It left hundreds of already underpaid local Bahamians high and dry without a paycheck. It endangered thousands of young festivalgoers, who — even if rich and spoiled — certainly weren’t the first kids to do really dumb stuff for the sake of having fun.
At least now we can say something good has come of the Fyre Festival, though. Or two good things, actually.
The Netflix film “Fyre” and Hulu’s “Fyre Fraud” are can’t-look-away good. The dueling documentaries came out just days apart in the past week and a half, and they’ve been all the rage on social media ever since. Never mind that it was social media that largely created this mess of a fest in the first place.
While their primary appeal comes from the classic American sport of rubbernecking — each offers plenty of wickedly warped laughs at others’ expense — the two competing films also offer a rather smart and valuable commentary on the selfie-worshipping, adventure-seeking, job-eschewing lives of many kids these days.
For those who don’t know, Fyre Festival was a woefully over-hyped, under-planned, inner-bro music fest that was to take place on the Bahamian island of Exuma in April 2017. Actually, it was originally supposed to happen on a smaller island once owned by Pablo Escobar, but basic infrastructure needs (like plumbing) made that location the first of many pipe dreams surrounding the event.
Fyre Fest’s 26-year-old, Mark Zuckerberg-wannabe hustler of a founder, Billy McFarland, and his celebrity partner, rapper Ja Rule, sold the Fantasy Island-like festival using little more than a barrage of ultra-savvy, shameless social-media images of yachts, jet skis, private villas, rappers and supermodels.
A few dozen glitzy Instagram posts is almost all it took to convince a few thousand rich, young blockheads to buy up VIP ticket and lodging packages that topped $250,000. Allusions to Darwinism abound in these documentaries.
How the festival came undone is the crescendoing storyline of each film. Scenes of festivalgoers arriving to rain-soaked, FEMA-branded emergency tents and semi trucks overloaded with high-end luggage are the ultimate money shots here. Even after watching the first doc, that footage doesn’t get old in the second one.
Each movie gets there in a modestly different way. Hulu’s version includes interviews with victims, influencers, well-informed observers and McFarland himself (who only says enough to confirm he’s a weasel). Netflix relies more on McFarland’s team members and associates, some of whom may be to blame as well.
The takeaway from both movies is the same, though:
1. Instagram is a sham. Hulu’s film especially makes clear just how artificial and outright fraudulent images on the popular photo-sharing app can be. Whether it’s a glossy picture of supermodels on a yacht, staged to the tune of a few hundred thousand dollars, or just a simple selfie on a beach that conveniently left out the mosquitos and inadequate housing, Instagram is shown here to be little more than a marketing tool built largely on FOMO (fear of missing out).
2. Good reporting is still valuable. In both docs, professional journalists who followed the Fyre debacle relish pointing out just how many puff pieces were written about McFarland and his multi-faceted Fyre brand in the year before the festival, including articles from the New York Post and Fox Business. Said one real reporter: “It doesn’t take much to trick a New York City media reporter into writing a story about how great your company is.” Even when writers for Billboard, Vice and a few other outlets did cast a pall on the fest in the days leading up to it, though, few attendees heeded the warnings.
3. Influencers are con artists, too. Instagram queen Kendall Jenner was paid $250,000 to do a single post to promote the fest, but of course they couldn’t pay her enough to go anywhere near the actual event. Other so-called social-media influencers who did make the trip, including Austin Mills and Alyssa Lynch, wound up paying for it dearly — truly some of the most relishable moments in these films. But that’s after they, too, got paid ridiculous amounts of money to tell their “followers” how righteous a party it would be.
4. Don’t blame it all on the millennials. Sure, the 20- and 30-somethings who swooped up tickets were easily conned, but they weren’t the only ones. McFarland also hoodwinked legitimate high-buck financiers, including the late Oklahoma energy tycoon Aubrey McClendon. As one commentator pointed out to Hulu, “Very smart financial guys ignored the facts based on the strength of [Fyre’s] social media strategy.”
Also, Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers thinking these problems could only happen to today’s youth should read up again on Woodstock and especially Woodstock ’99.
5. Do blame Blink-182 (and other performers). One of Fyre’s would-be headliners, the crooked-hat-wearing bro-punk band was the first to pull out just before the festival. “We’re not confident that we [could] give you the quality of performances we always give fans,” the band said in its announcement. If you were really concerned for fans, Blink dudes, how about warning them they should stay away, too?
6. Music festivals are hard work. Nearly everything that went wrong at Fyre Fest has to be done right at other festivals, and even when all goes well it’s tough to break even. (Remember the River’s Edge Festival that Live Nation spent $5 million launching on St. Paul’s Harriet Island in 2012? Maybe not, since it only lasted one year.) Hats off to the concert industry professionals that pull off big shows year after year.
7. There are real victims here. While it’s hard to resist laughing at carefree Fyre Fest ticket buyers, both documentaries make clear there was nothing funny about the island residents who jumped in to help but never got paid. As a result of these films, a GoFundMe campaign has been started to help a local restaurateur who reportedly got stiffed for more than $100,000 by McFarland.
8. Social media wasn’t all bad. Along with the aforementioned fundraiser, the other positive postscript is that social media is what finally put an end to the Fyre fraud. Despite organizers’ concerted (and deeply unscrupulous) efforts to scrape negative posts from Twitter and Instagram before the fest, smartphone-wielding attendees successfully used those platforms to spread the dire word once they got there.
One vastly shared Twitter photo of a depressing cheese sandwich from the festival’s “catering” tent became one of the most iconic images of the 2010s. Now if only Twitter could also be used to bring down larger, farther-reaching frauds.