World on Fyre: The Scams of FuckJerry and Billy McFarland

Live From The Algorithm is a weekly review series taking a look at the wide variety of Netflix Original Content, from the best to the worst to the outright bizarre.

by Jacob Wallace

It’s a classic matchup: Netflix vs Hulu. Rich People vs Con Men. FuckJerry vs Actual Content Producers. Two warring Fyre Festival documentaries are now streaming to take advantage of possibly the most hilarious disaster of 2017 - when hundreds of influencers and people with large disposable incomes descended on an island adjacent to Pablo Escobar’s in the Bahamas, only to find the luxury music festival they were promised was little more than FEMA tents and empty promises.

Netflix’s take on the festival, simply named Fyre, isn’t exactly Errol Morris-style prestige fare. If you’ve seen two Vox explainer videos on YouTube, you’ve probably already seen more stylistic flourish than you will during all of Fyre. The documentary relies mostly on simple interviews with indignant attendees and various higher-ups in Fyre Media to explain the tragedy, with interviews of workers from Great Exuma island, where the festival was held, providing the emotional core.

Other than for the Bahamians, it’s hard to feel too sympathetic for a lot of people in this narrative, which is why the GoFundMe campaign for caterer Maryanne Rolle has gone viral. The movie is best enjoyed for those interested in schadenfreude, who delight in watching a playground for the rich get turned into a garbage dump. In this realm, the movie provides some solid hits, such as Andy King’s infamous story of gargling mouthwash in order to do “whatever it takes” to save the festival. I also enjoyed the response Mark Weinstein got when he began to sound the alarm over the hundreds of attendees who wouldn’t have beds - “At least they’ll see your smiling face and yoga skills!”

Of course, since this movie is also one half of a streaming war, there’s an added level of intrigue. Hulu’s “Fyre Fraud,” which was surprise-dropped four days before Netflix’s movie, heavily advertises the exclusive interview it features with Billy McFarland, who is now in prison for six years because of what went down at Fyre Festival. As it turns out, McFarland was paid an unidentified sum to appear in the film and protect the filmmakers at Hulu from any defamation suit. It’s perhaps an unsavory move, though not unheard of in the shady realm of access journalism.

Meanwhile, Netflix’s own documentary was produced by Jerry Media, the team behind FuckJerry’s meme-repurposing content machine. That’s a conflict of interest in and of itself, since Jerry Media was behind the PR for the Festival in the first place. The justification behind this production credit, according to “Fyre” director Chris Smith, was that he wanted to be able to use and edit the footage from the festival as a key piece of the documentary. But viewed with the context of Hulu’s own documentary, “Fyre” feels less like an objective take than a preemptive defense of Jerry Media from accusations that they were in on the scam.

This forces viewers to question whether this is actually a documentary or just a face-saving PR stunt, a scam on a scam. With Netflix, maybe that distinction matters less than whether the film fills audiences’ desire for content, any content, about a popular topic.

Netflix (and increasingly Hulu, Amazon Prime and, uh, Disney+) are spending huge amounts of money on the idea that when it comes to content, more is always better. With low-budget genres like comedy specials, rom-coms and certain simple documentaries/docu-series like “Explained,” Netflix has made investments in the sort of fare that has a built-in audience. According to interviews, analytics only take a 50/50 role in determining what gets green-lit and what doesn’t, but considering how much data Netflix has on its audience, and how specific it can get in marketing, it’s not impossible to imagine that the streaming giant finds a niche interest to create content for first, and then commissions said content second.

Maybe this is the brave new world of b-level streaming content - if it’s not a prestigious awards contender like Roma or Wild Wild Country, it’s some niche-filling content designed to find an audience first and story second. Either that or Friends, which apparently will be streaming for all eternity.

This semester I’m going to be taking a look at the best and worst of Netflix’s original content, from Roma to The Babysitter, with some deep dives into their archives for good measure. The streaming giant produced a total of 345 pieces of original content, which means that there were inevitably some gems and some, uh, other pieces of content. Along the way, I hope we can get a better idea of who the content is for, and whether it really matters how the idea became a movie.

(Oh, and Fyre is a scam.)

Rating: 3 🤖 Out of 5 🤖

Possible Netflix Categories: Music Documentaries, Movies about Rappers, Scams on Scams on Scam