Monday 18 February 2019

The shocking truth behind Fyre Festival disaster revealed in new Netflix documentary

Fyre: The Greatest Party that Never Happened is available on Netflix from Friday January 18

Ja Rule and Billy McFarland
Aoife Kelly

Aoife Kelly

Fyre was billed as the party of a lifetime, a glamorous, luxurious, exclusive music festival on Pablo Escobar’s private island in the Bahamas. Supermodels, celebrities and world class music acts including Major Lazer and Disclosure were promised across two weekends in April and May 2017.

A now legendary promotional video featuring ten top models (among them Insta-famous Bella Hadid, Hailey Baldwin, and Kendall Jenner) partying and posing on beaches and yachts, along with a social media campaign which saw 400 influencers globally, at the very same moment, post an image of a mysterious orange tile, ignited a buzz which saw 95 per cent of tickets sold within four hours.

But it was all a lie.  Fyre Festival was a multi-million dollar scam, spearheaded by a charismatic conman who used social media and its influencers to promote a fantasy, which would ultimately be exposed, painfully and in real time, by those same influencers and rich kid festivalgoers on those same social media channels when they finally landed on the remote island of Norman’s Cay and witnessed the chaos.

To the casual observer watching the disaster unfold across Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and Snapchat, the urge to chuckle at the misfortune of those rich kid Millennials pulling ugly cry faces as they realised their luxury accommodation was comprised of disaster relief tents (still sodden from a torrential downpour on the eve of day one), was overwhelming.  An image tweeted by one dissatisfied partygoer of the supposedly gourmet food - a flaccid cheese sambo housed in a burger box – went viral.  These kids had shelled out thousands (some tens of thousands) for the experience of a lifetime but they flew (economy as opposed to private jet) into a nightmare.  The schadenfreude became a meme.  Oh how we laughed.

However, there is a darker side to the whole sorry affair, and Netflix’s new documentary, Fyre: The Greatest Party that Never Happened, aims to shed some light on how one man, co-founder Billy McFarland, managed to con thousands of festivalgoers, investors, and even his own employees, into believing in his fantasy well beyond the point where you might expect logic to start tapping them on the shoulder.

The brainchild of entrepreneur McFarland and music producer Ja Rule, Fyre sounded like a viable project on paper, a Bahamian Coachella of sorts.  Its original function was simply to draw attention to the Fyre brand and particularly the app, which the duo hoped would revolutionise the clunky process of booking top acts for events. A hive of some of the best young developers and engineers were dedicated to shaping what would be the ‘Uber of booking’.

Meanwhile, another team of hot young talent was assembled to work on the festival itself, and the first endeavour was to film the aforementioned promotional video.  A film crew charted the models’ exploits on the island (which was not in fact Norman’s Cay) and Billy and Ja Rule led the party.

Much of this footage is included in director Chris Smith’s film, but he also had access to footage from Matte Projects, the production company hired by Fyre, and a daily vlog from one of the Jerry Media partners.  Jerry Media was the agency hired by Fyre to promote the festival. Cumulatively it amounts to some very revealing, sometimes shocking film.

Aside from the footage, the meat of Smith’s film is a series of interviews with former Fyre employees who have not spoken publicly before.  What is surprising is the fact that they are all highly intelligent, talented people.  The assumption that the failure was down to a bunch of idiots who didn’t know what they were doing is wrong.  Many worked remotely and were oblivious to the reality on site. Even those working on the island who flagged issues were simply told Fyre was ‘not a problems focused group’ but a ‘solutions focused group’.  They were all striving to fulfil McFarland’s vision which remained uncompromised even in the face of disaster.  A shocking revelation comes from one senior employee, who had worked with McFarland for six years, when he claims that he was prepared to perform a sexual act on a customs officer in order to get four 18 wheeler trucks of Evian water delivered to the festival and ‘save’ it.  The show must go on, at all costs.

What is missing from the film is an interview with McFarland himself (he opted to contribute to Hulu’s rival documentary, also out this week, for a reported fee of $250,000) but the documentary is no less impactful for it.  He features prominently directly on camera, and indirectly through his dealings with employees, and it gives sufficient insight into how he handled what was ultimately, in the words of one staff member, ‘a f***ing s*** show’.

Fyre Festival tents weren't quite the luxury villas the attendees were expecting
Fyre Festival tents weren't quite the luxury villas the attendees were expecting

So how did it all go so horribly wrong?  It seems it was simply down to lack of understanding of what it takes to organise a festival, and a brazen refusal to accept evidence that all was not well.  McFarland sold the dream without taking the time to assess whether or not the dream was achievable.  When they finally began to evaluate the infrastructure of the island, several weeks before the big day, it was immediately clear that cramming all ticket holders on to the site would be difficult if not impossible.  The island lacked running water and electricity, never mind sufficient villas and luxury accommodation to cater for the masses.  With two months to go they did not have time to build the accommodation as advertised so the disaster tents were erected with sterile white mattresses.

And yet, the organisers kept on spending.  McFarland managed to elicit funds from investors to feed his vision right until day one of the festival when the charade could no longer be maintained.  McFarland is described by his employees at various points in the tale as ‘the world’s greatest salesman’, a ‘visionary’, a ‘magician fundraiser’, ‘unflappable but entirely delusional’, and ‘a liar’.  Financier Calvin Wells smelled a rat early on, and set up the Fyre Festival Fraud Twitter account in an effort to expose the reality of what was actually unfolding on site.  However, nobody paid any attention until the ticket holders arrived and encountered the chaos for themselves.

The sandwich image went viral
The sandwich image went viral

While the world at large was cackling at their misery, however, there were many local Barbadians working 24 hours a day behind the scenes to try to make the festival a success, on the understanding that the event would be held annually for the next five years. Few received payment and one local caterer is reduced to tears on camera as she reveals she was forced to use her life savings of $50,000 to pay her staff their wages after McFarland and the crew fled the island.

While the temptation may be to blame the models and the Fyre employees, it’s clear that the former had no reason to believe the festival would not materialise as advertised while many of the latter claim they are hundreds of thousands out of pocket.  Several of them spoke to the FBI in the course of the ensuing investigation and were shocked to discover the extent of McFarland’s fraud.  He was eventually sentenced to six years in jail for defrauding ticket buyers and investors.  However, as one contributor concludes, “I don’t think we’ve heard the last of Billy McFarland.  If there’s anything he’s good at it is separating consumers from their cash.  And if there’s anything this country celebrates more than that I don’t know.”

Fyre: The Greatest Party that Never Happened is available on Netflix from Friday January 18.

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