As you’ve no doubt heard by now, two competing documentaries about the Fyre Festival hit their respective streaming services this past week. Can you believe it hasn’t even been two years since the Fyre Festival? The Fyre Festival was the Kennedy assassination of the social media age and we all remember where we were when it happened. Online, of course. We were all online.
Hulu’s Fyre Fest documentary, Fyre Fraud, hit first. Directed by Jenner Furst and Julia Willoughby Nason, it debuted Monday of last week, and for sheer entertainment value, it’s the superior of the two. It seems to take a more skeptical view of the whole enterprise, from the Fyre Festival itself to founder Billy McFarland to the entire techno-utopian entrepreneur industrial complex that spawned him.
Whereas the Netflix version, Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened, directed by Chris Smith, previously of the all-time great documentary American Movie, feels much more sympathetic to many of the ancillary characters in the drama, the advertisers and programmers who helped plan the festival and develop McFarland’s app (supposedly) in good faith. Fyre Fraud takes a more “if you didn’t know better, you should have” approach, and doesn’t shy away from doling out blame to Billy McFarland’s New York cool-guy enablers.
Both documentaries have their strengths and weaknesses — Fyre Fraud is particularly strong in its depiction of Billy McFarland and the societal forces that spawned him, while Fyre‘s strength is in the specific detail of where the festival itself broke down and who ended up getting burned the worst in the aftermath. Fyre extends perhaps too much empathy to the New York techies and marketing people who helped McFarland advertise and plan the festival, but that same empathy is also extended to the Bahamians, the day-laborers, and lower-level tech workers and all the lasting consequences they faced because a wannabe entrepreneur refused to face reality — this ends up becoming Fyre‘s strength. And in that aspect, it’s stronger than Fyre Fraud.
Of course, there are procedural explanations for how each respective documentary turned out the way it did, and the creators of each have both criticized the ethics of the other. Fyre offers a more insidery view of creating the initial Fyre Fest viral ad campaign, undoubtedly because the filmmakers struck a deal with Jerry Media (which began as the FuckJerry social media accounts) and subsequently had access to all their footage.
Fyre Fraud focuses more on Billy McFarland and his origin story, undoubtedly because they were able to get McFarland to agree to an interview (they also use lots of stock footage from NBC shows, because Hulu owns the rights to them). Smith subsequently called out Furst and Nason for paying McFarland for his interview (McFarland reportedly told Smith Fyre Fraud was paying him $250,000, while Furst and Nason say the amount was far less, and knowing McFarland’s history of inflating numbers, that’s probably true) while Furst and Nason call out Fyre in their movie for partnering with Jerry Media, who in their view helped cause the disaster in the first place.
For what it’s worth, McFarland’s participation in Fyre Fraud doesn’t seem to win him any more of a sympathetic depiction. Whereas Jerry Media, by contrast, does seem to get the sweetheart treatment in Fyre — particularly in a section where a commercial director is talking about how Fyre Fest hired all the best people “best models, best video directors, best social media company…” at which point Jerry Media’s logo appears on the screen like an infomercial. (Wait, weren’t those the guys who got famous reposting other people’s memes? Fuck those guys.)