scam, which is selling music production lessons to fellow inmates.
Karen: Excuse me!!!
Petrana: So Billy allegedly getting paid a big sum to be in the documentary itself has turned out to be a bit of an ethical conundrum. But it wasn’t just the Hulu doc — sorry for the pun — getting the fire here. The Netflix documentary is produced by the media company involved in this whole thing. Does any of that impact the movies for you?
Karen: It’s a little ironic that both documentaries are ethically dubious given their subject matter. There’s also something apt about the fact that the exact details that have been reported aren’t totally clear, and seem to indicate that McFarland was running yet another scam. Smith said that McFarland came to them, saying that the Hulu production was offering him $250,000, and that he’d take $125,000 to appear in the Netflix doc as well. Since then, Furst has denied that sum (though not that they paid), and noted that McFarland has, time and time again, proven himself a compulsive liar.
As for Jerry Media’s involvement with the Netflix doc, it’s a bit of a mark on the film’s record, as the company was directly involved in setting up the festival. That said, the documentary doesn’t try to make Jerry Media look good, and the company’s involvement also means that Fyre has a mind-blowing amount of behind-the-scenes footage from the planning and (woeful) execution of the event, not just footage from the people (and “influencers”) who were there at the time.
Petrana: The Jerry Media people who appear in the Netflix doc insist that they had little information on what happened on the production side, whereas the former Jerry employee who talked to Hulu said that was not the case at all. Shade.
Allegra: While some extra color from the festival itself would be a nice addition to Fyre Fraud, its absence — or rather, its reliance on primary accounting from attendees instead, like you mentioned — isn’t often felt. Furst and Nason seem to know they’ve landed a home run by securing Billy for their doc, even if the financial behind-the-scenes part reflects poorly on the doc’s journalistic standards. But just as Jerry Media didn’t relieve itself of any culpability in Fyre, Billy comes off 100 percent badly in Hulu’s Fyre Fraud. They did not pay him to participate in a puff piece. They paid him to talk about his greatest failure the only way he knows how: with unnerving, calculated sincerity.
Karen: And, all that said, I feel like there’s one big figure missing from both documentaries: Ja Rule. Where is Ja?
Petrana: Ja is missing from both these docs and the criminal charges. There were other important figures involved in Fyre Fest, some who appeared in both docs, some only in one, and some just briefly mentioned in one play big roles in the other. Who are the most prominent players in each doc — and do they appear in the other?
Karen: The casts of the respective documentaries are pretty different, the major players in Fyre being the contractor Marc Weinstein (who wrote a post about his experience on Medium, which, OK); Andy King, an event producer who’d been mentoring McFarland for some time before Fyre came along; and MaryAnne Rolle, owner of Exuma Point Restaurant, who sunk her life savings into trying to cater and staff the event.
The most unbelievable anecdote definitely comes from King, though, who recounts McFarland telling him to give a custom officials a blowjob (fortunately it didn’t come to that) in order to get a bunch of 18-wheelers filled with Evian water through customs.
Allegra: Our boy Ja wasn’t willing to talk, but he definitely made a very loud, very memorable appearance in the movie. There are countless clips of him wagging his braggadocio on a bunch of drunken radio shows, talking about his previous prison sentences. But, yeah, it sucks that he isn’t willing to go on the record in the same way that BMF (Billy McFarland, or Billy, Motherfucker) is, or was.
Karen: Yeah, Ja doesn’t do any interview for Fyre, either, but he sure is talking a big game in all of the footage.
Allegra: I hate both the player and the game in this situation. And those players you mentioned from the Netflix doc also fail to appear on the Hulu side. Instead, we get a lot of commentators, like writer Jia Tolentino from The New Yorker and a number of psychologists, offering their summaries of the events. Plus we hear from folks who were tangentially involved, like the very cute ex-social-media manager from Fuck Jerry, who is happy to malign his old employer as he talks about what happened on his side of things.
Billy is really the main dude from Fyre Media that shows up in Fyre Fraud. But there’s also a guy named Delroy from the Fyre Media front, a Bahamian who helped lead the charge on the local side and was very aware of just how much of a fraud Billy was. Delroy still had fun with it, because ... when in Rome, I guess. Except in this case Delray is the Roman and Billy is, like, a Greek, and the Greeks are winning. I guess?
Karen: Also, there are swimming pigs.
Petrana: The pigs had more of a focus in the Netflix doc, but the story behind them (participants fed beer? To the pigs?) is expanded upon in the Hulu doc. Speaking to that, what about the people who actually attended the festival? Did the docs give any insights?
Karen: There’s a pretty consistent focus on influencers and attendees in the Netflix doc; the former to help explain just how Fyre hype caught on and how they “sold” the experience, and the latter to help catalog the fallout. There’s footage and interviews with various attendees as the doc showcases just how disastrous the actual event was — and I have to say, those interviews are framed in such a way that makes it hard to feel bad for anyone who bought into the illusion, as there’s a strange juxtaposition of privilege and utter cluelessness. Honestly, the only people who come off well in the documentary are the Bahamians.
Allegra: Yeah, the same is true in the Hulu doc, which has a healthy dose of very, very vapid influencers in the hot seat. There’s one great scene where the interviewers ask a pair of attendees and self-professed Instagram stars what message or brand they’re peddling. Both of them say “positivity.” Hearing this made me feel the opposite of positive about the impact and utility of social media.
Despite their integral presence in the documentary from an aftermath perspective, those young, rich, so-called influential festival-goers also come off poorly here. They just seem like they wanted to go for the ’gram, and that’s frankly good enough reason to go to something this badly mismanaged.
Petrana: The whole rich-kids-getting-scammed thing really fueled the social media hype — especially since these tickets were as much as $250,000. It’s not discussed in either of these documentaries at all, but the Internet Historian video on the subject (below) reveals that very few, if any, of the tickets went for full price. In fact, the average ticket sold for around $1,200, with some as low as $500 — which is a pretty good deal for a five-day luxury trip to the Bahamas.
Social media played a huge part through the entire narrative of Fyre Fest, from the beginning with the influencers to the shitshow at the end. How did you feel about how each documentary framed that angle?
Karen: Fyre is pretty neutral on that point; again, it’s mostly using influencers and the effect of social media to emphasize just how misleading the marketing was, as well as how the phenomenon spread. It’s not really too damning of social media as a whole otherwise (with the pretty mild exception of King, who, as one of the older members of the Fyre team, calls everyone else “kids” with relative frequency).
Allegra: Fyre Fraud goes in on social media, defining “FOMO” for an audience that likely doesn’t need the definition. (It stands for “fear of missing out,” in case you didn’t know.) The influencers are there for show as much as for context; this movie feels like an indictment of social media marketing, frankly. I came out of it feeling grossly negative about the whole practice, for example. Influencers are seen as walking billboards for nothing, with money to throw into a pot of ... making more money to throw back into the pot.
Petrana: The Hulu doc leaned a bit too hard into the “millennials are glued to their screens, thus ruining the world” thing, especially when a lot of the people commenting were most definitely within the millennial age range.
OK, now for the question that everyone wants to know: Which Fyre Fest documentary is better? Or rather, would you recommend the one you watched for this symposium?
Karen: I’d definitely recommend Fyre — it does a good job of setting up a narrative as well as contextualizing everything that happened. I also — no shade (well, a little shade) — feel like the ethics of the Netflix documentary are more palatable to me. I can’t really condone the fact that McFarland was paid anything for his participation when so many people, including Rolle, are still dealing with the damage that Fyre Fest did.
Allegra: I had a great time watching the fall of Billy McFarland as presented by Fyre Fraud. But I do long to know a bit more of the actual nitty-gritty, on-the-ground stuff from the Fyre Festival itself. You can tell from the title alone that Fyre Fraud is focused more on the individual behind the scenes, and the Fyre Fest itself ends up taking a bit of a back seat. But the best thing is that I can just watch the Netflix one to get the picture I’m looking for — and I’ve learned a lot about one of my generation’s most delusional entrepreneurs, too.
Petrana: All in all, these documentaries are parts of a whole story — Fyre shows what happened from start to finish, the granular problems faced by the event team, and the aftermath that the people of the Bahamas dealt with; Fyre Fraud shows more of why it happened, how Billy McFarland wooed and charmed investors, and why he pushed the team to go through with an event that was very doomed to fail.
I will add that while these two documentaries give almost the complete story, both paint the festival-goers in a negative light. Which is fair, to an extent, but the important context that the Internet Historian video gives — that very few tickets went for the outrageous prices offered — shouldn’t be dismissed.