Netflix and Hulu Recount the Fyre Festival

These hurricane tents were the housing for Fyre Festival attendees. Photo courtesy Consequence of Sound.

The summer of 2017 was a mere two years ago, and yet it feels like ages since the world heard about the infamous Fyre Festival disaster. Scores of members of the middle class watched Twitter with glee as dozens of media influencers shared the horror stories of sopping wet mattresses, pathetic cheese sandwiches and the panicked realization that they were trapped on an island nightmare.

Despite the excitement and the memes, the metaphorical flames of the Fyre Festival scandal died down pretty quickly and was left alone. At least until not one, but two documentaries were released by Hulu and Netflix, each with a unique take on the revolutionary music festival turned disaster.

The Netflix documentary was created by Jerry Media and Vice, the company hired to do the social media for Fyre. They had inside looks at the birth, creation and destruction of Fyre. They also saw the actions of Billy McFarland, the serial entrepreneur who was the main reason Fyre was a disaster.

The documentary released on Hulu, on the other hand, was created by Jenner Furst and Julia Willoughby, people who were not involved with the creation of the festival and so approached the event with an outsider’s perspective. There were some key differences in the style and approach the documentaries took.

Hulu kept the release of “Fyre” largely under wraps until its surprise release a mere four days before Netflix’s “Fyre Fraud,” which was extensively advertised before its release. Towards the end of Furst and Willoughby’s documentary, there were some subtle digs at Jerry media who, despite claiming that they were misled by McFarland, are still under investigation for their involvement in the festival fraud. 

Netflix’s “Fire Fraud” had several interviews with people working and interacting directly with McFarland and his co-creator, rapper Ja Rule, during the entire process. These accounts spanned from the creation and release of the viral teaser for the Festival, to the days immediately following the festival weekend, when McFarland and everyone connected with him were subject with FBI investigation for fraud.

The documentary had clips of loud and exciting parties McFarland threw on the island where Fyre was originally supposed to be held – at least, before they got kicked off that island for boasting that it used to be owned by infamous gangster and murderer Pablo Escobar, one of the first of countless mistakes.

The interviewees talked about McFarland’s stubborn insistence on adding more and more expenses that his team could not afford to the event, of Ja Rule’s increasing distance and lack of involvement as the event grew closer and of McFarland’s blindness to the massive failure he was creating by refusing to scale anything down.

At one point, a gay former employee recalls how McFarland told him to have oral sex with a customs employee to avoid making payments that they could not afford. The actions involved in planning the event are horrifying but fascinating, and the viewer can’t help but be enthralled at the unfolding events.

In contrast, Hulu’s “Fyre” takes a distant, all-encompassing view, looking at the years before the event and sweeping up to the present-day, with the rumors of Ja Rule’s desire to start plans for a Fyre Festival 2.0, which has since been made official. While they don’t have as many inside looks into the creation of the festival, they did get an interview with McFarland himself after the event was over and he had been arrested, and the viewer can see him lie outright to the interviewers with the claims that he did not commit fraud. They also look closely at McFarland’s background and what could have led him to lead such a grand-scale, hugely publicized event into the ground.

The interviewees were primarily news reporters and festival organizers who watched the event as it was happening and could see the red flags as they were popping up: the lack of any social media updates on the festival and Instagram accounts being blocked when they went to the Fyre Festival page to demand answers about where their money was going.

The Hulu documentary also had more humor to it. It’s a lot easier to find a disaster funny when it’s not your reputation on the line, and Hulu’s documentary had cartoon clips and tv show references throughout the documentary, and the last few minutes dedicated to playful music and the quote, “It’s a great time to be a con-man in America.”

Furst and Willoughby display dark humor as they focus extensively on how easy it is for a single talented businessman to exploit Americans and their desire for exclusivity and privilege. And judging by Ja Rule’s plans for a new Festival and Billy McFarland’s current venture as a music entrepreneurship teacher in prison, the story isn’t over yet.

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