With both its rise and demise played out moment-by-moment on the internet, the catastrophic failure that was the ‘inaugural’ Fyre Festival of 2017 and its creator Billy McFarland’s subsequent imprisonment under fraud charges had a lot of social media on tenterhooks. It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that the two distributors lining up to showcase documentaries about the scandal in 2019 are online streaming platforms Netflix and Hulu. In the modern world, many of us debate which of the platforms deserves the loyalty of our alarmingly-diminished bank accounts: as a UK citizen who currently lives in the US, I pay for UK-successful Netflix and leech US-centric Hulu off a friend’s account while I’m in the States. Considering the healthy rivalry between the platforms, many have jumped to compare the two’s efforts at documenting Fyre Festival, a challenge which I have admittedly joined a fair few weeks late. However, given that I decided on this concept as an excuse to procrastinate on academic essays by scrutinising two films back-to-back, and then had to put the write-up on hold to complete said essays (hence why this review is a little hazy), I’m going to present this as if it isn’t the 313536th post on the subject and be glad I’ve finally completed it.
While I have been known to spend hours lurking on Twitter, searching desperately for updates on scandals that have piqued my interest – looking at you Caroline Calloway and your scammy workshop saga – I have to admit that much of the Fyre Festival scandal passed me right by. I can’t say for certain what I was doing with my time then, but clearly I was a more productive person then than I am now. I started reading up on the scandal when the failed ‘Tanacon’ in 2018 started drawing comparisons, but while I’d read up on the fundamentals briefly over a tea break one afternoon, these documentaries marked my first proper foray into this murky world. Put it this way: I am no expert on the subject, nor do I pretend to be. I am just a not-particularly-knowledgeable British woman in her twenties, appalled but not surprised at both the people constructing such scams and those willing to throw away copious amounts of money at it, which I believe is the state of mind of many who found themselves enthralled by this scandal.
In that aspect, both documentaries had an advantage, in that I wouldn’t be able to identify too many gaps in their narratives. I was approaching these documentaries as a relative newcomer to the topic: the state in which I presume many approach documentaries as a genre, with the intention to learn. So keeping that in mind, let’s jump into the documentaries.
Let’s start with Netflix. With its slick production and effective music, Netflix pushed the boat out production-wise: visually it felt like a much higher-end product than its Hulu counterpart, as I expect would be reflected in the funding (I admit I have not checked). To an extent, this did come across as pretty formulaic and expected of a documentary, whereas Hulu seemed to be trying to be more original. However, in this instance I’d give the crown to Netflix – it may not be trying to do much new, but it does what it does well, rather than a haphazard job at a less recognisable formula. Netflix’s documentary followed a clear progression of events, predominantly chronological but with a little bit withheld for apt moments of suspense. It was led by facts: unlike Hulu’s chronology, McFarland’s actions were presented before anyone’s judgements of him, allowing for audiences to make educated judgements from the beginning. Furthermore, while many of the interviews overlapped between Hulu and Netflix – and Hulu seemed to use its interview line-up as a selling point as I will discuss later – Netflix ended up with a much more solid set of interviews. Not only did it delve into the employees and companies that created Fyre and the customers who fell for it, but the islanders affected by it. While Hulu actually did a more in-depth job at factually describing the economic effects Fyre Festival had on the islands hosting it, Netflix succeeded in humanising its residents more than Hulu ever bothers to do, presumably as Hulu was preoccupied with constantly bringing its interviewing lens back to McFarland himself.
Saying this, Netflix did cut corners. There were many areas that were underdeveloped. For one, the power of social media was an important element in the rise of Fyre Festival, and yet this element was criminally overlooked in Netflix’s film. Furthermore, while Netflix gave a comprehensive background on the Fyre app, it jumped around a lot in its chronology of McFarland’s Magnesis cards, leaving the narrative susceptible to confusion from people unaware of this element of McFarland’s business history. Despite this, Netflix does create a coherent and easy (enough) to follow narrative with enough content for both the novice and the expert, laid out in a manner that is effective to all audiences.
In comparison, Hulu tried to be more original, but ultimately fell short of its rival on basic narrative and moralistic standpoints. It followed a less formulaic documentary standard than Netflix, which was in part refreshing, however at times it felt very juvenile, with otherwise-coherent interviewees reeling off impromptu cringe-worthy lines such as ‘Luxe, NYC, blah-blah-blah, marketing’ as if an improper use of language is meant to be appealing to young people: a move I found to be not only incredibly forced and insincere but actually a bit offensive to the intelligence of the viewer. Opening up with a second-person ‘you’ narrative is a great idea to bring someone into the story and ask the audience to question their choices. However, when the story you are spinning is one of a very rich, privileged young man who walks straight into a trap despite -as he puts it- it being ‘obvious fraud’, it has to be said that to anyone with an iota of common sense would not envisage themselves in this person’s shoes, but rather go “what the hell are you doing, you idiot?” Not a great start, especially with Hulu trying so hard to seem relatable to its audience. And herein lies a large part of the problem: Hulu tries so hard to reach out and seem relatable to a young audience, but in my eyes (as someone within the demographic it is trying to reach, might I add), it falls completely short. Yes, here may be a modern-day problem of ‘looking at our phones a hundred times an hour,’ but a whopping amount of the young audience watching probably don’t give a flying f**k about ‘wanting to go to rich parties’ or ‘meeting rappers.’ Everything that Hulu uses as a hook to make the scam of Fyre seem enticing to young people sounds like my living hell, to be honest with you, not to mention absolutely reeking of privilege. And while these elements are – as Hulu points out – all contributing factors that allowed the catastrophe to happen in the way it played out, Hulu makes the mistake of trying to conflate the young viewers watching its documentaries as being as media-brainwashed, popular-culture obsessed and ultimately privileged as those entwined in the Fyre Festival saga in the first place. Given that much of the intrigue stemming from Fyre appears to be how it could have happened in the first place, it seems (in my mind, anyway) to be unlikely that the people who, like me, want to get their kicks out of reading about the downfall of such events were the people enticed to attend in the first place.
And that is ultimately where Hulu slips up: the whole documentary manages to tar all young people with the same unsympathetic brush. The one aspect that Hulu really delved into which Netflix did not was the negative impacts of social media ‘influencer’ culture: in hindsight, whilst I felt its omission in Netflix’s documentary, I’m also left wishing Hulu had not decided the subject warranted such coverage as they gave it. It is a fundamental aspect of Fyre Festival’s branding, and ultimately, one of the elements that both brought it to popularity and caused its impact. While Netflix made a huge error in glossing over the impacts of toxic social media culture on our society, Hulu made the error of over-addressing it, and from the wrong angle. Rather than acknowledging the strength of social media culture in drawing in unsuspecting young persons, Hulu appeared to be branding toxic media as an ingrained trait of ‘millennials’ in what ultimately came across as an offensive attack on a diverse group. It failed to distinguish between youth, wealth and background in brandishing young persons with the same brush, as ‘easily influenced’, ‘fickle’ and ‘narcissistic’. The first thirty minutes of the documentary really hammered home the weak will of the millennial (as if it were a singular species), and combined with the aforementioned attempt to ‘soften’ McFarland’s character, ultimately appears as if Hulu are ‘justifying’ McFarland’s behaviour, as millennials are responsible for creating such possibility to be exploited. While I agree that the modern day and age allows for more people (not specifically millennials) to be influenced and manipulated by outside sources – and that the many exorbitantly rich people paying astonishing amounts of money for things like Fyre Festival are setting themselves up to get burned eventually – Hulu’s outlook reeked of passing the buck from the convicted serial fraudster to the victims who fell for him. One thing that should have been made clear in critiquing the toxic influencer environment that helped McFarland further his fraud is that, regardless of how the system facilitates his behaviour, that behaviour is criminal. In overdoing the extent to which (unfairly targeted) millennials are supposed to be promoting toxic social media influencer culture, Hulu drop all notions that illegal behaviour that festers there is still ultimately in the hands and choices of people deciding not to abide by the law. Not a good look, Hulu.
Hulu probably paid big bucks for its lucrative interview with Fyre Festival ‘mastermind’ and convicted fraudster Billy McFarland, which was ultimately one of the reasons it fell flat for me. While interviewing McFarland certainly created an insight into just how deluded and downright cruel the man is, the sheer amount of almost-desperate-defensive McFarland – accompanied by insistence from his girlfriend that he is a ‘good guy’ and that age-old ‘he was an angel when he was a child’ parent sob story – ultimately felt very familiar to me as that ‘never-can-do-wrong’ rich white man narrative we hear from many biased news outlets, where the convicted criminal/fraudster/abuser/terrorist is coded as an ‘angel gone wrong at the hands of someone/something/society’ as long as he is white, with little regard for the crimes he has actually been convicted of. While moments of McFarland’s interviews did come across as I presume -and hope- Hulu intended, as an arrogant and selfish man out of his depth, many of the segments just present his attempts to justify his actions with no surrounding counter-argument or fact-check. In one instance, McFarland’s girlfriend’s gushing about how romantic he is, and how he was just ‘misjudged’, were presented way before any facts into the severity of his crimes: the chronology feels constructed to create a ‘wholesome’ image that will be harder to tarnish once his crimes are discussed. Ultimately this just allowed the convicted fraudster’s begging to go unchecked. It’s a narrative I’m almost certain we didn’t need.
Ultimately, if I had to recommend one documentary, it’d be Netflix’s Fyre. Gets all the information you need across clearly, if in a slightly formulaic manner; however, it is a slick, enjoyable enough piece of documentary film-making with more than enough backstory to keep anyone -regardless of prior knowledge- clued in on the topic. If you are cynical of society or like your documentaries to do your thinking for you (and perhaps are a little prone to being convinced) then maybe Hulu is more up your alley. At the end of the day, both do particular elements well, and if like me you watch both back-to-back, there will be a lot of overlap: certain moments will meld into one. If you are only after an oversight, either documentary would do the trick.
NETFLIX: FYRE – 3.5/5
HULU: FYRE FRAUD – 2/5
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