by Emily Reuben
The opinions and views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the opinion of Byte or Byte’s editorial board.
Documentaries are nearly limitless; they can cover tons of subjects. History, public figures, politics, entertainment, true crime, education…literally any topic can be used as the subject for a documentary film.
Because of this, documentaries will always exist in some form. The content is endless, and even if something has been covered previously, a director can give a topic new life by showcasing new information and new perspectives, or even by using technology in inventive ways, such as motion graphics and unique editing. As a result, a topic is likely to have multiple documentaries made about it with varying levels of quality.
And the differences in quality are everything. When you cover a topic and are competing with others who want to make a similar film about that subject, you have to make sure your film is the best.
Such is the case when comparing Netflix’s Fyre and Hulu’s Fyre Fraud.
Both films cover the now infamous Fyre Festival. For those out of the loop, Fyre Festival exploded onto social media in late 2016, being advertised as a new music festival taking place on a private Caribbean island. Big names like Kendall Jenner, Emily Ratajkowski, Bella Hadid, and others were all promoting the festival and planning to attend. Ticket packages climbed well into the tens of thousands of dollars range, adding to the exclusivity of the festival.
However, when guests arrived at the island, they were met with FEMA tents, no running water, and only liquor in the way of sustenance (aside from a social media famous cheese sandwich). In short, the world laughed when it appeared a bunch of rich kids got scammed. However this scam was actually a huge deal. Festival goers weren’t refunded, nasty lawsuits ensued, and the festival’s co-founder Billy McFarland was sentenced to six years in prison for fraud.
Here's the dinner they fed us tonight. Literally slices of bread, cheese, and salad with no dressing. #fyrefraud #fyrefestival #dumpsterfyre pic.twitter.com/NmNXakSFlq
— Trevor DeHaas (@trev4president) April 28, 2017
Earlier this month, Netflix released Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened. The film explores Fyre Festival from the lens of those working to make Fyre a reality and the growing sense of dread they endured as the project became less and less feasible. The film is incredibly well made, visually compelling, and most importantly, it focuses on interesting people and their unique perspectives of the event.
But alas, despite being scheduled and advertised far before its Jan. 18 release date, Hulu swooped in and released Fyre Fraud just four days before the release of Netflix’s documentary.
Fyre Fraud tells the same story, but in a far less interesting way. Instead of interviewing a wide array of people involved in creating the festival, from labor workers to the marketing department, Hulu’s documentary just barely scratches the surface. Everything covered in Fyre Fraud is covered much better in Fyre. It just goes to show that release dates aren’t everything.
So how is it these two films with the same topic vary so intensely in quality?
As mentioned previously, Fyre is engaging because of the angle. Instead of just showcasing what a nightmare the actual festival was, the documentary takes a different approach and spends more time discussing the build up to the festival and the aftermath. Director Chris Smith knows which story is important to tell, and that story is “How did this happen?” We all know that Fyre Festival was a nightmare for the people who attended, but most people haven’t considered how the festival affected residents of the island and those employed to oversee the project.
One notable example the experience of restaurant owner Maryann Rolle who was hired to cater Fyre Festival. She received no payment for her work despite catering thousands of meals daily and paying $50,000 from her own savings to pay her workers. Her story was so inspiring that a GoFundMe campaign aimed to ease the financial burden placed on Maryann exceeded its goal of $123,000 in only 12 days, and this is in no small part due to her interview in Fyre.
Another unique interview highlighted is Andy King’s telling of how he was instructed to “take one for the team” and perform oral sex on a Bahamian customs official in exchange for drinking water for festival attendees. And for the benefit of the festival, he was going to do it. Fyre brought light to blatant sexual harassment and the horrid expectations of Fyre organizers.
Smith knew these sorts of stories are the ones worth telling. We want to see the people negatively affected. We want to hear about their struggles during the project. These are only two examples, but the film is littered with interesting testimonials that are likely to make viewers emotionally invested. Hulu’s film is not.
You can tell what Hulu’s strategy was for Fyre Fraud: get who they believed was the biggest and best subject they could. That subject was Fyre Festival’s chief organizer, Billy McFarland.
In theory, this is an exceptional, exclusive interview. That is, until you look at the ethics involved.
Ethics in documentary can be tricky. On the one hand, most of us want to tell stories as ethically as possible. But is a director obligated to do so?
Hulu paid Billy McFarland to be in the film. While some are completely against paid interviews in an effort to tell unbiased, truthful accounts, there are some cases where stories genuinely can benefit from a particular subject. Ultimately, the director must determine if paying for one person to tell their story is worth the monetary exchange involved. But what must be considered even more carefully is what paying, or in other words funding, a person means in the grand scheme of things.
Many people were hurt by McFarland. The false advertising prompted thousands to buy expensive tickets for leisures they were promised but never received. The lack of proper planning and resources could have resulted in attendees being seriously hurt or worse. The effects of Fyre Festival are still strongly felt among those that went unpaid for their hard work. While McFarland doesn’t deserve all of the blame, he certainly does deserve most of it.
This is the man who Hulu paid to appear in their documentary. They are giving money to a man who stole millions from others, just to speak about his failed project. At the very least you’d think his story would be interesting, but it really isn’t. Everything we needed to know about Billy was conveyed far better from those who worked
around him, and, quite frankly, he has done enough interviews already to ensure that his voice is not going unheard. Netflix knew they didn’t need Billy because, simply put, they didn’t. Hulu, on the other hand, didn’t have a strong enough film without Billy’s inclusion. What they didn’t consider is that paying to have him appear in a documentary aimed to highlight just how terrible his little stunt was is controversial to say the least.
Interestingly, the Netflix documentary did have the opportunity to have McFarland in their film. In an interview with The Ringer, Chris Smith stated that Netflix was aware of the the Hulu documentary because they actually had an interview with him scheduled. In the same interview, Smith explains why they ultimately decided not to include McFarland.
”He [Billy McFarland] told us that they were offering $250,000 for an interview. He asked us if we would pay him $125,000. And after spending time with so many people who had such a negative impact on their lives from their experience on Fyre, it felt particularly wrong to us for him to be benefiting. It was a difficult decision but we had to walk away for that reason. So then he came back and asked if we would do it for $100,000 in cash. And we still said this wasn’t something that was going to work for us.”
Though Fyre Fraud co-director Jenner Furst denies that $250,000 is the correct amount, they do admit to paying McFarland for an exclusive interview. Whether Billy McFarland exaggerated the amount to Netflix and Smith to leverage higher payment or the information was wrongly conveyed to Smith is not entirely clear.
The Ringer also reached out to Jenner Furst and Julia Willoughby, the directors of Hulu’s Fyre Fraud. In defense of the film, Furst told Ringer:
We began preproducing this in July 2017 with the intent to go far beyond the headlines, to acquire all the footage we could get our hands on, and to tell the deepest, most impactful story.”
To be fair, Netflix is not in the clear either. Netflix worked with two companies involved with Fyre: Jerry Media, otherwise known as FuckJerry, who ran the social media for Fyre, and Matte Projects, the agency who created
the initial promo video for Fyre. Additionally, the CEO of Jerry Media, Mick Purzycki, is listed as a producer for the film. To be clear both companies played a massive role in the disaster that was Fyre Festival. Without the advertisements showing off beautiful bikini clad women on a seemingly luxurious island, it is unlikely the music festival would have done nearly as well as it did. Similarly, if negative comments and questions regarding the festival weren’t censored on social media more people may have been able to make informed decisions about Fyre’s validity.
Is it ethical to not only interview, but directly work with two companies that directly aided in the spread of false advertisement and deception, even if unintentionally?
In the Ringer article, Furst directly challenges Netflix’s own ethics saying, “I feel like there’s a bigger ethically compromised position, and that’s going and partnering with folks who marketed the Fyre Festival and were well aware that this was not going to happen as planned.”
Ultimately, both documentaries fall into a morally gray area, and it’s up to us as viewers to decide which is not only the better film, but the more unbiased and ethical. To me, having employees of Jerry Media who were directed by McFarland available to tell their experiences honestly and openly makes for a better narrative than having McFarland sitting in a room making dramatic statements and staring off into space for the camera. Additionally, Chris Smith released the following statement on Netflix’s behalf in an interview with Page Six:
“We were happy to work with Jerry Media and a number of others on the film. At no time did they, or any others we worked with, request favorable coverage in our film, which would be against our ethics. We stand behind our film, believe it is an unbiased and illuminating look at what happened, and look forward to sharing it with audiences around the world.”
According to Page Six, the press kit for Fyre further explains the decision to work with Jerry Media and Matte Projects, stating that both had a large amount of footage from the festival. With this context in mind, Netflix’s Fyre still feels less problematic. Yes, skepticism should be employed, and it’s good to question Netflix’s willingness to work with those who helped to advance Fyre Festival, but it is still less concerning to work with those paid to make a fraud successful than it is to work with the person who intended to scam everyone in the first place.
Still, Hulu’s surprise release of Fyre Fraud was strategically done to not only beat Netflix to the punch, but make viewers question Netflix’s ethics before their film was even released. The documentary blatantly draws attention to Netflix’s collaboration with Matte Projects and Jerry Media. And to an extent, it worked; people are talking about it. Still, it is incredibly hypocritical for the creators of Fyre Fraud to aggressively target Netflix for being hypocrites but still stand by the decision to pay McFarland for an (awful) interview.
As mentioned before, when it comes to overall quality, Fyre is by far the winner. When it comes to ethics, neither documentary is completely guiltless, even if unintentionally, but Hulu’s advertising of Fyre Fraud and the seeming desperation to make Fyre look bad makes it seem like their film is less of a passion project and more of a childish cry for attention.
When you’re interested in a topic, you may want to watch every film there is on a subject, and that’s completely understandable. But it’s important to be cautious of not only the varying qualities between similar documentaries, but differing intentions and ethical standards.
In the end, people will remember Fyre Fraud for the pressure it placed on Netflix, but Fyre will be remembered for being the documentary that didn't pay off Billy McFarland.
Sources: Business Insider, NPR , Huffington Post , The Wrap, GoFundMe, The Ringer, Page Six, The Sun, Twitter
Images: Netflix, Hulu, Twitter, YouTube, Billboard,
Featured Image: Isabella Torres (Illustration) and Emily Reuben (graphic)