The hero of Hulu's new 'Fyre Fraud' film reveals how things went off the rails
A music festival in the Bahamas, a famous rapper, supermodels and social media influencers. Competing documentaries from Hulu and Netflix uncover what went wrong.
Imagine a music festival in the Bahamas, on an exotic island once owned by Pablo Escobar. A promotional video touts parties on yachts with bikini-clad models. Luxury villas are available for you and your friends for upwards of $100,000. Celebrity chefs would be on site to provide high-end gourmet meals. That was the pitch for Fyre Fest – billed as a music festival for millennials, a Coachella for a new generation.
In early 2017, social media influencers like Kendall Jenner and Bella Hadid were promoting it on their Instagram accounts. Grammy-nominated rapper Ja Rule was the public face of the festival. Kanye West was expected to perform. It was going to be a once-in-a-lifetime event that you didn't want to miss. Indeed, thousands of people with self-described "FOMO" (Fear of Missing Out) bought tickets to the weeklong exclusive gathering.
Except ... well, except the entire event was one big scam, orchestrated by a man who's now serving time in a federal penitentiary. So how did so many people fall for it? That wild ride of a story is the subject of a new Hulu documentary released this week called "Fyre Fraud."
The hero: Oren Aks
The film's unsung hero is a social media strategist named Oren Aks. The 28-year-old Israeli, who spent his childhood years between Los Angeles and the outskirts of Tel Aviv, was working for a marketing firm where he was assigned to the Fyre Fest account. He was given the Herculean task of promoting an event that, for the most part, didn't really exist.
The mastermind behind Fyre Fest was Billy McFarland, a young tech entrepreneur with a couple failed businesses to his name. His idea to create a VIP style, immersive music festival was doomed from the beginning. For starters, he didn't have the necessary funds, permits or know-how. A veteran team of music industry experts might spend a year or more creating and organizing such a massive undertaking. But, with little event-planning experience, McFarland thought he could whip up the entire festival in a mere three months.
Aks wore many hats on the project – marketer, designer, influencer outreach, community management and social media guru. But, he admits, there was one role he played during the debacle that separated him from his colleagues: Soothsayer.
"I've always been the devil's advocate in any office I've ever worked in," Aks told From The Grapevine by phone. "I believe in ironing out issues before it's too late. I'm kind of a perfectionist." The documentary shows how, from the very first meeting, Aks was sounding the alarm. "This isn't going to work," he said. "That was me, since day one."
He alerted his bosses that things seemed shady. There was no way McFarland could organize the festival that quickly. "There were so many times that I spoke about that. It was silent because it was so annoying to them." Aks recalls that they told him: "We need to keep this project going and your truth is stopping us."
In the film, there's a riveting sequence that focuses on the days and hours leading up to the event. Aks' interview is intercut with scenes from the Bahamian island, where things are going horribly awry. Instead of luxury beachside villas, FEMA tents were set up on a gravel platform miles from the ocean. Thin mattresses are seen blowing in the wind. There were inadequate bathroom facilities and a lack of food. (A photo of a prepackaged cheese sandwich instantly went viral.) Liquor purchased for the event was stuck at customs. Amazon Prime boxes, presumably filled with much-needed supplies, littered the site. A promised pirate ship never arrived and, as if on cue, a monsoon ravaged the island the night before the guests arrived.
The social media influencers: Kendall Jenner, Bella Hadid and more
The documentary does a yeoman's job explaining how a confluence of factors – an exotic locale, a famous rapper, the lure of social media influencers and the promise of a generation-defining, exclusive music festival – led to the mad rush for tickets. Top it off with a con artist of "Music Man" proportions and it would seem that this was just one crazy circumstance where the music-loving public simply lost their mind. But Aks believes history is destined to repeat itself.
"I think it could absolutely happen again – with ease," he told us. "I don't think people learned anything. I think that most people that will watch the documentary are just here for the gossip, not for a life lesson." While the FTC is cracking down on social media influencers from promoting sham products like miracle cures, Aks said the problem persists. "I still see tons of things online that are misleading or don't call themselves out for what they are."
The Hulu film is being released at an auspicious time. This weekend, Netflix is debuting its own documentary about the Fyre Festival called "Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened." Instead of highlighting Aks' role, the Netflix version focuses more on his former bosses at the marketing firm. In recent days, much hay has been made online about the two competing looks at the doomed festival. Dozens of news outlets have posted stories debating the merits and missteps of both the Netflix and Hulu films.
When we reached Aks on Friday, he had just finished watching the Netflix version. "I personally thought it was kind of boring," he said. "Nobody really took accountability ... sweeping their story under the rug. I knew the real story. Anything that was involving me, that was crucial to the storyline was kind of rerouted so somebody else got credit for it, or it was not spoken of."
The future: 'Fyre Fraud' fandom
Aks' role as the Paul Revere of "Fyre Fraud" has gained him international attention. He's become a trending topic on social media, with people calling him the film's breakout star and multiple women asking if he's single. (He is.) Supermodel Chrissy Teigen extolled her love for Aks to her 10 million Twitter followers.
"For me it was kind of a surprise, and a pretty delightful one," Aks told us when asked about the hoopla. For the time being, though, he's lying low. He's now spending time abroad, where he runs his own social media consultancy and continues to do design and marketing work on a freelance basis.
He's stopped traveling to big music festivals, like Coachella, which he attended many times. "I feel so old going to them now. It's so tiring that I've stopped going. At my last Coachella, I didn't get to see any of my favorite artists. There's such a swarm of people. You're running back and forth between acts." Instead, he prefers to attend individual concerts from the bands he loves, citing Radiohead as his favorite. "It's a more intimate experience."
All the while, he's looking past the venue, past the next big viral sensation and onto the greater landscape beyond. "I like to think pretty far into my future, even though God doesn't really care about your plans," Aks said. He wants to keep working for himself and running his own company, and not be tied to the often untethered whims of those around him.
"I need to now figure out my next move." He pauses, and then adds, "It's been an interesting ride. I'm curious to see where this keeps going from here."
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