Netflix's Fyre and Hulu's Fyre Fraud dive into the making of the 21st century's biggest music festival flop at the hands of Billy McFarland and Ja Rule

By Dana Rose Falcone
January 23, 2019 12:35 PM
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The disaster that was Fyre Festival gripped the internet when the event fell apart in April 2017. Now, with both Hulu and Netflix releasing documentaries about the rise and fall of the festival, viewers have even more questions about why Fyre founder Billy McFarland, his partner Ja Rule and Fyre CMO Grant Margolin thought the luxury music experience on Pablo Escobar’s former island in the Bahamas would be feasible in less than six months.

Both docs outline how McFarland — who sat down for an interview for Hulu’s Fyre Fraud — started out with a different venture: Magnises, a black credit card that gave millennial users exclusive access to events, parties and networking opportunities. McFarland, 28, made false claims about the brand’s user profile, and when the company fell on hard financial times, as the Hulu documentary shows, he resorted to re-selling pricy tickets he didn’t have (e.g. Hamilton tickets and passes to Beyoncé and JAY-Z’s tour).

Fyre Media began with the Fyre app, where users could go to book talent. For example, if a user wanted Coldplay to play at their birthday party, they would go on the app, let Coldplay know how much they could offer for the gig and Coldplay would then decide whether to take the job. McFarland saw a need for the app when he had a difficult time trying to book Ja Rule for a Magnises party. The rapper loved the idea for the Fyre app and came aboard as a celebrity partner, though he never had an official title within the company.

McFarland and Ja Rule.
| Credit: Patrick McMullan via Getty; Jimi Celeste/Patrick McMullan/Getty

The idea for Fyre Fest subsequently came about as a way to promote the app. From the fest’s initial announcement in January 2017 to McFarland’s jail sentence in October 2018, both Fyre Fraud and Netflix’s Fyre: The Greatest Party that Never Happened expose the perplexing chain of events that created the media tornado known as Fyre Festival. Amidst all the confusing moments, here are the documentaries’ five most shocking reveals.

Organizers were kicked off the private island they advertised and relocated to a spot next to a Sandals resorts

McFarland claimed to have purchased a Bahamian island, Norman’s Cay, formerly owned by Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar. While neither documentary solidifies the parameters of this deal (which Fyre employees didn’t even seem to understand), Netflix claims that one of the conditions was that Escobar’s name could not be used in the marketing of the event. When it appeared in the initial promo video, the Fyre crew was kicked off and left scrounging for a location two months before the festival was supposed to take place.

They ended up next to the Sandals Emerald Bay Resort on the Bahamian island of Great Exuma. The new destination was not a private island as promised, but to make it look like one, promo photos cropped the area where Fyre Festival would take place. In fact, the intended location didn’t even have a beach within walking distance. And to complicate matters further, the dates McFarland selected for the festival were the same as Exuma’s Annual National Family Regatta, an event which one local calls “bigger than Christmas” in the Hulu doc, thus making lodging and transportation already scarce.

Fyre’s anything-but-luxury setup.
| Credit: Courtesy Brett Linkletter

Kendall Jenner received a reported $250,000 to post once on Instagram about Fyre Festival

The crux of Fyre’s marketing campaign centered around having models and social media influencers create buzz about the festival, beginning with all of the celebrities and influencers posting a plain orange tile at the same time. Then the models and influencers shared the promotional video they made in the Bahamas on their feeds, along with behind-the-scenes shots and clips.

Stars involved included Hailey Bieber, Chanel Iman, Bella Hadid, Emily Ratajkowski and Kendall Jenner. While Jenner, 23, wasn’t featured in the Bahamas promo video, McFarland hired her to announce the lineup on Instagram.

“By some accounts, she gets paid $250,000 per post,” former Jerry Media employee Oren Acks, who was responsible for the social media promotion of the festival, says in Fyre Fraud. “The point of Kendall’s post was to announce that G.O.O.D. Music was involved with the festival. But there was this huge meltdown on the Fyre side.”

After a lot of back and forth, Jenner did post about Fyre Festival, and from there, Acks claims other influencers began “begging” to go too.

Celebs and influencers who were offered free tickets and lodging in VIP villas never received keys to the promised luxury homes. Aside from most villas simply not existing on the Bahamian island of Great Exuma, the ones McFarland and his team did rent, he lost the keys to.

“We had 250 houses rented for millions of dollars, with paper receipts and pictures of every house,” McFarland claims in the Hulu doc. “We had a box of physical keys, cars to take people there and maps for every single house. The box of keys, unfortunately, it went missing.”

The Fyre team’s lives were threatened when the festival failed

The Netflix documentary reveals that as soon as ticketholders and local merchants got word that the festival was officially canceled and vendors would not get paid, Fyre organizers fled for their lives.

“After the locals realized they weren’t going to get paid, some of them started putting hits out on people either to take them hostage and then get ransom or just to hurt, injure,” Fyre Media’s Martin Howell says in Fyre. “The management team started to look left and right and suddenly, it was sort of the ‘save yourself’ mode kicked in.”

While no one really knew where McFarland escaped to, events producer Andy King recalls doing anything he could just go get home.

“I literally traded clothes with one of the employees that had been working with me and I hid behind a urinal,” he says. “Someone pulled up in an old car, I jumped into the back and I laid down in the back seat so I could at least get out of the village. Because I couldn’t play Mother Theresa. I couldn’t fix this problem, but I needed to go somewhere and find safety.”

RELATED VIDEO: Fyre Festival Organizer Billy McFarland Released on $300,000 Bail

Many Bahamian vendors and workers never got paid

Fyre Festival planned to return to the Bahamas for years to come, so local merchants wanted to impress McFarland and his team in 2017 in hopes of landing future business. But once the event crumbled and the people involved fled the country, Bahamians were left with nothing.

“People started to come to me for money like, you owe us. Where’s the money?” local worker and Fyre employee J.R., who worked closely with McFarland, says in Fyre. “I don’t know, but they gone. I don’t know what to do. I called Billy, I was talking to Billy. Billy said, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll handle it.’ … They were getting mad for this money. I thought it was going to end up in some blows, get in trouble. I was like, f— this, I’m out. I packed my s— and I was f—ing on the next boat. I can’t handle it no more.”

Bahamian restaurant owner Maryann Rolle — who runs Exuma Point Resort, where Fyre shuttled festival-goers in an attempt to bide time while they readied the grounds — shelled out approximately $50,000 of her savings to pay workers who were stiffed by Fyre. Since then, she’s raised over $160,000 via a GoFundMe page.

McFarland continued to scam Fyre attendees while out on bail

The New Jersey native continued to stay in a New York City hotel penthouse while awaiting trial (McFarland was named in a $100 million class action suit), but he didn’t let his legal status stop him from scamming. Fyre Fraud shows that McFarland immediately attempted to get Fyre Festival 2018 going, despite the colossal failure of the first go-around. And McFarland already had fresh schemes thought up, too.

He roped in pal Frank Tribble to start up NYC VIP Access, which sold tickets to in-demand events like the Grammys, the Met Gala and the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show (the latter two are invite-only gatherings). Emails marketing exclusive ticketing offers went out to the same people who bought passes for Fyre, so it didn’t take long for media outlets to pick up on the fact that McFarland was involved in another fraudulent business plan.

McFarland was charged with fraud again, and he pled guilty to defrauding investors and ticket vendors of over $26 million with Fyre Fest, as well as one count of wire fraud, one count of bank fraud and one count of making false statements in connection to NYC VIP Access. The U.S. Southern District Court in Manhattan sentenced McFarland to six years in jail and three years of probation. McFarland reported to prison in October, and currently serves in a federal correctional institution in Orange County, N.Y., where he remains in communication with his girlfriend, Russian model Anastasia Eremenko, who started dating the convict after everything exploded with Fyre Fest.

McFarland pled guilty in March 2018.
| Credit: Mark Lennihan/AP/REX/Shutterstoc

As for Fyre Media employees, Netflix’s Fyre plays a recorded conference call McFarland held with staffers who focused on running the app. McFarland informed employees right after the fest’s failure that “there will be no payroll in the short term” and that they were welcome to quit. One staffer pointed out that if they weren’t technically laid off, they couldn’t apply for government unemployment benefits. McFarland’s response: “I’m not aware of how this affects employee benefits.”

Fyre employees like creative director MDavid Low and music festival consultant Marc Weinstein were left to pay off $250,000 and $150,000, respectively, in Fyre-related bills on their personal credit cards.

Netflix’s Fyre and Hulu’s Fyre Fraud are streaming now.