A pair of documentaries in the Emmy race reveal how the notorious Fyre Festival went from a “you don’t want to miss it” music event to a “get me out of here” catastrophe in the Caribbean.
Hulu’s Fyre Fraud earned an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Writing for a Nonfiction Program. The Netflix documentary Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened, meanwhile, scored four nominations including Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Special and a directing nod for filmmaker Chris Smith.
As Smith’s documentary shows, the Fyre Festival began as the brainchild of young entrepreneur Billy McFarland, mostly intended to showcase a talent booking app he was launching with rapper Ja Rule. Variously described as charismatic and extremely persuasive, McFarland had surely mastered the art of hype.
“It’s going to be the biggest event in a decade, I promise you,” McFarland blared about the festival planned for spring 2017. “For three or four days you can escape reality.” That’s what he said publicly, anyway; Smith found video of McFarland describing the event in different terms: “We’re selling a pipe dream to your average loser.”
The idea was to take over a secluded spot in the Bahamas (“Pablo Escobar’s private island!”), and throw a mega-music party as a kind of glamorous Coachella on the beach. McFarland intuitively understood the zeitgeist—the social media moment where millennials will pay good money to demonstrate to friends, family and envious “followers” that they are living the life.
McFarland spent lavishly on a promotional video for the Fyre Festival, hiring Instagram models like Bella Hadid and Emily Ratajkowski to tiptoe in the warm ocean waters, and influencers to splash news of Fyre on their feeds. Thousands of people snapped up tickets, paying between $450 and $12,000 for travel packages to the tropical dreamscape.
“It had a huge impact,” Smith says of the marketing campaign. “That part of the whole endeavor was obviously very successful.”
Then came the hard part—delivering on the hype. Smith’s film illustrates how it all went terribly wrong. For starters, the owner of the private island objected to organizers touting the Escobar connection, so he kicked them out.
The location eventually chosen—Exuma—lacked anything close to the amenities promised attendees. There was hardly WiFi available and no infrastructure to support a giant concert. And far from the posh cabanas seen in the promotional video, the primary accommodations amounted to spare hurricane relief tents. Still the Fyre folk pushed on with their furious construction campaign, like an ersatz Marshall Plan.
“They had every living soul on Exuma who could lift a towel, working,” comments a local restaurant owner.
“I think they did it backwards,” Smith observes. “Instead of figuring out what the festival was and figuring out how to pull it off and then marketing what you were going to do, they went out and created a video representing a fantasy of what they hoped the festival could be. And then they were faced with the reality, which was trying to figure out the logistics and the feasibility of actually pulling something like this off. And ultimately that was their downfall.”
McFarland was urged by several collaborators to douse Fyre before it was too late, but he refused. When festival-goers showed up—some of them sporting special Fyre wristbands they had loaded with with tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars to cover expenditures on site—they were in for a rude surprise.
Panicked by a shortage of water, food and adequate lodging, some partiers went into survival mode, turning the island paradise into something approaching Lord of the Flies.
“Some [attendees] were really terrified,” Smith affirms. “Others were trying to make the best of it. So you did have an actual range.”
Fyre Festival being designed as an event for the social media age, it didn’t take long for word to get out that a fiasco was in progress. In the end, one attendee’s post proved indelible—a tweeted photo of a sad sandwich of damp bread and sweaty cheese slices. This was the pedestrian grub provided instead of the promised gourmet fare. It became the viral emblem of the Fyre failure.
After the music acts pulled out the Fyre Festival was officially aborted. It became a FOMO (“fear of missing out”) situation in reverse—this was one party people were glad they had missed. While organizers and attendees suffered ridicule, for local islanders who had built the party city, the pain was economic.
“The stories of people that we obviously felt the most compassion for were the Bahamians,” Smith tells Deadline, “because they were sold this bill of goods by this flashy production and then sort of were left high and dry. And you saw so many examples of that.”
Smith helped launch GoFundMe campaigns to provide some restitution to islanders who were stiffed. The question around McFarland was whether he was just another self-styled visionary who had overreached, or a fraudster who had blithely cheated investors and paying customers.
The answer to that question may have come when McFarland pleaded guilty to wire fraud charges in connection with the Fyre Festival and agreed to surrender $26 million in ill-gotten gains. He is now serving a six-year sentence in federal prison.
The larger significance of Smith’s documentary is what it says about contemporary culture, characterized by compulsive “sharing” on Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat and the like, incessant self-marketing and the desire to turn ourselves into brands.
Smith says the Fyre Festival debacle speaks to “this idea of perception versus reality. They [organizers] were able to create some amazing facade, but what was underneath it was something totally different. And the way we’re portraying ourselves in social media a lot of times is the more positive aspects of life and what is underneath might not always be the same thing. So I think that as a reflection of where we are as a culture, it felt very much a story that was definitely of the times.”