With the internet making research easier, who do you trust when you’re handing out a big wad of cash? Top models on a paid vacation strutting around in bikinis? Other social influencers who have never been to the venue? People who get paid to endorse but have no reputation to uphold? Two competing documentaries take on that kind of big cash caveats in hindsight buyer beware films: Netflix’s ‘Fyre: The Greatest Party that Never Was” and Hulu’s Fyre Fraud.”
Hulu’s documentary “Fyre Fraud” is a cautionary tale about how con men used social media to market a music event that went viral aided by rapper Ja Rule, Instagram and other social media influencers. These are rich and mostly white people on their way to party central. But that’s only if you like to party with strangers in a strange place in hopes of rubbing shoulders with the rich or social-media-famous.
Hulu’s documentary benefits greatly from an exclusive interview with the convicted con-man behind it all: Bill McFarland. He’s alternately cocky and your best bud and the down-on-his-luck humbled best bud who needs your help. You’ll see the second work on one man to the level of desperate depravity in Netflix’s film.
Directed by Jenner Furst and Julia Willoughby Nason, this documentary tries to vary the talking heads and bad cam borrowed video with topical clips and funny snippets (e.g. from an old cartoon). Beginning with an awkwardly derogatory setup, Hulu’s scripting joins in the millennial hatefest. We see an anonymous cheery two-story yellow house and then a sad sofa when a voiceover gives us the scenario: “You’re living in your parents’ basement” and “you pull out your phone which you look at a hundred times an hour” and you see your dream vacation on a “deserted island owned by Pablo Escobar.” No specifics, but like a perfume commercial there “was music, private planes and beautiful women swimming on an islands with drugs.” And you think, “Man that’s about as sexy as things can get.”
If you’re really in that situation, you are a red flag who can’t see the other red flags waving. If your main inspiration is to be an influencer or rub shoulders with a rapper like Ja Rule, you’re in trouble. If you think music festival in the first-stop shop for US scammers–the Bahamas–is “history in the making” you need to review history.
I’ve never really understood the allure of Burning Man and even Coachella. I’m a fan of Law & Order on the small screen and in real life. These festivals just didn’t spring up into a full flurry of fun. Burning Man began in 1986 on a San Francisco beach (Baker Beach) with a small group of 35. Moved to Black Rock desert in Nevada in 1990 the festival has grown creating environmental concerns. Coachella began at the Empire Polo Club in Indio, CA in 1999. It returned in 2001 and grew over a decade to its present glory and reputation.
Fyre Festival purported to be a first-time full-blown festival, starting big to go even bigger but was actually a promotional gambit for an app according to the documentaries. The app angst is more thoroughly explored in Netflix’s “Fyre:
For a year before entering grad school, I worked at the world’s largest travel agency (Japan Travel Bureau International) so there are a few things I can tell you about travel. Research where you’re going. Check reviews of the venue. See if there have been complaints against the company sponsoring or organizing the event. Look at the weather reports and calendar of events.
You have to wonder with all the natural beauty, the music and the models, why would they need a million dollar treasure hunt give-away and just who was the man behind this madness? There were the basics about the Bahamas as Calvin Wells asks “Who orders 2 million worth of booze?” with a duty of 45%. Yes. You got that number right and when you stream you can stop, rewind and play that number back.
McFarland was the man behind Magnises which had the big draw for New Yorkers–an extra perk townhouse that was supposed to be a place to go and meet hot shots, but the “people who hung out there were not the people advertised.” You still had a “place to go and meet people like you” but one person describes Magnises as “‘The Office’ with no redeeming qualities.” In this scenario Billy McFarland was Michael Scott (Steve Carell) and Grant was Dwight Schrute (Rainn Wilson). There was “no actual business; it’s just guys being in business.”
Netflix’s “Fyre: The Greatest Party that Never Was is all about business. It begins with the promotional shoot and in many ways, this slicker product directed by Chris Smith (“The Yes Men”) is a promotional shoot. Hulu did pay for the exclusive interview with Billy McFarland, but the Netflix documentary has behind-the-scenes video from Jerry Media.
Jerry Media was the company that built up the models cavorting in bikini bait. In the Netlix movie, they are a bunch of well-meaning professionals but they were also the ones deleting customer complaints on social media. This gets trickier when in the Hulu version, the staff has doubts and decide to stop selling tickets when they realize the infrastructure and the numbers don’t match but there’s a softer sell in the Netflix doc.
Social influencers were promised of one-bedroom three-person villas on the beach for one post and others were given $250 for a post. The concept of reputation doesn’t even come into the equation. Their followers are faceless pawns in their power pyramid.
Yet reportedly, the idea for the documentary came from Jerry Media who approached Vice. The official Netflix statement about Jerry Media involvement is: “at no time did they, or any others we worked with, request favorable coverage in our film, which would be against our ethics.”
In the documentary, the promises are made that Fyre Fest is “biggest event of the decade I promise you” and writer Gabrielle Bluestone remembers thinking it was “the coolest party that you’ve ever seen advertised.”
The interviews are beautifully shot in spacious rooms with uncluttered backgrounds. It’s as if not one lives or works in those spaces. There’s more on the app that never will be (David Low) and product designer Shiyuan Deng talks about how she went from believer to disappointed product designer.
There were brave people who waved red flags. Mick Purzycki mapped out sewage calculations. Kieth Siilats talked about other logistical concerns, but was treated as nothing more than a yoga consultant.
When questions were raised, McFarland’s response was: “We’re not a problems focus group; we’re a solutions oriented group. We need to have a positive attitude.” McFarland was either “unflappable” or “totally delusional.” In reality, he was a con man.
The worst example of it all was Andy King, a white-haired rosy-faced clean cut gay guy who was willing to suck dick…yes, really, fellatio, in order to help Billy McFarland’s Fyre Fest get around some legal problems.
While both documentaries detail the losses of the local people, Netflix goes specific. Mary Ann Rolle of the Exuma Point Restaurant was roped in last minute to help feed the people. She was left with debt and had to pay the people. It’s a small island and she rubs shoulders with these people and their problems every day. She spent $50,000 of her own savings. The documentary has called attention to her plight and a GoFundMe campaign has started.
Rolle’s situation isn’t unusual for those touched by the godless grifting of McFarland. We learn that a few people used their own personal credit cards to help fund McFarland’s folly. That’s the kind of family that McFarland built–people who in his desperate moments needed it to succeed and couldn’t walk away.
It’s hard to feel sorry for the people who took this journey in Netflix’s version when you see one man proudly proclaim he and his best buds wanted privacy. After arriving at the camp site where they discover their luxury tents are actually leftover FEMA tents and McFarland has announced that people should just run and claim a tent, Justin Liao remembers, “Our strategy was to kind of ransack all the tents around us. My buddy pissed on a few of the beds.” Liao who is the head of Global Business at Pulse Lab in New York City and a graduate of Vanderbilt University according to LinkedIn seems to have the kind of mindset of the people behind Fyre Fest: self-serving, without ethics and willing to step on a few people to better his own position. Liao got so much heat on Twitter, he seems to have closed his account but he’s still on Instagram, for now.
Together, Hulu’s “Fyre Fraud” and Netflix’s “Fyre: The Greatest Party that Never Was” give us a complete picture of social media marketing and the