Film

Netflix and Hulu Release Contrasting Documentaries on the Fyre Festival Scandal

Hulu got out of the gate early, dropping Fyre Fraud as a surprise one week ahead of Netflix’s planned release of Fyre. Watching the films, an interesting contrast emerges.

Attendees at Fyre Festival, from Fyre (courtesy Netflix)

In April 2017, millions watched as the latest tech grift imploded extremely publicly on social media. Hundreds of people who had paid upwards of $12,000 for tickets to Fyre Festival, which was promoted as a luxury tropical Coachella, were instead stranded on a barren piece of the Bahamas over a weekend, their anguished Twitter and Instagram posts providing much merriment for the internet. Fyre Festival was meant to mark the prestigious launch of the Fyre app, the “Tinder for PR.” Instead it unraveled into a mess of lawsuits to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars. Fyre Media head Billy McFarland has since been sentenced to six years in jail for wire fraud.

Now, streaming giants Netflix and Hulu both have documentaries about the Fyre Festival scandal coming out. Hulu got out of the gate early, dropping Fyre Fraud as a surprise one week ahead of Netflix’s planned release of FyreWatching the films, an interesting contrast emerges. Both tell the same story, of course. And both have their own behind-the-scenes issues with possible conflicts of interest — Fyre was co-produced by Jerry Media, which also promoted Fyre Festival, and Fyre Fraud paid Billy McFarland an undisclosed sum in order to interview him. But there’s much less overlap in the movies’ characters and artistic approaches.

Rapper Ja Rule and Fyre Media head Billy McFarland promoting Fyre Festival, from Fyre (courtesy Netflix)

Netflix’s Fyre is told mainly through interviews with former Fyre Media employees, who are able to lay out the anatomy of a scam from within. With hindsight, they can recount all the red flags that should have warned them away from placing their trust in their leader, but each one explains how they were able to ignore their better judgment. Director Chris Smith has demonstrated an affinity for offbeat subjects in his career (a small-town filmmaker in American Movie, a survivalist in Collapse, Jim Carrey in Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond), and Billy McFarland, a uniquely 21st-century grifter, fits this mold well. However, Fyre does not feature McFarland himself. He is instead studied through secondhand recollection and primary documents — an enigmatic figure whose appeal we’re left to parse on our own.

In contrast, Fyre Fraud has the man himself present to attempt to account for his actions. Given what we’re told of him (Fyre Media wasn’t his first fishy business venture), there’s little reason to trust anything he says, and so his interviews instead make the viewer scrutinize him and suss out whether these are his true feelings or simply how a liar tells their story. While it snagged McFarland, the Hulu doc has fewer Fyre Media insiders on hand. Instead, directors Jenner Furst and Julia Willoughby Nason assemble a roster of experts on the media and social dynamics to explain what happened.

Fyre Festival’s “burnt orange” preview taking over Instagram, from Fyre Fraud (screenshot by author for Hyperallergic)

That inside-versus-outside approach extends to the films’ respective visuals and settings. Fyre begins with footage from an early Fyre Festival promo video. Fyre Fraud does the same, but rather than open on the footage itself, it instead establishes the scene with a shot of a basement futon and a figure pulling out their phone. It continually positions the viewer at a remove, much in the same way that most people first learned of Fyre Festival by seeing news on their phones. Where Fyre is told mainly in a straightforward format from the point of view of people watching their business fall apart, Fyre Fraud filters things through information age visuals. A shot from the Fyre Festival promo has the celebrities tagged Instagram-style, in order to get across how much information can be conveyed within a deceptively simple post.

A great example of the differences between the two documentaries is how they both handle Fyre Media’s first big Instagram push for the festival. It entailed posting nothing but a swatch of color — “burnt orange” — on their account. Fyre briefly comments on the move, but Fyre Fraud goes in depth to explain it, how the color was deliberately employed to stand out in people’s feeds and how online promotion often involves disruptive, sometimes baffling moves.

The infamous Instagram post of the “meals” offered to guests at Fyre Festival, from Fyre (courtesy Netflix)

The differing approaches leave each movie with a different emotional heft. Fyre doesn’t flinch from how the Fyre Festival disaster hurt many of the people wrapped up in it. The incident may be a joke to many, but there was serious harm done beyond some millennials getting stuck on a beach. Bahamanian locals lost vital work, Fyre employees were driven to the brink trying to sustain an unworkable venture, and one hapless executive claims he was pushed by McFarland to offer a water supplier sexual favors to ensure they got an order filled. Fyre Fraud‘s more intellectual, less personal point of view means it doesn’t have that kind of impact. Neither film is necessarily “better,” but what you’ll get out of either depends on what you want from your documentaries.

Billy McFarland post-scandal, from Fyre Fraud (screenshot by author for Hyperallergic)

Fyre Fraud is now streaming on Hulu. Fyre will be released on Netflix and in select theaters on January 18.

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