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Beyond Schadenfreude: Why Netflix’s Fyre Festival Documentary Isn’t Interested in Mocking Millennials

Director Chris Smith talks about the allure of Instagram, what the media got wrong about the music festival debacle, and why we haven’t heard the last of Billy McFarland

“The actual experience exceeds all expectations.” That was the promise made at the beginning of a promotional video to advertise Fyre Festival, an exciting new music festival that was set to launch in the Bahamas at the end of April 2017. The video, released early that year, offered plenty of attractions: immaculate beaches, beautiful oceans, incredible performances, and most importantly, gorgeous supermodels as far as the eye could see. “The best in food, art, music and adventure,” bragged one title card, and there was nothing in the 100-second video to suggest that Fyre would be anything less than paradise.

There was only one problem: The organizers had to put together the festival, and there simply wasn’t enough time. This reality didn’t deter Billy McFarland, an entrepreneur who founded Fyre Media, which initially was focusing on an app that would allow customers to book high-profile musicians. McFarland, along with rapper Ja Rule, created Fyre Festival as a way to raise awareness for the app, and if anyone could pull off this risky, expensive stunt, it was McFarland. After all, the then-25-year-old New Yorker had demonstrated a knack for spotting trends, previously founding Magnises, a black, metal credit card that became a status symbol for affluent millennials. McFarland knew how to sell a cultural experience, and he was determined to make Fyre Festival his next triumph.

He failed, spectacularly. Plagued by bad weather, poor planning and company infighting, Fyre Festival became the wrong kind of media sensation, with reports flooding social media of insufficient food, canceled acts and terrible housing conditions. (Instead of chilling in luxury cabanas, festivalgoers had to fight over flimsy FEMA tents.) Aspiring to be an epochal event akin to Woodstock, Fyre Festival became a modern-day Woodstock ’99, a debacle that allowed those in the media not just to condemn the concert but use it as cudgel to criticize an entire generation.

Any documentary about Fyre Festival would seem to be a great excuse to engage in weapons-grade schadenfreude, but the superb Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened mostly resists the temptation. Instead, director Chris Smith, who previously made American Movie and Jim & Andy, recounts exactly what went wrong in the planning of this ambitious event, speaking to staffers, consultants and builders who worked behind the scenes as Fyre was going down in flames. Much like American Movie chronicled an aspiring horror filmmaker in over his head, Fyre is a portrait of individuals whose reach far exceeded their grasp. However, there’s one important difference: McFarland was more than a kid with a dream — as the film makes plain, he was also a scammer who was sentenced to six years in prison for fraud.

Smith’s Netflix documentary isn’t the only Frye documentary out in the world: Hulu’s Fyre Fraud was rush-released to beat Fyre into the marketplace. Of the two films, Fyre is the superior product, even though Fyre Fraud includes an interview of McFarland, whom the filmmakers paid for access. And yet, Fyre more fully embodies McFarland’s spirit, illustrating not just the allure of his appeal but also the monstrousness of his criminal acts. Plus, Smith’s film more thoughtfully dissects the reasons why Fyre Festival was such a seductive attraction to its potential audience — and he does it without mocking that audience.

I recently spoke with Smith about Fyre and Fyre Festival, and also how he views McFarland, whom he passed on interviewing for reasons he explains below. We also talked about the Instagram-ification of modern life — and what he thinks the media coverage got wrong about the festival and those who attended. (Hint: It wasn’t just a bunch of rich, spoiled kids.)

There are a lot of reasons to make a movie about Fyre Festival. What was yours?
What was interesting to me was to see if there was a different story than the one that was being told in the headlines. Most of the headlines just basically talked about rich kids or influencers who went and got stuck on an island — to me, that felt like a very one-dimensional story. I was interested to see if there was something else there. I was interested in trying to put a human face on the story and take you on the journey, try to create something that felt more relatable. [I wanted to] help the audience understand [how] the people that actually were on the ground, that were working with Fyre, were experiencing this.

It’s very easy to go into the story and look at it from “This was a failure, so let’s deconstruct how this happened.” To me, I was more interested in going back and trying to understand the excitement and promise that some people had seen in Fyre. And then document how that changed over time.

Much of the coverage at the time wanted to tie the festival’s collapse to some inherent flaw in millennials. You and I are both Gen X, which got its share of shit from the press when we were growing up, too. But do you think there’s something specific about millennials that made Fyre happen?
There’s been con-artist types or grifters throughout history. And there’s always an audience for them. But the mechanism was different — the mechanism was new in terms of the way that this unfolded. However, as misguided as this whole endeavor was, I believe that they wanted to pull off this incredible experience. They wanted to deliver this amazing luxury music festival in the Bahamas. But they did it backwards: They promoted the festival before they actually understood what the festival could be. And that’s where things fell apart.

Maybe that’s a reflection of these times, where the part that they were best at was the part that was in the world that they’re immersed in — living on Instagram, or being the children of social media. In terms of marketing the festival, they were incredibly successful at creating materials that tapped into this aspirational imagery that people are seeing on social media. And Billy recognized that people wanna be close to celebrity — they want exclusivity. They were very adept at recognizing that opportunity and capitalizing on it.

McFarland is a liar and a schemer, but like other people you’ve spotlighted in your documentaries, he’s also a dreamer. How did you balance those two sides of him?
That’s what was complicated, and that’s what we hope to reflect in the movie. [Fyre] is ultimately a character study of a very complicated individual. He was hard to pin down and fully understand. Some of the choices that he made were… I’m still unsure, after Fyre fell apart, why he would embark on that VIP access ticket endeavor.

Do you see any connections between McFarland and, say, American Movie’s Mark Borchardt? You have a tendency to do movies about men chasing after something.
They’re fascinating in terms of characters because they’re doing something that’s different. They’re engaging people in this quixotic quest. There’s a similarity in terms of the way that they create this energy around them — and they enlist people to help achieve these dreams that they’re chasing. Story-wise, there’s definitely a forward momentum that’s engaging and interesting.

But in [Fyre], the characters that you have compassion for and identify with end up being more everyone around the central figure — the contractors and [workers] and the people that were affected by Billy’s actions.

Fyre also seems to be addressing our modern age, in terms of the way that Instagram allows us to project a better, happier, sexier version of ourselves.
You’re talking about this idea of perception versus reality. And yeah, that’s reflected in multiple ways in the movie, and [one of the] most obvious is the marketing for this festival, which played into this false reality of what they were promising — this over-the-top luxury festival experience. The reality underneath was something that was quite different — they hadn’t figured out the logistics, and they didn’t have everything sorted in terms of how they would pull this off.

But [then there’s] Billy himself. He had a Maserati, and he was flying in private planes. He had a penthouse. He very much was a product of that idea that projecting this image of success will hopefully bring success. And in a lot of ways, it was working. People would see him and make assumptions based on the indicators that were present.

I understand that you didn’t want the film to just indulge in easy schadenfreude. But it’s hard not to enjoy the idea of these influencers and spoiled, pampered people going through hell once they arrived at Fyre Festival, right?
One of the things that becomes apparent is that people wanted to group everyone that went to the festival as one demographic. We found that it wasn’t that — life isn’t always that simple, or that convenient. One of the guys that we filmed, Seth Crossno, was a blogger from Raleigh who had created this character who was trying to be an influencer and was going down [to the festival] for that purpose. Some of the early tickets that were advertised were actually fairly inexpensive for this supposedly luxury experience in the Bahamas — for $1,000 for four days, that started to look pretty attractive. From what we could tell, it [wasn’t] all incredibly wealthy, privileged kids that had gone down — it was more a mix of people that were aspiring to be a part of that culture.

I thought a lot about while watching Fyre, which is also about a promising enterprise that crashes and burns. I was curious if you considered any connections between what happens in your documentary and that one.
I didn’t specifically, but I definitely love that film. Ultimately, there is a huge part of [Fyre] that is a story about a startup — which, again, was something that I was pleasantly surprised to uncover. Many people just assumed that Fyre Festival was about putting on a music festival. I had no idea that there was this tech company that was a talent-booking platform that was using this to try to promote their app.

Another Fyre documentary, Hulu’s Fyre Fraudpaid McFarland to be on camera. You spoke with him about appearing in your film, too, right?
We approached him. [Fyre producer] Mick [Purzycki], who’s with Jerry Media [which helped put on Fyre Festival], had been in talks with Billy and had actually come to an agreement that we would work together in exchange for 12 percent going back to people that were defrauded. Then at some point, the conversation changed, and Billy wanted to get paid himself. He came to us and said he was being offered $250,000 from this other project. We said that that wasn’t what we had talked about and that we didn’t feel comfortable paying him after documenting so many people that had been hurt from his action. Then he came back to us and asked if we would do it for $125,000. When we turned that down, he said, “Would you do it for 100,000 in cash?” It was just something that didn’t ethically feel right to us.

Was there anything you were dying to ask him?
The questions that I would wanna ask Billy are the questions I could ask him now after he’s been arrested and could talk freely. My concern with doing an interview with Billy in the first place was just that he wouldn’t be able to be fully transparent on the stuff that would probably be the most interesting. I was willing to do the interview, but I wasn’t bending over backwards to do the interview.

I felt like the real story was in the firsthand accounts of the people that were closest to Fyre — their experience and their telling of how this thing really went down. And we went to great length to work with these people that were a part of Fyre Media, someone that worked at a high level at Magnises, the agencies that they enlisted, and all the contractors that they brought in. That’s where our focus was.

Fyre is a cautionary tale of how an ambitious idea can fail. While doing the research for the film, did you get any sense that there was something inherently wrong with the company that doomed this concert from the start?
That’s hard to say. They were a startup, and they were already bringing in money. They weren’t bringing in a lot of money — I think it was under $60,000, when they were claiming they had made millions — but at the same time, they did have a model that was generating income. That’s very different than a lot of tech startups that are just built on the promise of building an audience and eventually that they’ll be able to monetize that.

I think that, had they actually just stayed with the app, at least the business would have had a chance at growing and turning into something. I think that they got distracted by the festival, and ultimately, it led to their downfall.

I could never be a guy like McFarland, scamming so many people. The guilty-conscience part of my brain would say, “This is wrong, you shouldn’t be doing this…”
Yeah, I don’t think he has that. [laughs]

But ultimately, his life suggests that maybe it’s better not to have a conscience.
If you have that ability to just not feel remorse… The fact that he was back in New York and not focused on going back to the Bahamas and taking care of those people [after Fyre Festival collapsed]… I mean, it’s hard to say. Maybe he was back [in New York] trying to figure out the next business opportunity so he could raise the money to pay everyone back. I don’t know the answer to that. But from the footage that we saw and the stories and the people we interviewed, he didn’t seem to express remorse.

In the film, one of your interview subjects predicts that we haven’t heard the last of McFarland. How do you feel?
He’s gonna be out of jail in his early 30s. He’s so industrious in the way that he’s always thinking of the next idea. Just even while he was out on bail, he had numerous companies that he was exploring. One was the Instagram Awards, an Instagram award show that he was trying to put together. He seems very tapped into recognizing opportunity for a certain demographic. I don’t see that being a quality that will go away.

It seems like his past scandals, if anything, will only help his cachet.
Yeah, we’re in the era where “famous” and “infamous” almost have equal value. Even after Fyre Festival fell apart, one thing that was interesting to notice is that he was still going, still charging ahead. He was still operating in New York and still maintaining that lifestyle to some degree. I very much assume that when he gets out, it’ll be back to business as usual.