Netflix’s Fyre Fest Doc Apparently Tried to Pay Billy McFarland, Too
Our cultural fascination with Fyre Festival continues. After not one but two popular documentaries that give detailed looks behind the scenes of Billy McFarland and Ja Rule’s failed luxury music festival in the Bahamas, we now have a lengthy piece in the New Republic giving a look behind the scenes of one of the documentaries. The two films are Fyre, distributed via Netflix, and Fyre Fraud, on Hulu. TNR’s piece, by Jo Livingstone, focuses on the former.
Naturally, with two documentaries about the same topic dropping at around the same time on competing streaming services and vying for the same eyeballs, there have been some not entirely kind words traded between the filmmaking teams. In an interview with Vanity Fair last month, Chris Smith, the director of Netflix’s documentary, explained that his film did not include an interview with Fyre Fest scammer-in-chief McFarland himself because McFarland was asking for $250,000 to appear onscreen. (McFarland later lowered his price to $100,000 cash, Smith said.) “After spending time with this story and interviewing so many people that had been hurt by his actions, it just felt ethically wrong for us, so we told him we wouldn’t be able to do that,” he told VF. By implication, the Hulu documentary—in which McFarland does appear, and which reportedly did pay him for his appearance—was ethically dubious.
On the other hand, Jenner Furst, director of the Hulu documentary, pointed out in an interview with the Ringer that Netflix’s production was in what he considered to be a “bigger ethically compromised position”: they’d brought on Jerry Media, a viral-Instagram-account-turned-production-house that had been involved with marketing the disastrous fest in the first place, as a producer on their movie. The Hulu documentary is heavily critical of Jerry Media’s role in building buzz for Fyre Fest, and claims that the company was aware of the potential fraud relatively early on, but continued working for the festival. The Netflix documentary largely stays away from this plotline.
In this dispute over journalistic ethics, the New Republic piece largely takes the side of the Hulu team. Based on interviews and documents from a cinematographer who was approached to work on Fyre before defecting to the Fyre Fraud team, it asserts that the latter is a “genuine investigative documentary” and the former merely a “shadow public relations campaign” meant to launder Jerry Media’s role in a catastrophe that ultimately landed Billy McFarland in jail on federal fraud charges. There are two key pieces of evidence. One is that Mick Purzycki, CEO of Jerry Media, claimed in an email to “have final cut on the film,” meaning that no footage would make it into Fyre without his approval. Netflix told TNR that this was not true, because an initial arrangement with Purzycki and Jerry Media had been “superseded by the distribution agreement where the final cut was with the director.”
The other primary piece of new information is that the Fyre filmmakers also apparently tried to pay McFarland to be in their movie, which would seem to invalidate their ethical qualms with Fyre Fraud. According to Purzycki himself, Fyre had an arrangement for McFarland to appear onscreen in exchange for “12 percent of the film’s backend revenue to pay back ticket-holders,” but he failed to show up for the planned shoot, Livingstone writes. (Vice, an early partner for Fyre, confirmed that arrangement to THR.) Funneling funds to duped festival attendees is not quite the same as handing McFarland $100,000 cash, but it would still help him, in the sense that it’s reimbursing people to whom he theoretically owes money.
If you haven’t watched either Fyre Fest doc, the decision about which to choose is yours. In the face of this new story, you should know that Fyre still has one big thing going for it: it’s the only of the two featuring a scene in which an event producer admits that in the thick of the meltdown, he was this close to sucking somebody’s dick for a truckload of Evian water bottles.
Read Spin’s review of both films here.