Saturday, January 26, 2019
Like everyone else, it seems, I decided to watch the dueling Fyre festival documentaries on Hulu and Netflix. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, read this.) At first, I had moral qualms about it because they’re each a bit skeevy, in their own way: the Hulu one paid Fyre’s organizer, Billy McFarland, to sit for an interview – so he profits from it – and the Netflix one was produced by the same media team that promoted the Fyre festival.
Then I reminded myself that I don’t, ahem, actually pay for Netflix or Hulu, and I felt much better.
I’ve read a lot of reviews of the two films and most of them seem to prefer Hulu’s. I myself prefer Netflix’s. The Hulu documentary was a lot lighter on the specifics of how the disaster unfolded, and a lot heavier on trying to make a broad claim about “millennials” being in thrall to social media and influencers, a claim that I found facile.
My interest was more in the technicalities of how this kind of massive fraud is perpetuated, how people go along with it, and that’s what Netflix’s documentary is about. We get a lot of interviews with people who were involved with the project – including the residents of the Bahamian island where the festival occurred – and we get a clearer picture of what happened.
[More under the cut]
The thing that I find so striking about the Fyre fraud is that McFarland could have just taken all the cash he raised – from investors and from attendees – and simply run off. But that’s not what he did. Instead, he tried, in some sense, to stage the festival. He didn’t put nearly enough work or planning into it, he ignored obstacles and refused to hear complaints – we learn from Netflix that when one team told him that he couldn’t house people in tents, he fired them and hired new people with the festival looming two months away – but he was, in some real sense, working on the project. He was hiring contractors, he was on site, he was trying to deal with logistical problems. Yet it was plain he didn’t have anything like the resources he promised: the beach was a gravel pit, he sold villas and supplied FEMA tents, etc. I am just trying to understand that kind of mindset: Straight up theft I get, but to put that much effort into building an event that would be immediately revealed as a sham – that’s the part I have trouble wrapping my mind around.
In the Netflix documentary, we learn that after everything fell apart, McFarland stood outside crying. And I mean, yeah, I’d cry too, but it suggests a deep lack of awareness.
The conclusion I have to draw, then, is that McFarland wasn’t after the money, exactly, he was after the lifestyle he was trying to build for himself. He wanted to be the kind of person who put on these events and hobnobbed with the famous people who attend them. It was a fantasy he was constructing. And one of his employees interviewed for Netflix drew the same conclusion – she worked at his company (though not on the festival itself), and she also thought he was ultimately trying to build an experience for himself, one that included being a member of a wealthy, party set.
That said, there remains another aspect of McFarland's behavior that I find impossible to fathom. Both documentaries express amazement at how even after McFarland was arrested over the Fyre fraud and was out on bail, he started a new con: he contacted the people who had purchased Fyre tickets and tried to sell them tickets to other high-end events (that he did not have). I was less surprised by that - fish gonna swim, grifters gonna grift - than by the fact that he invited his friends to film him as he conducted the con, including moments where he instructed his co-conspirators what to say and do on their calls to the targets. The footage (only in the Netflix version) is unbelievable simply because it exists at all; I can’t tell if just pure vanity is at work here, or if McFarland convinced himself that somehow this was not fraud. And I suppose that’s what the defense attorney argues at trial: My client can’t have harbored criminal intent, because would he have filmed himself if he had?
The answer to all of this, as unsatisfying as it seems to be, is that committed fraudsters just don’t think about these things the way non-fraudsters do.
As for the people who went along with the Fyre boondoggle – he had event planners, music coordinators, a social media team in New York (the one who produced the Netflix documentary), and (as with a lot of these kinds of frauds), you’re left wondering – how did all of these people go along with this? And the answer seems to be the same as you’d find in any kind of fraud or even toxic work environment. People initially join the team thinking the project is challenging but exciting; they are swept up in the vision; they find more and more obstacles thrown in their path and as they focus on solving each one individually there are few attempts to step back and compare the reality of what they’re doing with the promises they’re making. McFarland intimidated everyone, and refused to hear dissent, and once the festival was only days away and the scope of the disaster-in-the-making was becoming clear, there didn’t seem to be an easy way out. The only path (it seemed) was to just try to make things work as best they could. One of the interviewees, Marc Weinstein, admits that in hindsight he realizes that by trying to overcome problems as they came up, he enabled the fraud. But at the time, there wasn’t that level of self-reflection.
One striking difference between the Hulu version and the Netflix one is – unsurprisingly – the portrayal of Jerry Media, the company that promoted the event (except at the time it had a slightly more obscene name that I will not repeat here; this is a family blog).
Hulu’s documentary includes interviews from a Jerry employee who handled a lot of the Fyre work, and he claims that both he, and his bosses, were aware from the start that the festival was never going to be able to live up to its promises. He tells a particularly dramatic story about how once people started to raise doubts about Fyre on its Instagram account – or even just ask basic logistical questions – Jerry would delete the comments and yank the poster’s access.
In the Netflix version, we get an interview from Jerry’s CEO, Mick Purzycki. He claims that since Jerry was based in New York, they had no idea about the status on the ground. Apparently aware that someone is going to ask questions about the deleted criticisms, he tries to spin it – he claims that Jerry was not supposed to be moderating comments, but one of McFarland’s lieutenants kept demanding they do something, and so they just went ahead and deleted everything to make him happy. It’s not a convincing tale, especially after Hulu’s charge that they were programming the account to automatically delete any words that could vaguely be associated with complaints.
Finally, the Netflix documentary spends some time on the toll taken on the island residents who did a lot of the prep work for the festival and were never paid. One restaurant owner tears up as she reports that she lost $50,000 supplying the festival with food. That part of the story, at least, has a somewhat happy ending: the New York Times reports that after the Netflix documentary dropped, viewers set up a GoFundMe account.