Brow Beat

With Hulu and Netflix’s Fyre Festival Docs, Instagram Influencers Get Their Gimme Shelter

Both movies blame millennials, but the problem is so much bigger.

The posters for Netflix's Fyre and Hulu's Fyre Fraud, side by side.
Photo illustration by Slate. Images by Netflix and Hulu.

If every generation gets the musical gathering it deserves, millennials may have grounds to sue the Fyre Festival for mass defamation of character. The equivalent of a Ponzi scheme for would-be social media influencers, Fyre leveraged paid endorsements from the likes of Kendall Jenner to gull thousands into buying tickets to a luxury music festival that, it’s now clear, was doomed from the start. Two new documentaries—Fyre, which arrives on Netflix Friday, and Fyre Fraud, which was surprise-released earlier this week—lay the blame squarely at the feet of Fyre organizer Billy McFarland, a self-styled visionary with a flair for marketing exclusive opportunities to the young and well-heeled. But a seller requires a buyer, and whether explicitly or implicitly, both movies frame the Fyre debacle as the end-stage product of a culture, and a generation, that values image over substance and prepackaged “experiences” over the risk-reward calculus of genuine adventure.

Fyre Fraud, which arrived on Hulu Monday afternoon, takes a more emphatic blame-the-millennials stance. (The directors, Jenner Furst and Julia Willoughby Nason, are millennials themselves.) The New Yorker’s Jia Tolentino turns up early on to describe the Fyre Festival as the equivalent of “this big snowball rolling down Scam Mountain,” gathering victims and cultural significance as it went. For Tolentino and the other talking-head commentators who appear throughout the documentary, Billy McFarland is both the product and the perpetrator of a culture in which the ultimate goal is “the performance of an attractive life.” It was what he sold and what he craved, driving around in a $110,000 Maserati and claiming to own millions in Facebook stock when his actual holdings were, according to the Securities and Exchange Commission, closer to $1,500. Before Fyre, he founded a company called Magnises that aimed to be the equivalent of a black card for millennial New Yorkers, but it was merely a clunky add-on to an actual credit card—McFarland made the prototype by removing the magnetic strip from a debit card and sticking it to a piece of black metal—and what he held out as insider access was merely a product of diligent Googling. (McFarland’s source for procuring “exclusive” Hamilton tickets turned out to be StubHub.)

Fyre Fraud is the only one of the two documentaries to feature an interview with McFarland, and it’s substantially more invested in him as a person, not merely a symbol. (According to the Ringer, McFarland offered to talk to the makers of Netflix’s Fyre, but he wanted $125,000, and they turned him down. Fyre Fraud’s directors admit they paid for his participation, but they won’t reveal how much.) We learn, for example, that McFarland’s personal origin story involves the time he charged a grade-school classmate with a broken crayon a dollar to replace it with a functional one.

But despite Fyre Fraud’s unique access, the insights into McFarland tend to come from other sources. As far as Billy McFarland is concerned, his mistake was that he dreamed too big and got in over his head, not that he withheld information from and lied to ticket buyers, investors, and the people he worked with. The film’s directors press him for clarification on camera, but he answers like a man who has yet to reckon with or pay for his crimes, skirting some issues with legal niceties and offering outright whoppers in response to others. (McFarland was sentenced in October to six years in prison for fraud.) When the filmmakers ask what happened to the more than $2 million in houses the festival claimed to have rented for its guests—most of them ended up in repurposed FEMA tents—he claims, preposterously, that the festival paid for the houses and simply lost the keys. (Asked why he never got around to sharing that detail with anyone previously, McFarland just goes blank.) You could argue there’s some value in seeing McFarland ply his trade in real time, but the figure Fyre Fraud captures isn’t the persuasive con artist familiar from before the festival went splat. With no pipe dream to sell, he’s just an evasive weasel. Whatever the movie’s makers paid for his services, they’re not getting their money’s worth, making them just another in his long line of marks.

Where Fyre Fraud concentrates on the would-be Fyre Festers who bought McFarland’s pitch, Fyre, which was directed by Chris Smith (American Movie), focuses on the people who thought they were collaborating with him to build something special. (Neither movie is perfect, and each underlines the other’s flaws, but if you’re watching one, watch Fyre, which is both less self-righteous and less inclined to punctuate its insights with Family Guy clips.) Staging a music festival on a remote island with only several months’ notice ought to have been obviously impossible—and indeed turned out to be—but combined with McFarland’s relentless positivity, it seemed, at least to some, like the obligatory “they said it couldn’t be done” speed bump in a successful startup’s backstory. Music festival consultant Marc Weinstein recalls meeting with McFarland’s team and thinking, “These guys are either completely full of shit, or they’re the smartest guys in the room.” And even now, MDavid Low, who designed the talent-booking app the Fyre Festival was designed to promote, says of McFarland’s vision that “from a conceptual standpoint, it holds water.”

In both movies, the people involved with the Fyre Festival compare it to Woodstock. In Fyre, Andy King, an event producer who served as McFarland’s mentor and his entrée into the world of New York nightlife, says that no one talks now about Woodstock’s inadequate bathroom facilities or the cars left stalled by the side of the road. “If Woodstock could get through that,” he thought along the way, “Fyre Festival could make it.” So dedicated was he to the festival’s success, King says, that he at one point seriously contemplated going down on a Bahamian customs official to get them to release four trucks of impounded spring water.*

But the evocations of Woodstock don’t say about them what Fyre Festival’s collaborators think they do. Time and again, Fyre’s subjects say they were led astray by McFarland’s promises and their own aspirations. (Fyre was produced in part by Jerry Media, which ran the marketing campaign for the festival. Fyre Fraud suggests they knew the festival was failing and marketed it anyway, while Fyre mostly leaves them out of the story.) “The appeal was to be a part of something truly special,” Weinstein explains. “That desire overcame my inner wisdom, which was like, ‘This is a mess.’ ” But none of them pauses to examine what that “truly special” thing was. Woodstock was hardly a pure product of the counterculture: It only became a free event when ticketless fans tore down the fences. But it was at least nominally bound to some form of flower power idealism, not the hope that you might get to take a selfie with Ja Rule. Fyre’s ticket holders weren’t spending thousands of dollars because of a burning desire to see Blink-182. They wanted an opportunity to rub shoulders with the elite, to influence the influencers. It was a way for the 1 percent to advertise their access to the 0.1 percent.

One of Fyre Fraud’s subjects offers a capsule history of the American music festival, from Woodstock to Live Aid to Lollapalooza to Coachella, and while they don’t dwell on it, it’s hard to miss the transition from celebrations of a greater cause to expressions of personal identity and from opposing mainstream culture to buying into it. Furst and Nason cast this as a generational problem, but it’s really a societal one. Billy McFarland didn’t just con wealthy Instagram idiots into paying thousands of dollars for tickets. He duped investors into putting in millions. “The smartest guys in the room” was also the phrase used to describe the masterminds behind the Enron scandal, a financial fraud that dwarfs the Fyre Festival in scale and in the magnitude of its destructiveness (though Fyre emphasizes that it wasn’t only rich Americans who got ripped off—hundreds of Bahamian contractors worked for weeks without pay as well).* The way McFarland operated, burning through fistfuls of cash while assuring his employees that everything would turn out fine, is, if you remove the schadenfreude and cheese sandwiches, nearly indistinguishable from standard operating procedure for a “disruptive” startup. (I kept thinking of MoviePass.)

The Fyre Festival was the perfect catastrophe for the social media age, not only because of why it happened but how it was consumed. From a distance, it was thrilling to watch cosseted dum-dums freak out over minor inconveniences. (On The Daily Show, Trevor Noah joked, “Man, white people love camping unless it’s a surprise.”) It was like watching The Walking Dead, only you could root for everyone to get eaten. But as distant as that spectacle seemed, we live in a world shaped by that same relentless drive for the signifiers of privilege, in a country ruled by a con artist who built his brand on the conviction that the appearance of success was more important than the thing itself. You don’t have to buy tickets to that show, but you can’t afford not to watch it.

Correction, Jan. 19, 2019: This piece originally misidentified the nationality of the Fyre Festival’s contractors. They were Bahamian, not Bermudan.