Netflix and Hulu released separate films within days of each other in January 2019 that are both about the #epicfail of a big musical shindig on a tropical island involving some white dude. I didn’t know much beyond that and quite honestly, I wasn’t too far off.
If you're interested in Fyre but not game enough to spend more than three hours of your life watching two movies about it like I did (!) — here's what I learned from both films and which one I think is best.
Both documentaries highlight how 27-year-old William “Billy” McFarland scammed hundreds of people into buying tickets for Fyre Festival, a Coachella-esque event in the Bahamas. Fyre was scheduled to happen over the course of two weeks in Spring 2017. Gourmet meals, luxury lodging options and the chance to see big-name musicians were all part of the package offered to prospective attendees.
Ultimately, both films reveal the many reasons for the festival’s downfall and McFarland’s eventual debt of more than $25 million, which led him to be sentenced to six years in federal prison.
So how and why did Fyre get as far as it did without burning to the ground from the very beginning? Keep reading!
Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened (Netflix)
The Netflix documentary opens with a shot of a beautiful island. The music playing underneath has a mystical and tropical vibe to it.
Since this was the first of the two movies I watched, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but the camera filters were gorgeous so I was hooked. Names of the film’s production team fade on and off screen. Then McFarland is mentioned as Fyre Festival’s co-founder (the other co-founder being rapper Ja Rule).
The first batch of interviewees suggested something bad was about to go down. There was a hint of disappointment in all their voices, but one interview in particular sent me mixed signals. A little after the two-minute mark, event producer Andy King says, "I hope Billy [McFarland] doesn't go to prison for [his actions], but I don't know." That made me unsure of how I should feel toward McFarland. A little sympathetic, maybe?
Something else that stuck out was how much raw footage was included in the doc, which was captured in the moment as Fyre Festival's organizers were trying to put it together. I liked that element because it really helped me see how Fyre got as far as it did, and almost felt as if I was watching the event planning process happen in real time.
A big detail I missed until I read this article on Insider is that a handful of the interviewees on camera were also co-producers of the documentary itself. This was questionable considering those particular people also worked for Jerry Media, the same organization Fyre hired to market the festival — an integral part of how the festival was able to generate so much buzz in the first place.
Fyre Fraud (Hulu)
The Hulu documentary felt more like a critical analysis of the Fyre Festival rather than a documentary about how it came to be. The opening sequence showed white text on a black background with tense music playing underneath. I got an exposé vibe from the first five minutes (and from the title of the film itself).
The focus was clear: McFarland pulled a big oopsie and we’re going to learn why so many people believed in Fyre, even if it was doomed to fail from its inception. Overall, the film took a comical approach to millennial/social media culture and its contribution to the festival’s failure.
Journalists from publications like The New Yorker, ProPublica and Mic made up a solid portion of the interviewee cast. Not to mention McFarland’s model girlfriend Anastasia Eremenko, who reads letters he wrote to her from prison, and McFarland himself.
Now, McFarland's inclusion is causing controversy because The Ringer found out the Hulu documentary paid him for that interview and raw footage. This creates an ethical dilemma for the “Fyre Fraud” filmmakers, who have been criticized not only for paying a source (a no-no in journalism) but also a person who defrauded other people of money (as seen in both documentaries).
It's not clear exactly how much McFarland was paid, but the film's director told The Ringer it was “less than $250,000.”
All in all, there’s a lot of shady shit that went down in the event itself and how it was documented in both films. Putting the drama aside, I was entertained by both productions as much as I was SMH in cringey disbelief. What I appreciated about watching each of them was how they captured the importance of social status for today’s young people.
Between the two, I'd recommend watching the Hulu doc, since it's more critical of Fyre (and doesn't seem quite as shady as the Netflix movie in terms of how it was made). But both Netflix and Hulu should have known that paying the people who made Fyre happen — whether that's Jerry Media or McFarland himself — was bound to get them burned.