It’s the battle of the bastards.
No, Game of Thrones didn’t stage another epic fight scene. We’re talking about an even greater, real-life war: The unexpected throwdown between Hulu and Netflix as both online streaming services released documentaries about the epic rise and fall of the Fyre Festival, the infamous music festival that boasted it would redefine the music festival industry…which it did, but only because it was a full-on disaster that dominated headlines in 2017 and landed its founder Billy McFarland in prison.
Both documentaries chronicled how McFarland & Co. (including rapper Ja Rule, who has since defended himself on Twitter) attempted to pull this off, including the lead-up to the debacle, which was fueled by the influencer-driven promotional blitz on social media. (See a lot of #ad or #sponsored on your feed while scrolling? You can partially blame/thank Fyre!)
The films, each with their own ties to the Fyre Festival itself, just went about it in very different ways.
While Netflix had previously announced that Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened would be premiering on Jan. 18, Hulu, in a bold move in the ongoing war between the streaming services, pulled a Beyoncé and debuted Fyre Fraud unexpectedly…three days before their competitor’s doc was set to drop.
Netflix, as well as Fyre’s dictore Chris Smith, had no idea Hulu’s project was even ready to go, though they knew it was in the works.
But for Hulu, it was a strategic move, bolstered by the fact that they had one thing Netflix didn’t: an exclusive interview with McFarland.
Jenner Furst and Julia Willoughby Nason, the married directorial team behind Fyre Fraud, told The Los Angeles Times that Hulu felt “if viewers start here first, it would be a powerful way to get things started.”
And the move worked: Fyre Fraud received a lot of attention, dominating Twitter timelines and even capturing the attention of celebrity viewers (Chrissy Teigen was an early fan).
“Who wouldn’t want to have a day on which your film is trending on Twitter and celebrities are tweeting about it?” Furst told the publication. “It’s amazing that everyone dropped everything they were doing, including Chrissy Teigen, to watch, and I think it shows the appetite for this content. Which is why we have a collegial attitude with the Netflix team. Streaming wars — that’s not us.”
Regardless, a war was officially ignited, with Hulu making the first move against Netflix, the top dog in the streaming service game (100 million subscribers and counting).
But Netflix wasn’t about to get defensive; no, they went on the offensive, revealing McFarland, who is currently serving a six year sentence for defrauding investors, was initially supposed to sit down for their documentary.
“We were set to film with him on two different occasions,” Smith told Entertainment Weekly. “We had a camera and a crew and we were ready to go and then it would just get postponed right at the last minute. And then it just never ended up materializing.”
And that was because McFarland wasn’t telling his side of the story for free.
Smith later revealed to The Los Angeles Times that “Billy told us he was getting an offer for $ 250,000 and didn’t want to work with them, so he’d work with us if we paid him $ 125,000. It was hard, because we wanted the interview, but ethically, we just feel like it wasn’t right for him to benefit when other people had been hurt by his actions.”
Fyre Fraud, it seems, had no such discomfort. In their interview with the LA Times, the directors did confirm they paid the entrepreneur “to license footage and indemnify the production from his potential claims of defamation,” but shot down the amount Smith claimed he had asked for.
Ja Rule, the festival’s co-founder, claimed on Twitter, “Because Billy was involved with BOTH he was trying to get them to pay him and Hulu bit… I heard they paid him somewhere btw 100 to 250.”
In their interview, the Hulu filmmakers felt that they had excoriated McFarland and didn’t “let him get away with anything.”
Nason said, “We went in knowing we were going to be fed a lot of lies and a lot of trickery, but you have to be able to sit and comport yourself with people who have done heinous things in a way that allows them to open up.”
Furst added, “We didn’t want to let someone get away with word salad. But it would be very hard to tell a story like this without getting the perspective of the person who organized it. There were a lot of different portrayals of him, and it felt like from square one, we wanted to hear from the guy who was under fire.”
While they wouldn’t say how much they paid McFarland for the interview, Furst and Nason did point out Netflix’s potential hypocrisy as they partnered with Jerry Media (more commonly known as F–k Jerry), one of the company’s involved with the festival (specifically its social media campaign), for their film, gaining access to all of their behind-the-scenes footage and information.
“I find it a little curious that we’re being asked if we have an ethical problem when the Netflix project was produced by Jerry Media, one of the companies that ran social media for Fyre and deleted negative comments on the festival’s Instagram page,” Furst told the LA Times.
Fyre‘s counter argument? They did want Jerry Media’s footage, but “at no time did they, or any others we worked with, request favorable coverage in our film, which would be against our ethics,” the filmmakers told the publication in a statement.
But in an interview with The Ringer, the Fyre Fraud team further claimed that they had evidence that people at Jerry Media knew this festival was going to happen, at least not the way it was being sold and advertised. (Former Jerry Media employee Oren Aks participated in the Hulu doc, with the company claiming he “misrepresented himself.” His response? “Well, f–k you guys.”)
“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,” Furst said. “To me, I think it’s a little bit of the pot calling the kettle black.”
Anyone else hoping for a third documentary about the warring documentaries?
So yeah, both Fyre and Fyre Fraud each have their ties to the festival and the people responsible for the promised island getaway-turned-disaster that went down in the Bahamas in April 2017, but their tactics in recounting the Fyre Festival’s downfall and cultural impact were vastly different, even if they both feature some of the same footage and interviews with the same people.
In Hulu’s doc, the influencer industry’s, well, influence and lack of accountability is examined, with the opening scene detailing the FOMO the average person would feel as they scroll their feed and see “these wonderful, beautiful people in places that you’re not, doing things that you can’t afford to do, it really didn’t matter that these guys may be waifs, trustafarians and this guy hosting this party is an obvious fraud because many of these influencers are people that you follow, that you aspire to be, and also this rapper, whose music that you listen to, so when an opportunity presents itself…to be part of something that is culturally relevant, you’re going to absolutely jump at that.”
In an interview with The Ringer, Furst said their main objective with Fyre Fraud was to create “a bigger thinkpiece about our generation that was a cautionary tale with deep implications that relate to our political system, to our current president… something far beyond just a meme quality.”
Featuring interviews with journalists, social media strategists and his former employees from his first company, Magnises (which Fyre Fraud tracks the quick rise and demisre of in tidy fashion), the film examines the power of influence, how the shiny lie sold by the Fyre Festival on social media blinded many, leading them to ignore warning signs and facts.
Ironically, many millennial references are used to describe McFarland and his team (“The Office with no redeeming qualities”) and their ventures (comparisons to Parks and Recreation storylines), while viral clips are also used to drive home points about the generation McFarland embodies the worst traits of—scenes from Keeping Up With the Kardashians and Family Guy, and Lena Dunham on Girls are played to emphasis and highlight the millennial plight, and Showtime’s Billions, your uncle’s favorite show, is used to describe one of the legal situations.
What Fyre Fraud lacked in insider intel (via e-mails, footage, etc.) it made up for in social commentary, even turning some of its scenes into memes (like McFarland passed out face-first with the caption “That feeling when you realize you owe $ 900K in alcohol taxes”).
The doc’s thesis statement was basically provided by Ben Meiselas, a partner at Geragos & Geragos, who said, “It would be perplexing and funny if it wasn’t criminal and it is criminal. But it still is perplexing. And still a little but funny, but still horrible.”
The funny part was highlighted via interviews with some of the influencers who did attend the festival, along with footage they shared.
“My immediate reaction was we need to get out of here,” social media influencer Austin Mills recalled of arriving at the camp grounds.. “Like, #rescuemission. Um…” Another was a blogger who kicked off his influencer career by faking an influencer persona, becoming part of the industry he initially lampooned. Multiple influencers describe their “brand” as “positivity.”
When it comes to the scope of each documentary, Hulu went macro, looking at the bigger picture of the culture that allowed the festival to even exist, while Netflix opted for a more micro approach.
For Netflix, many of Fyre’s former employees, as well as executives from Jerry Media, sat down to look back on the planning (or lack thereof) that went into the festival, before and during the weekend.
An inside look at the first (and only) commercial for the festival, featuring some of the top supermodels and influencers (including Bella Hadid, Hailey Baldwin, Chanel Iman and others) was given, and highlighted the lack of organization and vision McFarland, Ja Rule and the Fyre team had from the jump.
“Billy didn’t have no rules,” J.R., a former employee recounted,” He had everyone drinking, open bar, wiling out. It was like more of a party than a promotional shoot.”
And, of course, their infamous toast: “Here’s to living like movie stars. Partying like rock stars. And f–king like porn stars.”
While it was a chaotic shoot, it worked, as the photos posted by the celebrities garnered early and unparalleled attention for the new festival. Within 48 hours of launching their site, the festival sold 95 percent of their tickets.
But the documentary went into the logistical nightmare that was planning the festival: The bio-waste issues. The housing accommodations. The food. And when someone raised a concern or issue, like pilot Keith, they were asked to “step back” from the festival.
Members of the Fyre team that were based in New York City recounted the tense atmosphere at the time, with producer designer Shiyuan Deng recalling, “Friday afternoon, our favorite topic is ‘Did you get paid? And was it for the right amount?'”
Some of the other major interviews Fyre landed that Fyre Fraud didnt?
Marc Weinstein, a music festival consultant, who shared e-mails he exchanged with McFarland about the ongoing issues and problems (and memorably revealed he was supposed to be the festival’s yoga instructor). He also explained that McFarland held most of employee’s fees over their heads, as they weren’t set to be paid until after the festival.
One of the Netflix doc’s biggest viral moments came courtesy of Andy King, one of the event’s producers/McFarland’s mentor, who revealed he was asked by the founder to “save” the festival by performing oral sex on a customs official in order to secure water for the event.
But one of the biggest strengths of Netflix’s documentary was the focus on the heartbreaking impact the Fyre Festival nightmare had on the locals, with many being taken advantage of, including around 200 day laborers working day and night to set up the grounds.
After the documentary’s premiere, a GoFundMe campaign was started by Maryann Rolle, the restaurant owner who particularly resonated with viewers, after she revealed she went into personal debt after serving as the caterer for the festival, feeding the entire staff.
“As I make this plea it’s hard to believe and embarrassing to admit that I was not paid…I was left in a big hole! My life was changed forever, and my credit was ruined by Fyre Fest,” she wrote on the page. “My only resource today is to appeal for help.”
In less than a week, the campaign achieved its goal of raising $ 123,000.
For Smith, Fyre’s director, it was important for him to highlight the human element of the story that got lost in the viral spectacle of it all.
“One thing that I hope the film does,” Smith told EW, “is to show that there were a lot of really caring, conscientious people who killed themselves trying to make the festival happen.”
He expanded on that in an interview with Thrillist, saying, “I think in covering it you want to cover all the angles and see what the fall-out was. I don’t think that we knew exactly if that existed, and if so, how these people were affected. But in doing the research and talking to people, you realize there were real consequences for some of the people that were involved.”
Festival attendees participated in both documentaries, with one, Seth Crossno, even sitting down for both. (He and his friends won $ 5 million after suing McFalrand for damages in June 2018.)
For Crossno, he was more complimentary of working with Netflix, telling the LA Times, “Chris seemed like a very natural director…the Hulu doc…felt like their take is that influencers and social media is really to blame for the whole thing.”
Fyre did delve into the attendees’ experience on the ground, how it quickly went from confusion to fear, as there weren’t enough beds, enough staff, and at night, it was “mayhem,” as people were “ran-sacking” tents and mattresses, even “pissing on a few” the beds. “It became this looting mentality,” one attendee recalled. “It became very barbaric.”
What became a joke to the Internet (“People were stoked to watch this thing go down,” Weinstein said with a laugh) was a living nightmare for many of the festival goers who had spent thousands of dollars to attend. “My guess is most of them never went to sleep,” Jerry Media CEO Mick Purzycki said.
And in Netflix’s movie, some of the people working alongside McFarland take some responsibility for what happened.
“It’s possible by solving problems, we were just enabling them to continue to create this monster,” Weinstein said.
And for King, he told The Los Angeles Times he felt “personally responsible” as he convinced workers to stick around.
“I was there assuring everybody that this festival would happen when they wanted to pull the plug,” he said. “I kept saying, ‘Don’t worry. I have never been part of a project that didn’t happen.’ And I honestly thought it would happen.”
Of course, it did happen, with many involved still dealing with the aftermath.
Grant Margolin, the marketing director, was fined $ 35,000 and agreed to a seven-year ban on serving as a corporate director or officer. Crossno and his friends who won the lawsuit against McFarland are still waiting to be paid back, as are the investors who were defrauded a collective sum of $ 26 million by the founder.
Lee/Prahl/ Splash News; Getty Images
And that founder is ultimately the two docs’ common denominator, taking a closer look at how the now 28-year-old was able to convince so many people to give him money while delivering false promises as a beer bottle dangled from his finger tips.
Hulu gets the early edge as they had direct access to McFarland, with more time given to his childhood and early business ventures. (He shares what he possibly believes to be a charming story about adopting “a fake deep voice” on the phone while running his first company in fifth grade.) We also hear from his mother (via statement), and his girlfriend, Anastasia Eeremenko, who trembles from nerves as she tries to vouch for her boyfriend’s intentions.
In Netflix’s version, McFarland is just as charismatic and intelligent, with Deng saying he was “trustworthy,” while the word “genius” was often tossed around, usually in the same sentence as the words “scam” or “liar.”
At the end of the Hulu film, Aks, the former F–k Jerry employee, is asked who he believes is guilty.
“Everyone,” is his response.
But as both documentaries reveal, even after he was arrested, charged with fraud and out on bail awaiting trial, McFarland attempted to launch another business venture that was alleged to be another scam, NYC VIP Access, which claimed to sell tickets to events such as the Met Gala and the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if in 10 years we hear about some new thing and Billy is behind it,” Weinstein claimed at of Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Was.
Call it the millennial hustle.
Fyre Fraud is currently available to stream on Hulu, while Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Was is available to watch on Netflix.
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