Ja Rule and Billy MacFarland’s 2017 Fyre Festival will go down as one of the decade’s biggest consumer scams. The festival was such a disastrous fraud that it has now become the subject of two documentaries. While Hulu‘s Fyre Fraud beat its competitor to the premiere, the Netflix production lends much better insight into the festival’s monumental failure.
Directed by Chris Smith, FYRE: The Great Party That Never Happened offers telling, behind-the-scenes footage explaining not just the attendee experience. Once inside, viewers are given interviews with heartbroken Fyre Media employees, their NYC-based PR firm, tricked social media influencers, and unpaid workers on the Bahamian island.
The feature length film features rare footage of mastermind fraudster MacFarland all the way from the festival’s lead up, which included the purchase and subsequent eviction of a $8 million private island, to his successful attempts to scam more money out of attendees, which totaled upwards of $100,000 in bogus cashless RFID wristbands, to the planning of an email phishing scam of Fyre’s mailing list while he was out on bail.
To show just how despicable the actions of MacFarland truly are — which border on delusional, criminal, and sociopathic — we’ve gathered six of the biggest takeaways from Netflix’s FYRE: The Great Party That Never Happened. But you’ll have to watch the documentary yourselves to see just how it all went down.
1. MacFarland purchased the original island for $8 million, but was removed last minute due to unsettled payments and contract violations.
Initially, the site of the festival was to take place on Norman’s Cay, an island that was famous for its previous owner in Pablo Escobar. In effort to move away from this public image, the current owner of the island created a contractual obligation that Fyre Media would not use the drug lord’s name to market the event.
However, Fyre’s first round of advertisements proudly flaunted Escobar’s ownership as a selling point. When the current owner got wind through Fyre’s extremely successful viral marketing strategy, he evicted the crew only a couple of months before the festival was set to take place. In addition, the owner was only compensated with $1 million down on the property at that point, which made the decision to evict quite easy.
But the island was never suitable for habitation in the first place. There was no plumbing, for one. “We gotta go to Home Depot and buy a thousand toilets,” said Keith van der Linde, a newly licensed pilot who MacFarland brought on to have a heavy hand in the planning of Fyre Festival.
Worse yet, the original island simply wasn’t large enough for the amount of ticket holders, which sold out in record time. “I didn’t think it was possible to fit over 1,000 people on that island,” van der Linde explained. “So I had made a plan to get a cruise ship.”
However, MacFarland nixed the plan, insisting that everyone who bought tickets had to stay on the island. When van der Linde continued to insist against the tents, due to safety, noise, lack of air conditioning, and the massive mosquito problem on the island, he was eventually pulled from the project entirely. Mind you, this was marketed and sold as a “luxury experience.”
2. MacFarland doctored the map of the new festival grounds to look like a private island.
The Fyre team eventually settled on the Bahamian island of Great Exuma, which is a publicly habited community. So organizers photoshopped the rest of the island out of the festival site map, giving off the illusion of a private island. Not to mention, the new site was an abandoned construction site of a failed community zoning project, which brought a whole new set of safety issues.
To make matters worse, the island of Great Exuma was also hosting an annual international boat show the same weekend of Fyre Festival, which explains why attendees were stuck on the island due to overbooked flights. Some attendees didn’t even make it to the festival grounds and were chained inside the tiny airport overnight without food or water.
3. MacFarland exploited Bahamian locals for free labor.
With only 45 days left to transform the construction zone into a luxury enclave, a large number of locals were hired to help the construction. Workers used dome tents left over from a previous hurricane relief effort, which was enough to house only one third of festival attendee.
“They didn’t have enough tents,” explained Marc Weinstein, a festival consultant who was brought onto the festival planning committee later in the game. “350 people would have no where to stay.”
When a storm hit the night before the festival, the tents were destroyed and mattresses were left out in the rain, getting completely soaked.
It was estimated that a quarter of a million dollars was owed to the day laborers.”
“We had a $6 million contract with Star Catering to handle all the food service and we only had a million dollars allocated,” said Andy King, a producer of the event. “And Billy fired them over the phone.”
At this point in time, MacFarland hired a local restaurant owner named Maryann Rolle to cater the event. She had ten workers under her but was never paid. So she purportedly had to use $50,000 of her own savings to cover the costs.
4. MacFarland failed to pay his own employees back home and put them into hundreds of thousands in debt.
Back home in New York City, MacFarland’s team at Fyre Media were growing weary because they weren’t receiving their salaries on payday. And when they did, it was sometimes in a bag of cash.
Fyre Media, the original company that inspired the festival offshoot, was intended as a booking website that brought artists’ costs directly to promoters, thus cutting out the back-handed nature of booking. “This was a functioning platform that really had the opportunity to revolutionize the way the industry worked,” one member of the team revealed. “The Fyre app had the potential to be a billion dollar platform.”
It was something we worked on for an entire year. And because of the festival, we lost everything in seconds.”
Fyre Media’s product designer, Shiyuan Deng, speaks to how MacFarland’s charisma is what blind sided them: “He really leveraged your existing emotional investment in this team and in this product to extort you into investing even more. This was Billy’s charm. Billy could sell you on anything.”
“He’s an operational sociopath,” revealed another employee. “He racked up over $500,00 on … the Fyre app Amex card … and he got almost all of it paid off except the remaining $250,000, which now I’m being sued by Amex for.”
Another employee claimed MacFarland charged $150,000 on his personal Amex. He was a 23-year-old who was responsible for booking the festival, despite having zero booking experience.
5. MacFarland coaxed his gay partner to offer sexual favors to the Bahamian Head of Customs.
When Fyre organizers ordered four truck loads of Evian water for the festival, the shipment was held up in Customs because they couldn’t afford to pay the import tax. This occurred after the team aggressively pressured attendees to load up their festival wristbands with money for “add-on experiences.” They eventually got $100,000 from unsuspecting attendees via e-mail, suggesting that $2,000 was the average that others were loading onto their RIFD bracelets. If attendees did not add money, Fyre resorted to pressuring them over the phone through aggressive sales tactics.
Faced with a bill of $175,000 at Customs, Billy McFarland coaxed his loyal event producer, Andy King, to negotiate the price away by offering blow jobs.
“Billy called and said, ‘Andy, we need you to take one big thing for the team,'” King explained. “And I said, ‘My gosh, I’ve been taking something for the team every day.’ He [MacFarland] said, ‘Well, you’re our wonderful gay leader, and we need you to go down. Will you suck dick to fix this water problem?’ And I said, ‘Billy, what?’ And he said, ‘Andy, if you will go down and suck Cunningham’s dick, who’s the head of Customs, and get him to clear all of the containers with water, you will save this festival.'”
I got to his office, fully prepared to suck his dick.”
Horrified, King obliged, going against his own morals. “But he couldn’t have been nicer. He’s like, ‘Andy, listen, I will release all the water, I will let you serve it, but I want to be one of the first people to be paid this import fee for what you’re doing.'”
6. MacFarland defrauded $27.4 million from over 100 investors and faces a $100 million class-action lawsuit.
MacFarland was defrauding investors based on how well Fyre Media was doing as a company. Yet, when FBI agents started visiting employees at home, they began to realize they were complicit in his fraudulent business dealings.
“I knew Billy, but I never knew he was capable of something like that, said a Fyre Media employee. “This guy really made me feel like he was part of my family. I lost that judge of character in people…and that was really difficult for me.”
The FBI investigated MacFarland on the alleged basis that he “fraudulently induced over 100 investors to invest more than $27.4 million” in the Fyre disaster. One of Fyre’s employees said that at one point Billy lied to an investor by reporting that he booked Drake for $100,000.
“We never booked Drake,” one employee revealed. “He was lying to investors and making it seem like we were making a ton of money and we weren’t.”
The original report showed that $1.5 million were made in offers. The report that Billy doctored showed closer to $35 million.
Now MacFarland faces a $100 million class-action lawsuit and is facing six years in prison.