The astonishing failure of the Frye Festival, perhaps the biggest viral story of 2017, has since become a metaphor for the dangers of influencer economics and millennial superficiality.
With young entrepreneur Billy McFarland at the helm, what was promised as an ultra-opulent getaway turned into a unhinged nightmare. Now, both Netflix and Hulu have released competing documentaries which tell slightly different versions of McFarland's downfall. How did these two films get made and what are the major differences?
Fyre Festival was pitched as a luxury getaway for millennial influencers, collecting some of the world's most high-profile models and artists on a Bahamian island for a weekend of hedonistic fun. What attendees discovered on arrival was a barren wasteland filled with FEMA tents and almost no food. A plethora of suits were filed against Fyre organizers and Billy McFarland, the company's leader, was sentenced to six years in federal prison.
Hulu debuted "Fyre Fraud" a week before Netflix released their film on the same subject, titled "Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened." Netflix had teased their movie in a titillating trailer that promised the schadenfreude of watching the ill-begotten festival go down in flames. Hulu did not have any significant promotional materials for their project, possibly releasing the film early with the intention of undercutting Netflix. Although the content of both films is largely similar, Hulu's reliance on stock footage and automated robot voice overs for large segments of its film supports this hypothesis.
The main difference between the two movies is that "Fyre Fraud" managed to nail down an interview with McFarland himself, while "Fyre" sources their material from footage of the festival's breakdown itself. However, McFarland's conversation with filmmakers provides little illumination about his motivations or intentions with the festival.
Controversy around McFarland's appearance in the Hulu film has since erupted, with a debate ensuing about how much he was compensated for agreeing to be in the movie.
“We were aware of [the Hulu production] because we were supposed to film Billy McFarland for an interview,” Chris Smith, the director of "Fyre," told The Ringer. “He told us that they were offering $250,000 for an interview. He asked us if we would pay him $125,000. And after spending time with so many people who had such a negative impact on their lives from their experience on Fyre, it felt particularly wrong to us for him to be benefiting. It was a difficult decision, but we had to walk away for that reason. So then he came back and asked if we would do it for $100,000 in cash. And we still said this wasn’t something that was going to work for us.”
Hulu later confirmed to The Ringer that McFarland had been paid for his time but the amount was not specified.
Similarly, while "Fyre Fraud" implicates f*ckjerry, an influential social media marketing firm, in the crimes themselves — Netflix's "Fyre" was, in actuality, created with the help of f*ckjerry itself, although this is not acknowledged in the film. The aforementioned footage of Fyre's collapse in the latter film was provided by the team who helped roll out the festival's viral marketing campaign.
The question of ethics pertaining to f*ckjerry's involvement in "Fyre" was raised by Jenner Furst, the co-director of "Fyre Fraud."
“I feel like there’s a bigger, ethically compromised position, and that’s going and partnering with folks who marketed the Fyre Festival and were well-aware that this was not going to happen as planned,” Furst said to The Ringer. “That folks were not going to get villas, that folks were not even going to get bathrooms. We have emails that prove that people knew months in advance what was going on, and we have a whistle-blower from inside that social media company [Jerry] who says that he knew months before that this wasn’t going to be what it was sold as ... It’s a little bit of a head-scratcher to say that we have an ethical quandary when it seems like people who got the rest of the world knee-deep in shit are making large licensing fees and getting prestige when this thing comes out on Friday. To me, I think it’s a little bit of the pot calling the kettle black.”
"Fyre Fraud" does a bit more exploration around the socio-political circumstances, psychological ramifications, and ethical quandaries posed by the Fyre debacle, along with providing more information on the mysterious history of Billy McFarland, exploring the businessman's early childhood capitalist ventures — including a bizarre story of McFarland starting a web company with outsourced employees in India at the age of 13. McFarland's attempts at more adult leadership, including the failures of his business Spling (a buggy media-sharing app) and Magnises (a sort of millennial black card) are also covered extensively in Hulu's film.
Meanwhile, Netflix's program delves deeper into the impact the festival had on its victims. Interviews with local Bahamian workers and former Fyre employees show how deeply they were hurt by the Fyre experience — not only financially, but also emotionally. With the additional video, "Fyre" showcases how truly hellish the actual landscape of the festival really was and the chaos that ensued once attendees realized the situation that had befallen them.
The portrait painted of McFarland's greed, deception, and trickery is fairly stark in both films: audiences won't walk away feeling much sympathy for Billy or his ever-expanding cabal of associates, who even attempted to run another event ticketing scam after McFarland had pleaded guilty.
Reviews of both Fyre documentaries have been largely positive, with both iterations receiving praise for depicting and analyzing the scourge McFarland created with his avarice. Critics have not shown much of a distinct preference for either film, with the exception of New York Times writer Wesley Morris, who much preferred Hulu's film.
“'Fyre' is an ethics thriller. 'Fyre Fraud' is a behavioral farce. It has arguments to make about the insecurities of millennials and the perniciousness of social media. And the arguments don’t feel like blather," Morris wrote.
NPR critic Linda Holmes concluded that the movies were far more similar than different.
"Two competing documentaries, both of which were made with at least one breach of normal journalistic practice. Paying for interviews, generally, is Not Done. Likewise, having the subject of a piece participate as a producer is Not Done," Holmes summarizes. "If you love a story of absolute, no-holds-barred, extravagant disaster, you'll probably want to watch both. But if you just want a better idea of what the heck happened here, the truth is that either film will serve. Just know that — perhaps appropriately, given the subject matter — neither was made in the squeaky-clean manner we all might wish for."
[Photo: Netflix Media Center]
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