Awash in the Stream: Fyre Festival Double Feature Special

Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened (2019)

Director: Chris Smith

Netflix

 

Fyre Fraud (2019)

Directors: Jenner Furst & Julia Willoughby Nason

Hulu

 

     Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.  Mere weeks after announcing an indefinite hiatus for this feature, there was big news in the world of streaming movies: Netflix was producing a documentary about the failed Fyre music festival, only for Hulu to surprise drop its own documentary about Fyre a week before Netflix. It’s the first dueling movie standoff of the steaming era–a new generations version of Antz/A Bug’s Life, or Deep Impact/Armageddon. The enmity goes deeper than just competing release dates. Hulu’s Fyre Fraud essentially denounces Netflix’s Fyre as a  spin from Fyre Festival marketers to distance themselves from their own complicity in the disaster. The makers of Fyre have accused Fyre Fraud of being ethically compromised because they paid Fyre organizer Billy McFarland for an interview (McFarland had claimed to Fyre producers he was paid $250,000, but Fyre Fraud producers say he was paid much less, without giving any actual figure).

    Despite the rivalry, the two documentaries actually pair well together. They tell the same story, with some of the same footage and interview some of the same people, but from a different perspective. Fyre Fraud is a comedy, about the layers upon layers of spiraling fraud that led to Fyre Festival, while Fyre is a tragedy about people that find themselves dragged into an inevitable disaster. They work well as a double feature–Fyre Fraud as a “can you believe this really happened?” header, and Fyre as a somber reminder of the actual human cost of the festival collapse.

     So, a primer on what Fyre Festival was, or at least supposed to be: the music festival to end all music festivals. Organized by Billy McFarland and rapper Ja Rule, it would take place over two weekends, on a private island in the Bahamas. The coolest and biggest acts in the world would be there–Migos, Major Lazer, G.O.O.D Music, etc.  Lodgings for general admissions would be ultra-modern, eco-friendly geodesic domes, and there were VIP passes that included stays at luxury villas. A general admission ticket was over $1,000. Some of the VIP packages were priced at over $250,000. Festival goers would arrive on private planes, and the food would be high-end cuisine from Michelin-rated chefs. In short, it was to be two weekends of tropical excess, a gathering place for young trust-fund millenials to have the time of their lives. Instead, it was the biggest musical disaster since Woodstock ‘99.

     The ‘geodesic domes’ were instead leftover FEMA tents. Most of the villas didn’t exist. The high-end cuisine was cheese sandwiches and salad without dressing. None of the performers showed. Festival-goers found themselves essentially trapped on an island in a foreign country, without a way home as no return flights were planned. As young, rich socialites tend to be active on social media, the whole disaster was essentially live-tweeted, with the hashtag #fyrefestival showing one failure after another. Since rich people being inconvenienced  is comedy gold, the story quickly exploded–Fyre festival’s collapse was mocked across every late night show, written about in major newspapers, and, of course, the subject of many, many memes.

    So, how did this happen? How did a festival of cartoonish opulence turn into an unqualified disaster? It was built on a web of fraud and false promises, spun by Billy McFarland. So, who is Billy McFarland?

    Fyre Fraud has more information on McFarland than Fyre. Fyre Fraud paid McFarland for an interview, but takes him to task for his history of lies–and is many ways more skeptical than Fyre, which in its eagerness to absolve McFarland’s business partners, casts him as a visionary who’s ambition outstripped his ability. Fyre Fraud instead tells a narrative of McFarland as a two-bit scammer, but on a bigger scale, playing an elaborate game of three card monte with stakes of millions of dollars.

    McFarland is a typically start-up founder. Born to an upper-class family–both of his parents were real-estate developers–he gravitated towards small-scale business schemes as a child, then briefly studied computer engineering in college before dropping out to found a start-up. McFarland envisions himself as the next Mark Zuckerberg, destined to fame and fortune with some new, generation-defining idea. But first, he needs the idea.

     Fyre Fraud has some information on his first start-up, some sort of social media thing called Spling. Spling would allow users to share things online with their friends, a niche that is more than well-served.

After Spling failed to get off the ground, his next business was Magnises. Both documentaries are kind of vague on what exactly Magnises was–Fyre Fraud sketches out some information on how it involves a black metal copy of customers existing credit cards, and Fyre focuses more on how it was a failure that left behind many unhappy customers. One interviewee in Fyre Fraud compares Magnises to Entertainment 720 from Parks & Rec. I looked up Magnises for more information, and it is the distillation of the Entertainment 720 ethos, somehow sprung into real life: https://www.nerdwallet.com/blog/credit-cards/magnises-card-what-is-it/

     So, the black metal credit card: it is totally pointless. Billy figured out that you can transfer the magnetic strip from your debit or credit card onto a sheet of black metal, to create your own Black Card–it would still be your same debit or credit card, but it looks fancier. The actual product Magnises was selling was membership in a club, which offered discounts at various businesses, as well as discounted prices on high-end tickets (such as Beyonce concerts or Hamilton on Broadway) but the main selling point (aside from the pointless black card) would be access to an exclusive townhouse club. The application process involved not just a credit check–which, again, is totally pointless as Magnises is not issuing any credit or providing any banking service–but also questions to determine if the applicant was “cool” enough to qualify. This “cool” gradient sounds like a discrimination lawsuit waiting to happen, but from what I can gather, everybody that paid the annual $250 membership fee was cool enough to get into the townhouse.

    The whole idea sounds like something that could only spring from the fevered imagination of Tom Haverford and Jean-Ralphio. I can imagine him trying to pitch Ron Swanson on this nonsense business plan (“We transfer their debit cards onto black metal, so it’s cooler.” “So you are selling peoples money back to them?” “Yes, but they also get access to this cool townhouse.” “What makes the townhouse cool?” “There are a bunch of people here with black metal cards.”)  McFarland was unable to negotiate any bulk discounts, so often resorted to buying tickets last minute at marked up StubHub prices, to sell at loss to Magnises members.

      One of the investors in Magnises was Aubrey McClendon, the billionaire CEO of American Energy Partners, an energy company that pioneered the use of fracking. McClendon was so impressed by the black metal cards, he invested millions in Magnises. McClendon was into some sketchy business practices himself, and was indicted for violating anti-trust laws. He promptly died the next day in a fiery car crash. Fyre Fraud doesn’t dwell on the timing of his death, and Fyre doesn’t mention McClendon at all, so I don’t want to make any allegations, but I will say that if I was a billionaire facing prison time, I too would immediately die in a way that makes identifying my corpse difficult; please respect my wishes and do not investigate my death at all.

     McClendon doesn’t have anything to do with the Fyre Festival, being dead before it was conceived, but the theme of Fyre Fraud is that lies and fraud are the order of the day in McFarland’s world. He tells lie upon lie, exaggeration upon exaggeration, and his business partners either don’t realize what they’ve gotten themselves into until it’s too late–or they are willing to turn a blind eye to everything, as long as the grift works for them.

    This leads to one of the biggest differences between the documentaries: the involvement of Vice media, and the social media advertising agency Fuckjerry. Fuckerry started as meme account on Instagram, and eventually grew into a marketing agency. Their main focus is social media, and one of their major clients was the Fyre Festival. In Fyre, Fuckjerry execs argue that they were just hired to do advertising, and have no responsibility for the actual festival–they compare it to being hired to direct a car commercial, and not checking if the engine actually works. However, in Fyre Fraud, Oren Aks, the actual adman that worked the Fyre Festival account says it was obvious from their first meeting that what McFarland was saying wasn’t adding up, but decisions were made to not ask too many questions and take McFarland at his word. Aks has since quit and founded his own social media marketing agency, and Fuckjerry has issued a statement that Aks had “misrepresented himself” in statements implicating them. One particular incident is the deletion of negative Instagram comments on the Fyre Festival account. In Fyre, they describe the customer service email not responding, so the social media team would screenshot “legitimate questions” that festivalgoers asked, and delete negative attacks. In Fyre Fraud, Aks says that they developed an auto-deleting program, to remove any comment with certain words–such as “details,” “lineup,” and when things were really bad “festival.” Eventually comments were disabled altogether.

     So, back the festival. During the Magnises days, Ja Rule came onboard as a brand ambassador–although television clips show that he doesn’t really understand what Magnises actually was–and partnered with McFarland on a new venture: an app to book celebrities for private events. By all accounts in both documentaries, this was a real app, with real programmers working on it. The real issue, only obliquely addressed in Fyre Fraud and not atll in Fyre, is that there isn’t really much of an audience for this app–if you are booking private events regularly, you probably have agents and managers contact information saved and prefer to negotiate things instead of just paying the standard fee. If you don’t book events regularly, why do need an app? Still, they forged ahead, and came up with an idea to promote the app: A music festival. Not just any festival, but the most opulent, luxurious music festival known to man.

      A major theme in both documentaries is that Fyre Festival could only happen during the social media era, of “selling a lifestyle” marketing and Instagram influencers and FOMO. Where people use social media to present not so much the best version of their life, but a too good to be true version of their life. Much of the marketing was done via Instagram influencers, an idea already premised on selling a fantasy life of distilled youth and beauty. Fyre Festival slid right into the Instagram influencer mileau, with an ad campaign promising the same things with an extra order of wealth.

     The ad campaign began in earnest with dozens of Instagram influencers posting a bright orange square, which took users to a commercial of the most famous models in the world cavorting on a beach. One of the more bizarre moments of the ad is when it promises that the festival will be on an island once owned by Pablo Escobar. Fyre Fraud mostly skips over this claim, just going straight into how, after the ad was posted, McFarland was in a mad dash to find an island to host the festival, before settling on Great Exuma, which has no history with Pablo Escobar. Fyre explains the origins of this selling point: originally, the festival was to be held on a key that was once owned by Escobar. As Escobar has been dead for over twenty years, the key has found new ownership, who want to rebrand the image away from drug smuggling. As such, part of the deal for the festival was that they do not mention Escobar at all in their advertising. So when they namedrop Escobar in the first ad, the deal was immediately off and they needed a new island. There isn’t any insight as to why they decided to just ignore the owners and mention Escobar–I guess they wanted to invoke not just regular private Caribbean island luxury, but crazy over the top Scarface-level opulence.

     One thing both documentaries show is the weird obsession the Fyre people had with filming part of the ad on Pig Island, a deserted island of feral pigs that had nothing to do with Fyre Festival. Per Fyre Fraud, everybody was super-excited to film on pig island, the island with pigs. Fyre has footage of Ja Rule on a conference call about the ad, where he insists that, as they paid “a lot of fucking money” for the ad, that if they want to film on pig island, they will film on pig island. Anyway, one of the pigs allegedly bit McFarland in the balls.

     McFarland wanted to parlay the attention from the festival into a $25 million investment in the Fyre app, from Comcast. After Comcast was alerted to apparent problems with the festival, they decided to hold off until after the festival before completing the deal. Without the investment, McFarland was short on cash, and resorted to outright lies to raise money from investors, and wire fraud to placate vendors he didn’t have the money to pay. He began to invent made up villa VIP plans, to get more cash from ticket buyers. Shortly before the day of the festival, it was decided to make it a “cashless experience,” with RFID wristbands pre-loaded with money to make purchases at the festival; in announcing this, Fyre encouraged people to load $3,000 onto the bands.

     And many people actually did load thousands of dollars onto the wristbands. What made the Fyre Festival collapse so entertaining on social media was not just how completely the festival fell apart–due a monsoon the night before, the festival ground was not even habitable, especially with floorless FEMA tents–but that it was happening to clueless rich millenials. The scam was big and brazen, but the victims were unsympathetic. If you’re spending thousands upon thousands of dollars to go to a music festival, then Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez just proposed raising your parents taxes. As on Fyre Festival tweet, from a person that won their ticket in a raffle, put it: watching rich folks suffer was “chicken soup for [the] middle class soul.” The youth of music festival goer underscores how unearned the wealth was–what 25 year old really has the kind of six or seven figure income you would need to drop ten ground for a weekend music festival. Plus, nobody was seriously injured, so it’s okay to laugh at them.

     The more somber Fyre raises the point that it was a minor miracle nobody was seriously injured–they were giving out thousands of dollars of free booze, and there were no lights set up, so when night came the festival ground was pitch black. One attendee describes running into a drunk women, who was panicking because they got separated from their friend. The event was such disaster that the plug was pulled the first night, and everybody was shuttled back to airport–and locked in, by a tourism ministry that didn’t want a bunch of drunk people wandering around the airfield, while emergency flights were scrambled together to get everybody back to the US.

     In the aftermath of the festival is when things really fell apart for Fyre. They weren’t just a late-night punchline, there was an FBI investigation. The Fyre app was DOA–but instead of letting the app developers go, McFarland announced that he would simply not be paying them; if this drove them to quit, they would not be eligible for unemployment. During a conference call, one of the Fyre employees says the company had committed fraud by advertising something they knew didn’t exist; Ja Rule becomes very defensive and insists it’s not fraud–but merely false advertising.

     McFarland gets charged with wire fraud over Fyre Festival. While out on bail, he then commits even more brazen fraud–using the email list of Fyre festival customers to advertise a new “NYC VIP” business, offering discounted tickets to high-profile events in New York. Most of the tickets were to events that didn’t even sell tickets–they offered tickets to the Met Gala, which is an invitation only event; they offered a meet and greet with Taylor Swift, who does not do meet and greets. This was a Nigerian Prince-level scam.

     While out on bail, McFarland also hired a camera crew to come to his penthouse to film him.There isn’t much reason why–McFarland appears to have just thought he could monetize his newfound infamy somehow. The crew films McFarland with Frank Tribble, who was the ‘face’ of the NYC VIP scam, and also with Angelo Roefaro,  who happens to be the press secretary for New York Senator Chuck Schumer. What Roefaro is doing at McFarland’s penthouse isn’t entirely clear, it is mostly likely PR work, but in Fyre he is seen telling McFarland to “keep my name out of your business” which certainly sounds like everything is on the up and up.

     The moral of the story of the Fyre Festival is how a society run on fantasy is open to rampant fraud. Other commenters have called the two documentaries distillations of the Trump era–fraud and lies wrapped up in a fantasy too good to be true, and with a businessman who is better at projecting success than anything to do with actually running a business.

     The most obvious difference between the two documentaries is tone–Fyre Fraud treats the whole thing as a comedy, as a scam that snowballs out of control, with McFarland as a failed entrepenuer that stumbles from one poorly thought business plan to the next, descending into outright fraud when all else fails. Fyre Fraud is more explicit about themes–about how Fyre Festival used Fuckjerry’s social media marketing create a image untethered to reality, an image so seductive and strong it plowed through multiple exposes about false advertising to sucker thousands of trust fund kids that are willing to pay top-dollar for some sort of “lifestyle experience.” In it’s more aggressive, ‘can you believe these people’ tone, Fyre Fraud has a stronger thesis and more memorable moments (“When you’re out on bail, that’s when you should be committing the least amount of crime” is one of my favorite quotes) than Fyre.

     Fyre is more somber, and casts the event as Greek tragedy–with contractors and other workers as Cassandras, that see the disaster coming but are powerless to stop it. Multiple people–in both documentaries–recall telling McFarland and Ja Rule that it just wasn’t going to happen–there wasn’t enough time, they didn’t have enough money, etc., only for their concerns to be ignored. Fyre has more information about Fyre itself, with little time for McFarland’s earlier ventures, but less context for the information it does provide. As an example, one of the interviewees in Fyre is Fyre’s personal pilot; he taught himself to fly with Microsoft Flight Simulator six months before being hired. He also appears to be one of their logistics people, pushing them to buy more toilets for the island and testing the tents. His actual job isn’t really spelled out. As mentioned above, it also leaves out information that might implicate people other than McFarland in the fraud.

    If you can only watch one documentary about the Fyre Festival, I would recommend Fyre Fraud. It is more entertaining, with stronger themes and gives a wider sense of scope.

 

And now, back to indefinite hiatus.