Imagine an event like Delaware’s Firefly Festival, transported to a tropical Bahamian coast with posh villas and supermodels and catering by Stephen Starr… except the “sold out” two-weekend island getaway is, in fact, a DISASTER. This was the fate of the inaugural Fyre Festival (no actual relation to Firefly), a now-infamous tale of the promise of luxury gone very, very wrong for approximately 4,000 ticketholders.
Various reports indicate ticket pricing for this music festival ranged from $1,500 for general admission to $4,000 for VIP to $12,000 and all the way up to six figures for some packages, with (fantastical) attendance projections reaching 40,000. Photo evidence shows a reality that was anything but VIP.
Piles of unwrapped mattresses outside of FEMA-style tents in unlit camps; unfinished, mud-bordered paving projects and debris scattered amongst shipping containers. Non-Starr meals of American cheese on dry wheat bread. Lockless security lockers. Empathetic but helpless locals lacking the resources to care for stranded visitors.
Worse, ZERO of the promised A-list musical acts turned up. Timelines show that some canceled in real time, as disappointing news from early-arriving guests flooded social media, and paying guests attempted to rebook immediate return flights using nonexistent cell and internet access.
Unless you’ve been following the Fyre Festival post-headline, you may not know what’s happened since. But Delaware native Mick Purzycki does.
As a budding film producer, Mick is one of the forces behind a new documentary, Fyre, launching on Netflix on January 18, 2019.
Mick, also known as Michael Purzycki Jr., (yes, that’s the Wilmington Mayor’s son, a Tatnall and UD alum) already has impressive credentials: he is CEO of Jerry Media, a multimedia marketing firm best known for meme-factory @F—kJerry (pardon TSD’s French). Wilmington native James Ohliger works with Purzycki at Jerry Media and also had a hand in the film.
The film documents the entire journey of a festival that was doomed to fail, from its creation and vision, to its buildup, to its collapse.
It includes interviews with a dozen people involved in diverse aspects of what was promised to be “the next Coachella.” Hundreds of millions of dollars in lawsuits means there are a ton of people with potentially juicy stories about 26-year-old co-founder and CEO Billy McFarland and co-founder rapper Ja Rule.
Although Ja Rule seems to have avoided prosecution for his involvement as a Fyre Festival partner, relatively-inexperienced organizer McFarland was indicted for wire fraud and sentenced to prison for six years for his role in the festival-that-wasn’t.
Among the many ways McFarland parted festivalgoers with the contents of their wallets was to inform them that the event would be cashless and cardless, urging attendees to deposit $1,500 in advance on a wristband that certainly did not end up working on-site. McFarland went on to further scam Fyre ticket buyers while awaiting justice for the first crime.
We asked Mick about his experience with the film.
Town Square Delaware: Is this your first foray into film? How did the film come together?
Mick Purzycki: It is. Chris Smith was the director, and I was the producer; we did it together. We both co-founded the film and funded it independently. We worked in association with Vice and Matte Projects.
TSD: Without giving away the film, can you give us an overview?
Purzycki: Fyre documents all the things that went wrong with the Fyre Festival. At a certain point after we cover the collapse, we get into the character development of the CEO, Billy McFarland, and about decisions made that were not just poor decisions, but also lacked ethical and legal boundaries.
There was another chapter of the CEO’s life, where he continues to do other fraudulent things while out on bail. There’s a pattern: he’s a very talented, persuasive, charming, convincing, “next coming of Richard Branson” guy. But ultimately he had some deeper-rooted psychological issues that pushed him to do things that normal people wouldn’t do.
One example is photoshopping thousands of unauthorized images into documents he sent to investors; then the wire fraud. His second criminal activity was revictimizing his Fyre Festival ticket buyers by selling fake tickets to them. These were tickets to The Masters, The Met Gala, dinner with LeBron James—to which he never had any inventory of tickets and no plan to fulfill the offers.
At the sentencing, the judge does acknowledge some good things McFarland did in his life. But while a judge might normally chalk this first failed event up to entrepreneurial megalomania and youthful exuberance, the fact that he did this subsequent crime suggested a pattern.
It is an exploration into his character and what his employees thought of him. He was able to activate a massive base of people, yet failed to deliver.
The story is an allegory for Instagram in general. To some, it’s all a façade: there’s nothing real beyond the feed and the influencers. A generation defined by filters.
TSD: What was the experience of creating a documentary like? What, specifically, was your role?
Purzycki: Chris and I basically came up with the vision, which we’d had separately and had planned to execute. After we got together, it became the traditional separation between director and producer.
The work of a documentary involved bringing in interviews and acquiring information to make sure you’re covering everything. After acquiring the interviews, the work transferred to the post-production team, and we built a great team.
Jon Karmen was the lead editor, and was really great. Chris and I had the task of getting people to trust us—most people wanted to stay far away from this—assuring them that we wouldn’t cover anybody negatively. Every time we acquired footage, Jon was piecing together the unpolished elements of the doc into a polished piece.
TSD: Where did you travel to find people who were swindled by McFarland?
Purzycki: I bounced around. We went to the Bahamas to interview locals impacted by the festival. A hundred people or so were still owed money. Some lost significant money: MaryAnn Rolle, the proprietor of Exuma Point Resort, lost $50,000.
For the locals, they thought this was the biggest thing that would ever happen for them, billed as the next Coachella. The whole island was working toward making this a reality. Cleaning, building, cooking. That’s the biggest tragedy of all. The media focused on the ripped-off ticketholders. But the people most impacted were the Bahamians, who gave the time, money and energy to pull this off.
Nothing has ever really been given back to them. We do want to give back from the proceeds of the film.
I also visited Los Angeles and Miami and we also interviewed people here in New York.
TSD: What was the general timeline for the film?
Purzycki: We started in November 2017, finished in December 2018. There was a ton of legal stuff post-production, issues with the score, coloring the film. We had to introduce another interview and make ongoing tweaks.
TSD: What were the people like that you interviewed?
Purzycki: The big epiphany was the Fyre team itself. There were a lot of really talented people who really cared and who have serious empathy and compassion, working around the clock. A lot of companies are built from the top down and if people don’t have access to information and are not empowered… People didn’t even know enough to know if they should step away from this or not. They were wonderful people.
We thought they might be less than the thoroughly capable people they were. We built good relationships throughout the process. There were great stories everywhere.
[Artist] Kindo Harper had kind of a passive creative role. In the film, he does a really good job analyzing and understanding McFarland. He reconfirms some of the notions portrayed in the bigger events of the documentary.
We want to let the audience form their own opinion of him, but Ja Rule really did his job to be the hype man and he trusted the operator to do his best. He was involved, but sometimes one can only be accountable to the work stream you’re responsible for.
Employees were pushed to their limits by McFarland and their management. They fell so incredibly hard and were misguided by this other person in his unethical pursuit. When you feel yourself doing that, it’s like a person who is being abused by their spouse, someone on whom they are still dependent. Their values and principles were changed. They felt deceived.
TSD: How did your firm Jerry Media end up in the pitch deck that was given to investors?
Purzycki: Jerry Media was thrown in there as a “Fyre Starter.” We never gave approval for that. What was real is that we were responsible for their social media designs and helping with marketing, pre-launch. We were one of six New York marketing agencies working together. One of the agencies did a great job: the event sold out. Where the festival failed was on the island. Logistically, feasibility-wise. The budgeting was remarkable.
They had a relationship with us. We didn’t even promote the festival, they just snuck us into the pitch deck.
TSD: Did you learn any great life lessons from the experience of documenting the charred remains of the Fyre Festival?
Purzycki: Yes. I learned. For me, I was very close to Billy McFarland in that I was bringing him in for interviews and asking him how things unfolded. That whole time he was in the midst of legal troubles and also concurrently still doing illegal things.
I got to see firsthand when an entrepreneur can really go too far and feel as though they can control things. As a young entrepreneur, it was almost helpful to be so close to seeing someone else make so many mistakes in business that he’s now behind bars. It’s a reminder to me take those lines very seriously and make sure whatever we do to compete and stay ahead is within legal and ethical boundaries.
What you may see in the film is that he was bad, but he wasn’t all bad. Each person can see where they land with him.
The judge did acknowledge all of the good sides, essentially saying, “My job is not to judge the good side. Despite the good and anyone whom you’ve helped, your bad side needs to be kept in check.”