The past couple of years have been rife with scams. A wannabe-socialite named Anna Delvey was charged with multiple counts of grand larceny after bilking New York business people and upscale hotels of hundreds of thousands of dollars. (And she wants you to know that she is not sorry). Brands are routinely paying big-name influencers upwards of $70,000 to post fake reviews about rival brands, and Gwyneth Paltrow’s $250 million Goop brand was accused in a stateside lawsuit and an international investigation of promoting health benefits for products without actually doing any of the necessary fact-checking.
Few of these scams, however, would top the epic failure that was Fyre Fest, which saw the now-jailed entrepreneur Billy McFarland dupe investors and music festival-loving millennials out of tens of millions of dollars in connection with an experience that was promised to be a more “transformative,” more luxurious, more model-filled version of the annual Coachella Valley Music Festival.
Set to take place on two consecutive weekends in late April and early May 2017 on a Bahamian island called Exumas, it was clear almost as soon as festival-goers touched down in the Bahamas that something was amuck. As these eager young people would soon learn, the lavish weekend for which they had paid between $1,500 and $250,000 for tickets was over before it even started.
Hordes of Fyre Festival attendees were left stranded by the festival’s organizers at airports in Miami and the Bahamas. The even more unlucky ones, those that made it from the airport – via yellow school busses – to the site of the festival, found that their “luxury villa” accommodations were little more than sparse, partially constructed tents; their celebrity chef-catered meals were actually scarce amounts of supermarket staples. Panic ensued and Fyre Fest was officially labeled a scam in a viral social media campaign.
Just months prior, a different kind of viral social media campaign was afoot. Orange boxes linking to a promo video for the still-relatively-mysterious music-filled getaway dominated Instagram. Behind this highly effective Instagram marketing ploy, though, was a trail of problematic ventures linked to Mr. McFarland.
As court documents in the several multi-million to-$100 million lawsuits filed against McFarland and co. have since revealed, the 28-year old New York-based business-builder – who is now set to serve 6 years in federal prison – is probably more aptly described as a career criminal, known for duping consumers and bamboozling investors out of money by “compulsively” lying, than he is an “entrepreneur.”
And Fyre Fest would turn out to be no exception. It was a fraud, potentially from the very beginning, and the signs were there (for those willing to do a little bit of Googling) from the get go. Yes, the seeds of this large-scale scam were certainly sowed long before the very first Fyre Fest guests started to arrive, pre-paid tickets and cash-less wrist-brands in hand.
You need not look further than the initial marketing of the fest, itself, as orchestrated by Jerry Media, the company founded by Elliot Tebele, the man behind the popular Instagram meme account @FuckJerry, for some red flags. While the entirely social media-based marketing campaign responsible for enticing thousands of 20-something’s to open their wallets wide, was wildly successful, it was also wildly fraudulent … and illegal.
You see, Fyre Fest largely found favor thanks to endorsements from a slew of highly-followed models and Instagram famous figures. Kendall Jenner, Bella Hadid, Hailey Baldwin, Emily Ratajkowski, and the life were enlisted to post imagery to social media of themselves cavorting in Exumas and urging their followers to buy tickets. Of course, it worked.
Roughly 5,000 people paid thousands of dollars to attend Fyre Fest’s inaugural outing.
The ugly reality is this: the vast majority – if not all – of the third-party promotion for Fyre Festival ran afoul of U.S. federal law, as every single one of the influencers contracted to promote the festival on social media did so without disclosing to consumers that they were being paid. This is a cut-and-dry example of what the U.S. Federal Trade Commission says is illegal advertising.
Festival-goers would learn that the exotic getaway depicted in those models’ Instagram images was far from what they could expect themselves.
It is against this background that both Hulu and Netflix saw an opportunity to tell the gripping story behind Fyre Fest. Netflix announced in December that it would release a carefully crafted documentary reflecting on the millennial madness of the Fest and how things went so terribly wrong.
A new round of drama was ahead. Just days before the debut of Netflix’s widely promoted film, though, rival Hulu dropped a bomb: a Fyre Fest doc of its own, entitled, Fyre Fraud.
True to form and in the spirit of all things Fyre Fest, neither film is devoid of behind-the-scenes complications of its own. For instance, it was revealed not long after Hulu dropped its film that the company had agree to pay McFarland an estimated $250,000 (though Hulu denies it was that much) to appear in the film.
Speaking to The Ringer last week, Chris Smith who direct the Netflix film, said, “We were aware of [the Hulu production] because we were supposed to film Billy McFarland for an interview [of our own].” The problem? “He told us that [Hulu was] offering [him] $250,000 for an interview. He asked us if we would pay him $125,000.”
Smith turned him down: “After spending time with so many people who had such a negative impact on their lives from their experience on Fyre,” he says, “it felt particularly wrong to us for him to be benefiting.”
Netflix apparently had no such qualms. Jenner Furst, who co-directed the film with his creative partner, Julia Willoughby Nason, does not contest paying McFarland, but says the sum is “less than $250,000.” Moreover, he has since clarified the arrangement, saying that Hulu paid to use behind-the-scenes footage and for an eight-hour interview with McFarland. No matter the actual dollar figure, what remains clear is that the money-changing-hands scenario is not revealed before, during, or after the film. The implication? The narrative is skewed and the viewer is duped.
Hulu is hardly alone in its impropriety, though. Netflix’s version is also an ethical quandary – just check its credits, should anyone actually watch those. In addition to being produced by Vice (which, for those who are wondering, is still in the midst of litigation for allegedly engaging in “systemic pay discrimination against female staffers”), is also produced by Jerry Media, the media agency founded and run by Elliot Tebele.
Not problematic on its face, the involvement of Jerry Media is questionable considering that the firm was responsible for all of the marketing for Fyre Festival. More than that, as Ja Rule tweeted this weekend, money also changed hands in furtherance of the Netflix production: “Netflix PAID FuckJerry, the same guys that did the promo for the festival.”
The implication here? A film produced by individuals affiliated with – or once affiliated with – Fuck Jerry, is likely to be skewed in a way to either diminish liability on the part of the media agency. There is also a very good chance that the final result is something of a marketing effort to drum up future business. In other words, the Netflix film could be an ad campaign-in-disguise for Fuck Jerry’s services. It would not be the first time that the agency directed and/or oversaw undisclosed advertisements/endorsements, after all.
Netflix has, of course, shot down an suggestions of foul play, saying in a statement, “At no time did [Jerry Media], or any others we worked with, request favorable coverage in our film, which would be against our ethics.” Netflix maintains that its version is “an unbiased and illuminating look at what happened.”
The dueling films do, in fact, shed light on just how much of a fraud Fyre Fest was, depicting, in particular, how far in advance of the first weekend that organizers knew – or should have known – that the festival would never make it off the ground. More than that, though, the films seem to further facilitate the scam that was already in play, by – as Entertainment Weekly characterized it – “put[ting] even more money in the pockets of people who perpetuated that scam.” In other words, Fyre Fest is the gift – err … scam – that just keeps on giving.
UPDATED (March 4, 2019): A lawsuit has been filed over the Netflix doc. According to the complaint that influencer and Fyre Fest attendee Clarissa Cardenas filed in a New York federal court late last month, Netflix and fellow “Fyre” documentary producer Jerry Media are on the hook for allegedly stealing one of her original videos from the failed music fest for the highly-watched film without her authorization, thereby infringing her exclusive right as the copyright holder to copy and display the video, and to create derivative works including the video.