“Let’s just call it what it is,” Oren Aks, the former head of design, marketing and social strategy for Fyre Festival, told HuffPost in a phone conversation. “The scammers are scamming again.”
Aks is talking about “Fyre,” the Netflix documentary released Friday, which chronicles the epic rise and fall of the elite music festival he helped advertise. Billed as a model-laden luxury romp on a private island in the Bahamas ― Pablo Escobar’s old island, to be exact ― the festival devolved into a profoundly sad anti-party. No models, no music, no beach. Worse: little food, no way to get home. The grisly reality was heavily documented by the festival’s social media influencer attendees, via photos of sad sandwiches, overcrowded airport terminals and a miniature tent city.
Billy McFarland, the scammer bro at the festival’s helm, is now serving six years in federal prison for fraud. A class-action lawsuit to recoup damages for the scorned millennial ticketholders is ongoing.
Aks’ beef with the Netflix film is simple. The Chris Smith-directed documentary was produced by social media agency Jerry Media ― i.e. Fuck Jerry, the same team responsible for making Fyre Festival a viral phenomenon in the first place. Aks once worked for Jerry Media, but he quit six months after Fyre went down in flames. Now he’s skeptical of a project that would allow individuals partially responsible for the events in question to play such a formative role.
“It’s weird to me,” Aks continued, “everyone involved in that [Netflix documentary] was involved in Fyre festival.”
Aks doesn’t appear in the Netflix documentary, but he does appear in the Hulu doc, “Fyre Fraud,” which unexpectedly dropped just four days before “Fyre” was slated to premiere, offering its own interpretation of the millennial meltdown on Great Exuma. The early release was shocking but far from accidental; Hulu debuted its doc on the same day Netflix’s review embargo lifted, meaning just as articles about “Fyre” hit the internet, viewers were stumbling upon “Fyre Fraud” ― the only doc available to stream at the time. Hulu effectively let Netflix do its marketing.
“Hulu surprise dropping its Fyre Fest documentary today, mere days before Netflix was set to drop its own, is the level of aggressive pettiness I’m here for,” Variety’s Caroline Darya Framke tweeted.
The trifling “own” felt like the kind of bad behavior exhibited by McFarland and company; soon there was more finger-pointing than attempts at taking responsibility for misguided decisions as the streaming platforms battled to promote their flawed but highly entertaining takes on the Fyre saga. Turns out, the surprise release was just the beginning of another descent, in which the two companies submitted to the very social media culture their films were attempting to critique.
Soundbites within the Hulu doc dial the aggressive pettiness up even further, explicitly calling out rival Netflix for bringing Jerry Media on board for its project. Jerry Media was behind the promotion of the festival, though Aks told HuffPost that he did “everything myself, from designing to coming up with the marketing strategy. It was just me.”
It was Aks who made the festival’s concept go viral, who tapped into the fantasies of so many scrolling feeds. He captivated the public, which would later cheer from the sidelines as Fyre crashed and burned. “It’s the comedy of the fall of the wealthy person,” Kendall Cummings, the assistant director of Fyre’s promotional video, told HuffPost. “It’s a classic story that will always be funny to people, to see someone fall from up on high.”
Aks, remorseful now about participating in what he dreamed would be his generation’s Coachella, was especially disturbed by Vice journalist Gabrielle Bluestone’s involvement with “Fyre.” Bluestone was one of the first to whistleblow on the Fyre Festival, but Aks found her decision to work with a documentary he sees as ethically compromised disappointing.
“I compare it to her to being the person who broke the Jamal Khashoggi assassination going around doing PR for the Saudis,” Aks said. (Bluestone, along with representatives from Netflix and Hulu, did not immediately respond to HuffPost’s request for comment.)
Hulu, however, is facing its own share of criticism. The company paid McFarland an undisclosed amount of money to exclusively appear in its film ― a detail Netflix director Smith made sure to divulge to The Ringer in a recent interview.
“I don’t know that it really ever is good to give con artists a platform,” Maria Konnikova, author of The Confidence Game, told HuffPost. She also appears in the Hulu documentary. “I would not have made that choice. I don’t think they have much to add. Best-case scenario: They don’t see anything terrible but usually they just lie and they want that exposure. So why in the world would you give it to them?”
Calvin Wells, a venture capitalist and creator of the anonymous Twitter account Fyre Festival Fraud, is one of the few characters to appear in both the Netflix and Hulu documentaries. He wasn’t particularly offended by Fuck Jerry’s role in the Netflix film, or by McFarland’s role in the Hulu doc.
“I don’t think it’s reasonable to indict ‘Wolf of Wall Street’ or blame Martin Scorcese because Jho Loh, an accused fraudster of 1MDB, financed the film,” he said.
“I probably wouldn’t have preferred Hulu to have paid Billy, but it adds a lot to have his perspective,” Wells added. “And any money he makes will go back to his victims.”
The rollout of the twin films, and the ensuing beef between their producers and casts, raises questions about the integrity of nonfiction movie-making: What’s truth and what’s hype? Where does good reporting end and pure entertainment begin? Who’s, as Aks put it, scamming who?
Ultimately, neither documentary feels more biased than the other. Both place uncompromising blame on McFarland, who is cast as a charming sociopath and a compulsive liar who swindled not only a bunch of wealthy 20-somethings out of festival allowances, but a significant number of local Bahamian small business owners out of seasonal livelihood. Both attempt to indict the gullible millennial generation, conditioned to attach a dangerous amount of credibility to the flashy images and celebrity-endorsed exultations they find on Instagram. Both made compromises in order to ensure their film was the most shocking, the most amusing. And both realized that a social media beef would make promoting their films that much easier.
The big brands of today, looking to advertise online, often opt for the language and energy of social media rather than overly produced commercials and magazine spreads, professional meme creator “Sonny Side Up” explained. The Fyre documentaries, like the subjects explored within them, grabbed the internet’s attention with a force that feels familiar now. Journalists recapped the drama, the shade, and the warring between the streaming giants.
“The meme has more potential to go viral,” Sonny said. “On my page it might not look like an ad, but it will still be something that people want to screenshot and share with your friends.”
Perhaps what’s most surprising about the reinvigorated Fyre spectacle is that even amid the frenetic pace of the 2019 news cycle, the saga remains tantalizing millennial folklore.
“It’s a confluence of a lot of the biggest trends we’re seeing right now,” Wells concluded. “We had an election in 2016 that polarized the country. A millennial population that gets blamed for a lot. And social media influencers are this handful of people in the world who can dictate everything from fashion to pop culture. There is some cynicism, some resentment, but it’s also a bare-naked exposure of everything that’s wrong ― to the traditional mind ― of society as it exists right now.”
As for which documentary is better, I preferred Netflix’s, which spends more time on the absurdities of the Fyre Festival events themselves and less time hypothesizing exactly how doomed the millennial mindset is.
But both docs have their strengths and weaknesses. As Wells joked, “Let’s hope Amazon Prime gets it right.”