Why Everyone is Talking About Netflix’s Fyre Festival Documentary

It seems like everyone is talking about the new Netflix documentary, Fyre. Since its release on January 18, the riveting new film has been an ubiquitous topic of discussion. The documentary follows the story of the Fyre Festival, a music festival that happened in early 2017. Hulu also released a documentary on the same subject just days earlier. Both films have been at the center of discourse around social media over the last two weeks. It may be a stretch to call the event they portray a music festival — it would be more accurate to say that while a luxury music festival was promised to those who bought tickets, the actual product delivered was really nothing at all.

The actual state of the ‘luxury’ tents at the festival.

The festival was the brainchild of Billy McFarland, an entrepreneur who wanted to promote his Fyre app, a live music booking platform. Beyond being a riveting story of false promises and a private island disaster, McFarland’s tale is one that shows how an entrepreneur can sell their idea without a proven product. In the film, McFarland was characterized as being a gifted salesman who was able to secure investments of millions of dollars to realize his vision for the Fyre Festival. In partnership with rapper Ja Rule, McFarland acquired property in the Bahamas, announced the festival using celebrity social media influencers, and eventually sold multitudes of tickets promising a luxury, private island experience. After facing logistical challenges and an inability to accept the impending disaster, his team was unable to prepare the island to host the festival. Music acts were cancelled, the inadequate lodging was a complete disaster, and festival goers were left fighting over food and water without a way to get off the island. McFarland pleaded guilty to fraud in 2018 and is currently serving a six year prison sentence.

So, what does this have to do with Tech Trek?

McFarland is — or was — an entrepreneur. His story is a cautionary tale of what can happen when the buzz around an idea gets out ahead of the product itself. Though it is clear that McFarland was a criminal who committed fraud, I don’t believe that he went into the whole Fyre Festival fiasco with the plan of purposefully sabotaging the event and walking away with his investors’ money. He was disillusioned in his own ability to solve problems and to create something out of nothing. Multiple times throughout the documentary, various team members would point out the glaring issues with the planning of the festival to McFarland. Rather than addressing these issues or informing investors and ticket holders, he always asserted that their company should be focused on solutions rather than problems. Through this inability to adequately work through logistical issues, McFarland doomed his own festival. His story is certainly unique and extreme, but in many ways it is a cautionary tale of what can happen to a buzzworthy startup lead by a cunning entrepreneur.

When the festival happened in 2017, and again after the Netflix and Hulu documentaries came out, many people spent more time talking about the foolish rich kids who purchased tickets to the festival. It is certainly easy to blame people for paying for an experience that had no credibility that it could actually deliver what it promised. But I think the much more interesting story is how McFarland and his team were able to build the Fyre Festival into such a widely anticipated event, without actually having any infrastructure or way of delivering on their advertisements.

The original promotional video announcing the Fyre Festival.

The documentary can also teach us something about the power of social media.

Essentially, McFarland was selling a dream. And unfortunately for his investors and customers, the dream never became a reality. Wanting to promote the Fyre app that he had started with Ja Rule, the Fyre Festival was meant to be a way to give his company a name. The first step along McFarland’s treacherous path was inviting dozens of celebrity models and social media influencers down to the Bahamas to shoot promotional footage for the festival-in-planning. The video they made contains images of private jets, models partying on yachts, and promises of a luxury experience on a private island. In addition, influencers like Kendall Jenner and Bella Hadid posted about the festival on their social media accounts, exposing millions of followers to McFarland’s festival. The promotional content and backing from well-known influencers proved to be enough for McFarland to sell ticket packages with prices ranging into the tens of thousands of dollars.

The lineup of artists for the Fyre Festival. None of them ended up performing.

It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that the festival was born on social media. Although their advertising turned out to be completely false, the team behind Fyre Media knew how to create buzz around their event using digital platforms. A fiasco of this nature would never have occurred before the days of Twitter and Instagram. Whether we like it or not, social media influencers have great power to exercise over their massive follower bases. And except for a small number who were acquainted with the planning of the festival, very few people were at all aware of the impending disaster that was to be the Fyre Festival before it happened. Thousands of people, many of whom spent a lot of money on tickets and flights to the Bahamas, trusted what they saw posted by their favorite celebrities on social media. Perhaps even more shockingly, McFarland was able to get investors to pour millions of dollars into the project. It was eventually found that he defrauded investors of $27.4 million.

McFarland with the Magnises card.

Fyre Media was not McFarland’s first entrepreneurial venture. He was already relatively well-known for creating Magnises. Magnises was an exclusive credit card, for which members paid an annual fee and were promised access to special events, along with other perks. It was essentially a scam promising status and perceived wealth for millennials. McFarland raised $1.5 million in seed round funding for Magnises in 2014, according to Crunchbase. It seemed like McFarland had a knack for creating startups that promised exclusivity and status and generated a lot of buzz, but actually ended up being completely unfounded in their promises. The Magnises card was sold promising to give users special elite status just like tickets to the Fyre Festival promised a luxury, once-in-a-lifetime chance to spend a weekend on a private island hanging out with celebrities and super models. McFarland created these products in hope of manufacturing an elite and wealthy life for himself. However, both products failed and were unable to provide the status that they promised.

Neither McFarland nor his team members did anything to warn people who had bought tickets to the festival of the difficulties they had with setting up the infrastructure on the island. ‘Difficulties’ is probably too weak a term — the small section of the island designated for the festival was full of recycled hurricane tents, hundreds of soaking wet mattresses (after they had been left out in the rain the night before), and very little by way of food and water. None the wiser, people boarded planes in Miami and arrived to the island, expecting the luxury festival experience they had been promised. Needless to say, it was a disaster. People were appalled by the conditions they found. With no way to get off the island immediately, they were stuck overnight until planes could take them back to Florida.

This picture blew up on social media after it was posted from the Fyre Festival.

As the Netflix documentary points out, the festival, which had originally come to life through social media, was essentially broken down in the same way. One attendee of the festival posted a picture of a sample of the food they were given. Two slices of bread with some cheese thrown on top, and a small salad on the side. A far cry from the luxury meals they were promised. As this image and others started to spread on social media, the truth about the Fyre Festival came out quite quickly. McFarland had relied on social media to create buzz for the event. Now, Twitter and Instagram allowed people to quickly realize his company for the sham that it was.

For the hundreds of good startups that are poised to make a difference in the world, there is a bad one set up to mislead its customers and investors. For the hundreds of good entrepreneurs who care about their communities and have their customers’ best interest in mind, there is one who will lie, cheat, and do whatever it takes to benefit themselves. Billy McFarland and Fyre Media represent the bad side of entrepreneurship.

In addition to the tale of McFarland and the Fyre Festival, the success of the new documentary marks a continuation in Netflix’s attempt to produce more films and shows to put on its streaming service. With the recent release of the Academy Award-nominated film Roma and now the success of Fyre, Netflix is poised to continue producing high-quality content, and to become even more of a media giant.

Even though it has only been out for a couple of weeks, it feels like everyone has watched this film. The legal battles left in the wake of the Fyre Festival are still raging on today, and although Billy McFarland has pleaded guilty, his story will serve as a cautionary tale for years to come.

8 thoughts on “Why Everyone is Talking About Netflix’s Fyre Festival Documentary

  1. Hi Patrick! I also recently watched the documentary about Fyre Festival (the Hulu one thought, I haven’t seen the netflix one yet). I agree that this entire event shows the power that Instagram influencers have over a huge amount of people. Since they have such a following online, for whatever reason people feel as though they are to be trusted when in reality the amount of followers someone has does not guarantee that everything they say is true. It’s crazy to me how much info can be spread so fast via social media. I feel like this can kind of relate back to ‘fake news’ loosely since its about information that is not necessarily backed up spreading rapidly online.

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  2. Hi Patrick! I was tweeting this week for #BCSTT about the Fyre Festival and everything that happened. It was so crazy to watch the documentary and see this man blindly lead so many on these ventures that seemed too good to be true. It is especially amazing how the festival really only became something once Billy had the models and artists use their social media platforms to promote it. There wasn’t even a product, only an idea, and it still turned into the biggest thing in the world. Hopefully there aren’t copycat acts like this now that influencer influence has been analyzed.

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  3. Great post. I actually have not seen this documentary and I found your summary to be concise and easy to follow. I really liked the way that you made the fact that McFarland was an entrepreneur a centerpiece of this blog post, and how McFarland is an example of entrepreneur who let the buzz of a product run amok with the idea itself. Your analysis made me think of the article we read in class about Facebook and how after such a great run, Facebook lost control of its product regarding false news.

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  4. I remember watching the documentary and by the end just feeling awful for the Bahamian workers that got the worst end of it. McFarland never embraced the struggle that came with being an entrepreneur and just tried ignore the problems. It’s a simple case of a guy wanting the glory but not putting in the work. I think it’s interesting to think of what if he somehow put it together. Even if it somehow worked, he still lied to investors to make it happen. It was a really well done documentary and your blog post was well done as well!

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  5. Awesome post. I watched the Hulu documentary and also followed the event pretty closely. I think that the whole ordeal can serve as a wake up call to show how easily we can be manipulated in today’s day and age. So, even though this festival was a disaster and caused lots of problems, I think the one positive we can take is to not take everything to appear as it is. This has become quite hard to do with social media’s increasing presence.

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  6. Hi Patrick. I haven’t watched this documentary but your post is very informative. I definitely want to watch the documentary and learn more about Fyre Media. I agree with your point that the failure of the festival was an amplifying example of all other bad/failed start ups out there, which placed their emphasis of entrepreneurship in the wrong area.
    I also really like your mention of Netflix expanding its streaming service to more than just movies and tv series to Netflix original shows/documentaries and international shows. I hope someone can write a blog post (or I can write one) about the development of Netflix.

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  7. Great post. I had been hearing buzz about the Fyre documentary recently, but didn’t know much about it until this post and your discussion in class. It’s shocking that someone would go to such an extent to promote a product, even when they knew they couldn’t deliver on their promises. I wonder at what point he realized what a mistake this was, and if McFarland did anything to try to mitigate the repercussions of his many mistakes. The media campaign was obviously very successful and could serve as a valuable template for other companies, but that is about the only positive to come out of this experience. I can’t even imagine how it would feel to be sitting on that island after spending tens of thousands of dollars, holding a styrofoam box of bread and cheese. Thanks for sharing this with us!

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  8. Very interesting post about an evidently hot topic. I have only watched the documentary released on Netflix but I feel it gave me enough information to comment on the subject. It has been made clear that Billy was a con artist in the past, selling fake tickets to popular events such as Coachella. It is hard to say if he deliberately intended to make this festival a scam but surely he should have had a career in marketing. I believe he wasn’t completely aiming to throw a fraud festival but it was made evident that he was in it for the money, fame, and did not care for the issues at hand. I thought his release of the pilot was the first problematic step in the scheme as the pilot seemed to be the only level-headed member with a conscious for the consumers.

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