Within days of each other, Netflix and Hulu released documentaries about the failed 2017 Fyre Festival, putting the calamitous event back in the news. Neither film is perfect, but after watching both, Netflix’s “Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened” is considerably better than Hulu’s “Fyre Fraud”.
Both films focus on the festival’s co-creator, Billy McFarland, documenting his fraudulent behavior and failed planning of the Fyre Festival as well as his continued scams after the festival failed. Hulu took a more holistic approach to telling McFarland’s story, however, including details of his childhood and sketchy dealings for his previous business venture, Magnesis. Neither film provides an answer for McFarland’s pattern of lies and scams, but Hulu manages to contextualize the Fyre Festival within McFarland’s career, making it clear that this incident was not his first or last time duping customers and investors.
But this is basically where Hulu’s edge over Netflix’s film ends, as “Fyre Fraud” is a mess. Its saving grace is the subject matter, which keeps the story interesting even when the narrative fails to land. There are major gaps in Hulu’s story, which are ironically easily filled if you watch Netflix’s film. Hulu never explains some really interesting parts of the story, like why they had to change islands for the venue (Pablo Escobar’s estate kicked them off of Escobar’s island!). It also skipped over a lot of the setup for the festival, unlike Netflix, who used the rushed and dire construction process to create a sense of pure dread as it becomes clearer and clearer that they could not possibly finish the festival in time.
However, the biggest problem with Hulu’s film is that it fails to take aim at the right targets. It rightly points the finger at McFarland, who certainly deserves most, if not nearly all, of the responsibility for what went wrong. It also rightly blames some within McFarland’s inner circle and marketing team, who failed to intervene or even actively encouraged McFarland’s actions. But the documentary then decides to make a ham-fisted attempt at blaming millennial culture for Fyre Festival’s failure. The film is correct in stating that a culture of social media influencers were successfully weaponized to promote and sell out this festival, but this does not make those who bought into this social media hype responsible for the festival’s collapse. They, like the local workers and the festival’s investors, were screwed over by a clueless, delusional egomaniac. By spending a good portion of the film engaging in reckless, unnecessary millennial bashing, “Fyre Fraud” muddles its narrative and wastes an opportunity to hold McFarland fully responsible for his actions.
On the other hand, Netflix’s film is simply excellent. What sets their version apart are the interviews and access to footage. Their interviews were mostly of key high level organizers, many of whom were able to describe how they were being tricked by McFarland. They detailed all of the many organizational and developmental failures of the festival in excruciating detail, painting the needed picture of the scope of this monumental failure. Other interviews included a local restaurant owner and a developer who were scammed by McFarland, which helped illuminate the human suffering of the Bahamian people at the hands of Fyre. Most Bahamian workers were required to work day and night, and in the end, they were not paid by the festival. This was an emotionally impactful point made by the Netflix documentary that the Hulu one missed. It was not just investors who were hurt by McFarland’s actions. The human consequences were very real.
Netflix managed to obtain footage from this inside circle of organizers as well. Unlike Hulu, Netflix focused almost exclusively on the build up, event and brief aftermath for Fyre. Using their excellent footage, the first half of the film plays out like their new “7 Days Out” series, but instead of putting it all together like in the show, Fyre organizers scrambled and failed to meet deadlines during their truncated four to six month preparation period. As viewers, we get to see every slip-up and every fight caught on film. While Hulu talked about McFarland’s beachside drunkenness or outrageous party lifestyle, Netflix brings you along for the ride, showcasing his inability to prioritize business matters. When the event finally happens, you witness the breakdown of order at the campsite, as looting and conflict quickly became the norm. Weeks after the Fyre debacle, we watch McFarland orchestrate another scam with non-existent exclusive tickets to the hottest events. Netflix does not try anything fancy with its storytelling. They found a fascinating story and showcased the whole timeline with exclusive footage. It plays out like a real life horror film, one that you cannot take your eyes off of.
Part of the reason these films have been in the news has been due to questions raised about their ethics. On Hulu’s side, they paid McFarland for an interview, which provided him money during a time of purposeful court-ordered financial strain. To make matters worse, the interview actually dragged down the film, as McFarland dodges and obfuscates when asked anything important. On Netflix’s side, their film was co-produced by Jerry Media, who were responsible for the marketing campaign behind the festival itself. Hulu even pointed out this conflict of interest in the end of their film, arguing that it was unethical to connect the film to this organization that should have stopped marketing the festival once they realized its glaring deficiencies. These ethical questions are serious, and they should be considered before watching both films. But if you go through with watching one of them, Netflix’s “Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened” offers a far better experience.