Home / Caribbean / Fyre Festival Was a Huge Scam. Is Netflix’s Fyre Documentary a Scam, Too?

Fyre Festival Was a Huge Scam. Is Netflix’s Fyre Documentary a Scam, Too?

Vice flew Swaigen out to New
York in October of 2017, where he met with Bluestone, Fitzgerald, and the
award-winning filmmaker Chris Smith. According to a Netflix spokesman, it was Smith
who had initially approached Vice with an idea for a documentary about Fyre Festival
in August 2017. But Swaigen recalls
asking Smith what he knew about Fyre Festival and discovering that Smith
“knew absolutely nothing.” Swaigen was shown around the Vice offices—the
microbrew beer taps, the floors of millennials at work—and Smith viewed some of
his footage. Swaigen was wary of Vice’s flashy ethos, and left feeling dubious
about the project.

It
was FuckJerry that had hyped up the festival into an Instagram craze, using
mysterious orange squares to tease its announcement.

At this point, Swaigen
recalled, “there was no talk of FuckJerry” being involved in Vice’s film. It
was FuckJerry that had hyped up the festival into an Instagram craze, using
mysterious orange squares to tease its announcement. According to the Hulu
documentary, FuckJerry was aware of the problems in the festival’s production,
but proceeded full steam ahead anyway. A source from Vice explained that the Vice/Smith team collectively
approached Jerry Media for footage in December 2017, which Netflix also
confirmed.

After the Vice office visit, Swaigen
returned to California, where he met with Ja Rule, the foremost celebrity
involved in Fyre Festival, to find out his angle on the post-Fyre landscape. Ja
Rule mentioned that Hulu was in talks to make a documentary. Swaigen emailed
the filmmaker Jenner Furst a photograph of himself with McFarland, and Furst
replied immediately. “It just felt better than anything that I had been through
with [Vice],” Swaigen said.

The key difference between the Hulu
project and the Vice project, Swaigen said, was that “it didn’t feel like
anything shady.” At this point, Swaigen was “spying with integrity,” in his
words, feeding information about the Vice documentary back to the other camp. In
a statement, Cinemart, the company that produced Hulu’s Fyre Fraud, told me that “Michael was a big part of this story and his
investigation during the aftermath of the festival was really
insightful. We are grateful that Michael took everything into
consideration when deciding who he would work with and that he ultimately chose
to work with us.”

In January of 2018, Swaigen met
with Mick Purzycki, who had been busy rebranding FuckJerry as a media “studio”
through its subsidiary Jerry Media. The new studio’s first project was Fyre, which was FuckJerry’s first ever film production. Purzycki was by now a
producer of the documentary; Swaigen speculates that he managed to finagle that
role because Purzycki had direct knowledge of the Fyre debacle and could possibly negotiate an appearance from McFarland.

By February of 2018, Swaigen
says, Bluestone and Fitzgerald had stopped talking to him. Furthermore, there
was “no more talk of Vice” from director Chris Smith or Purzycki. Gabrielle
Bluestone remains one of the documentary’s executive producers, but Purzycki
told Swaigen that Vice was “kind of still involved in this peripheral sense,
but Chris’s production company is running the team. And we’re Jerry Media now,” according to Swaigen.

After early screenings at
Cannes in May 2018, Smith took Fyre to
Netflix, which announced
its acquisition of Fyre on December
10. Netflix said that the movie was directed by Smith, and that the executive
producers were Elliot
Tebele and James Ohliger from Jerry Media; Gabrielle Bluestone of Vice; and Max
Pollack, Matthew Rowean, and Brett Kincaid of Matte Projects. So by the time
of Netflix’s announcement, the producer list had become dominated by personnel
from companies contracted directly by Fyre Festival: The show was run by Matte Projects
(Swaigen’s employer, which owned most of the behind-the-scenes footage you see in
Fyre) and Jerry Media itself.
Although the Vice logo appears in the movie’s credits, the company seems to have been
edged out. 

Ja Rule and Billy McFarland, during the Fyre Festival commercial shoot.Michael Swaigen/Cinemart

FuckJerry has some serious
answering to do related to its involvement in Fyre Festival. The company released
a statement saying that “all
actions taken by Jerry Media were done at the direction of the Fyre Festival,”
suggesting that it was just as innocent as the scammed ticket-holders. But as several journalists have observed, none of the tickets
would ever have been sold if it hadn’t been for FuckJerry’s efforts to spam
social media with Fyre’s false advertisements. Furthermore, former FuckJerry
employee Oren Aks has said that the company was aware of Fyre Festival’s
problems far earlier than it has claimed, and therefore ne to be held
accountable in Billy McFarland’s fraud.

Of course, Jerry Media denies such accusations.
But the accusations at least appeared in the Cinemart/Hulu documentary, which
has no vested interest in exonerating any parties involved; they did not appear in the Netflix documentary,
which was co-produced by the CEO of Jerry Media and several other FuckJerry
staffers, including its founder Elliot Tebele, who is now receiving an intense
backlash for plagiarizing other creatives’ content, led by the social media
hashtag #FuckFuckJerry. In fact, Fyre posits that the blame was solely McFarland’s. Those
facts alone are strong evidence that Fyre
is partially a cover-up, shot and edited to conceal FuckJerry’s mistakes
under garish anecdotes about blowjobs-for-Evian. Furthermore, in an
email to Michael Swaigen sent by Mick Purzycki dated March 25, 2018, he wrote: “I have final cut on the film and
will not be approving anything that is not done with integrity.”  

Those
facts alone are strong evidence that Fyre
is partially a cover-up, shot and edited to conceal FuckJerry’s mistakes
under garish anecdotes about blowjobs-for-Evian.

Netflix disputed Purzycki’s
“final cut” claim, telling me that “Jerry Media did not have final cut. There was an initial agreement that
either party could walk away at any point and retain the rights to what they
came into the project with. This was superseded by the distribution agreement
where the final cut was with the director.” Purzycki confirmed that he sent the
email to Swaigen, but that eventually “all production companies ultimately
agreed that final cut belonged to the director and the distributor of the film.” (Purzycki also told me that McFarland was originally supposed to appear
in the Netflix movie, according to a deal cut with Jerry Media for 12 percent
of the film’s backend revenue to pay back ticket-holders, but he failed to show up at the last minute. Vice confirmed the
proposed arrangement, undermining Smith’s accusations of unethical behavior by Hulu.)

But whoever was in the room
when that final cut was made, FuckJerry was still heavily involved. Purzycki has pivoted
the old, tainted brand to video, dressing it up in the credibility of names
like Netflix and Vice. These companies have been used, in effect, as the
washing machine through which FuckJerry (and Matte, to some extent) laundered
its involvement in a catastrophe.

Fyre Festival was the kind of
international news flashpoint that encourages us to draw conclusions about the
times we’re living in, but we’ve been failing to connect the dots between the
festival and the coverage that has followed it. It’s scary to think about how Fyre Festival would have been portrayed if Hulu hadn’t rushed its movie out. The great
thing about twin films is that, through different treatments, the competing
accounts end up pointing the viewer toward the truth. Fyre Festival is a story
about insidious digital marketing, corporate irresponsibility, and the misde
of a handful of men who control the images that appear on your social media and
shape your opinions. They are doing it again, just under
a different name.

An earlier version of this article stated that McFarland had reached an agreement with Jerry Media to appear in Fyre in exchange for revenue to pay McFarland’s debts. The agreement stipulated the revenue would pay back ticket-holders who had been scammed. 

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