Netflix's 'Fyre' director hits back at Hulu's 'whitewashing' criticism and says the Fyre Festival founder wanted $125,000 for an interview
Veteran documentary filmmaker Chris Smith was putting the final touches on his first Netflix project — the Jim Carrey as Andy Kaufman doc, "Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond" — when he began to see stories hitting the internet about the doomed Fyre Festival. And like most of us, he couldn't look away.
On April 27, 2017, hundreds who had paid as much as $25,000 to party on an island in the Bahamas with some of the biggest musicians and Instagram influencers in the world arrived at the festival to find no music acts, FEMA tents doubling as the "villas," and disgusting cheese sandwiches to eat.
In the aftermath, it became evident that the festival's creator, Billy McFarland, an entrepreneur who was using the fest as a way to launch a talent booking app, was the one to blame. That wasn't simply because his ambitions outweighed the reality of pulling off a festival in a matter of months. He also defrauded people who bought tickets to the festival as well as many who were working for him.
And so Smith set out to tell the behind-the-scenes story of what led to this epic fail. That project became the documentary "Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened" (available Friday on Netflix).
"To me, what was missing from the coverage of Fyre was the inside story," Smith told Business Insider. "So getting to people who worked directly for Fyre and the agencies and contractors that were hired was instrumental."
In October 2018, Smith teamed with Vice Films' Danny Gabai (who was also a producer on "Jim & Andy") to make "Fyre," and quickly realized this could become a movie after one of the first interviews he shot.
"I went to interview one of the event contractors and what I thought would be 45 minutes or an hour ended up being a three-and-a-half-hour interview," Smith said.
And then Smith hit the jackpot with Jerry Media and Matte Projects.
Jerry Media, known best for its popular F---Jerry Instagram account, handled the social media for Fyre and was the event's connection to the influencers that would make the festival go viral (Jerry Media CEO Mick Purzycki is also a producer on the movie).
Matte Projects was the agency behind the promotional video for Fyre Festival that starred the likes of Bella Hadid and Emily Ratajkowski. When the video hit the internet, featuring models running around an island once owned by drug lord Pablo Escobar, it made Fyre Fest the hottest destination for the elite (and for wannabes).
Feature film or docuseries?
Both companies handed Smith documents and hours of footage related to their time working on Fyre. The gem was b-roll of the promotional video shoot that had no script and was just continuous shots of McFarland and rapper Ja Rule, who cofounded the festival with McFarland, hanging out with the models.
The footage shown in "Fyre" of the making of the promo is an eye-opening look inside how disorganized the idea of Fyre was from the start. Red flags begin to crop up showing that McFarland and his team were out of their depth, as questions about travel for the attendees or how they planned to get enough bathrooms to accommodate everyone were met with blank stares."Fyre" then goes deeper down the rabbit hole as it recounts the race to get everything ready by the time the festival kicks off. This included many Bahamians working long days (many of them never were paid) and some on McFarland's team ready to go way beyond the call of duty. That included event producer Andy King, who says on camera that McFarland persuaded him to offer fellatio to a Bahamian customs officer who was giving them a hard time (King never actually had to do it).
"After doing interview after interview, I started to see this pattern of people talking about Billy's ability to sell the dream," Smith said. "Andy's story, the reason we thought it was important, was to show how crazy things got."
Read more: Netflix was tipped off that Hulu would surprise-release its Fyre Festival documentary first but wasn't concerned
Smith said over the year of making the movie he and his team had gathered so much archival and interview footage, that at one point he had two editing teams — one crafting a feature-length documentary, while the other was making a docuseries.
After a month, Smith settled on making it a feature. But that wasn't the only hurdle to cross. He was also trying to figure out if McFarland would be in the movie.
Fighting Hulu's allegation of 'whitewashing'
Smith said that on two occasions they were set up to shoot an interview with McFarland but the interviews never happened. McFarland claimed to Smith that there was another documentary about Fyre being made for Hulu, "Fyre Fraud," and that they were paying him $250,000 to be in it. McFarland said he wanted $125,000 to be in Smith's movie.
"We just didn't feel comfortable with him benefiting after his actions that hurt so many other people," Smith said.
McFarland then came back with the price of $100,000 in cash to be interviewed. Again, the answer was "no."
When Business Insider asked Smith if he really believed McFarland got paid anywhere close to those figures by Hulu, given his history of lying about finances, Smith said, "If [Hulu] wants to correct me, I would love to know what the real number is."
Hulu declined to comment for this story. "Fyre Fraud" codirector Jenner First told The Ringer that McFarland was paid but that the $250,000 amount was inaccurate: "I can't tell you the amount, but what I can tell you is that if you printed [$250,000], that would be a lie. That was not the amount. It was less than that."That wasn't the last time the two Fyre movies crossed paths.
Earlier this week, Hulu launched "Fyre Fraud," jumping the release of Smith's "Fyre" by five days. At the end of Hulu's movie, it takes a jab at Netflix's "Fyre" for being produced by Jerry Media, implying the movie goes soft on the company's involvement with Fyre. Smith took offense at the implication.
"The narrative out there is we whitewashed everything to protect [Jerry Media]," Smith said. "I actually went overboard in making sure that wasn't the case. Hulu hasn't seen the movie yet."
Both films touch on the fact that Jerry Media could sense the Fyre Festival was not going to be the epic party that it was promoted as, but continued to do the social media outreach. That included deleting comments left by disgruntled Fyre Festival ticket holders on Fyre's social media.
"My editor came to me and said, 'I wouldn't even put this deleting comments thing in the movie if it was my choice,' but we felt we had to put it in because people would assume that we were whitewashing the story," Smith said. "Both Jerry Media and Matte Projects handed over their inboxes and they said we could look for anything. There was no censorship of the data or the information they received. There were no questions that were off limits."The jabs between the two documentaries are a fitting coda to the saga of Fyre.
But have the movies, which will presumably be seen by millions of eyeballs, unwittingly give McFarland — who is currently serving a six year prison sentence for wire fraud — a bump in fame?
"I think he would have that status regardless," Smith said. "What was interesting to me was seeing him after Fyre and it felt like he didn't miss a beat. He was continuing to move forward and seemed to be living the lifestyle that he had before Fyre. So he's a very smart, very focused, industrious person. Someone at the end of the film said he wouldn't be surprised if in ten years we hear some new great thing and Billy McFarland is behind it, and I agree."