Two documentaries examining 2017’s Fyre Festival debacle release on competing streaming sites this week, and a Raleigh native who gained attention on social media for chronicling the mess from the front lines — and who later won part of a $5 million dollar lawsuit against the event organizer — is prominently featured in both.
Seth Crossno, who is known on social media as his fictional character William Needham Finley IV (@WNFIV on Twitter), paid thousands of dollars to attend what organizers described to their target audience of millennial influencers as a luxury music festival. But what Crossno and hundreds of others actually found on the Bahamian island of Great Exuma were disaster-like conditions.
As documented in Hulu’s “Fyre Fraud,” which “surprise dropped” on Monday, Jan. 14, and in Netflix’s “Fyre,” which releases on Friday, Jan. 18, attendees didn’t find the luxury villas, celebrity entertainment and gourmet meals they were promised. They found large tents (a few had plain mattresses, most did not) and meals of sliced cheese on bread served in a Styrofoam tray with bottled water. When darkness fell, there was chaos and looting.
The whole thing was a giant scam.
Crossno, who runs the website ITBInsider.com, began tweeting about the conditions as soon as he arrived at the site, and media outlets took notice. His tweets were used in stories in The Washington Post, CNN and The Guardian, so it’s no surprise documentary filmmakers came looking for him as well.
The first wave of attention that came during the Fyre Fest collapse actually outed Crossno’s previously secret identity behind the @WNFIV Twitter and Instagram accounts, something Crossno said this week he had to just “roll with.”
Media requests are spiking again this week with the documentary releases.
“I’m just kinda on my phone constantly,” Crossno said in a phone interview from New York City on Tuesday, the morning after he attended the Netflix premiere and a half-hour before a scheduled call from the BBC. “I don’t mind talking about it. It was quite an experience.”
Crossno said he went to Fyre Fest to ”cover it and poke fun at the influencer thing,” but after it was all over, he learned more about organizer Billy McFarland (who partnered with rapper Ja Rule) and got sucked into the saga.
“He’s obviously very brilliant at getting people to believe his message and getting people to do what he wants them to do,” Crossno said of McFarland. “But some of this was ‘dumb and dumber’ level stuff, just blatantly lying.”
At the time, the fiasco was portrayed in many media reports and in many late night talk show monologues as rich millennials getting scammed. The whole nation had a good laugh over it (“White people love camping — unless it’s a surprise!” joked Trevor Noah on “The Daily Show.”)
Crossno described the scene at Fyre Fest during an interview in the documentary: “As soon as you get to the entrance … it was just gravel, mattresses stacked up along the road ... This is not what we signed up for.”
A conman at work
The story of McFarland and Fyre Festival is actually fairly complicated, and that’s where the documentaries come in.
Both films use archival footage and interviews with those involved — organizers, attendees and media experts — to explain the many layers of McFarland’s huge con. And both documentaries are crystal clear that it was a con straight from the jump, and that McFarland continued to try to con people even while out on bail after being arrested for fraud.
Crossno was one of the Fyre Festival attendees who continued to get emails from a group called NYC VIP offering to sell tickets to events like the Met Gala, the Masters and the Super Bowl — tickets that didn’t exist. Crossno said in an interview on the documentary that he “assumed Billy sold the email list” but was told on camera that no, it was Billy the whole time. Crossno laughed and shook his head.
Crossno said he understands why people watching the debacle unfold from afar thought it was funny, but he thinks it should be taken seriously.
“I documented this to show people what this was, and I can look back and kinda see why there was humor in it, because if I wasn’t there I would think it was hilarious,” Crossno told The News & Observer. “But it was dangerous and a serious situation. Some of the earlier reports were just ‘these are rich kids, they deserve it,’ and that’s a natural human reaction. But a lot of people paid $500 and it was like their college spring break.”
The $5 million lawsuit
The $5 million lawsuit against McFarland that Crossno and his friend Mark Thompson won with the help of Raleigh attorney Stacy Miller made for good headlines, but Crossno confirms they have yet to see a penny from it. For one thing, McFarland is serving a six-year sentence in federal prison.
“We haven’t gotten anything, but Stacy has a plan for it,” Crossno said of the verdict first reported by the news outlet Vice. “We don’t have 5 million dollars in our pockets. It’s one of those things that could take 20 years, but Stacy’s got a strategy for it. Maybe we’ll do a show about how to find Billy’s money.”
More ‘Fyre’ to come
Crossno isn’t letting the Fyre fiasco go any time soon. He is working on a podcast called “Dumpster Fyre,” which he said will detail all of McFarland’s crimes, including those that preceded Fyre Festival.
“There are so many details, it’s impossible to put them all in a movie,” Crossno said. “This will be a humorous ‘Serial’-style podcast, trying to have fun with it. Looking back, there are things where you go ‘This is bonkers.’ ”
Crossno is also interested in helping raise money for some of the workers in the Bahamas who were never paid by McFarland for their goods and services in trying to get the festival site built.
“We’re looking at, is there a way to fix that?” he said. “How do we start a charity thing around this? ... I think there will be some efforts to raise money for them.”
Pick a Fyre documentary
▪ Hulu’s “Fyre Fraud” documentary premiered on the streaming site Monday, Jan. 14. It’s directed by Jenner Furst and Julia Willoughby Nason and runs about 96 minutes. “Fyre Fraud” has some of the same interviews as the Netflix documentary and it does a really good job of explaining what influencers are and why they were courted so heavily by organizer Billy McFarland and his marketing team. It also goes in-depth into McFarland’s background, including the founding of his company Magnises.
What “Fyre Fraud” has that Netflix’s “Fyre” doesn’t is interviews with McFarland. The controversy here is that the online news site The Ringer has reported that McFarland told Netflix director Chris Smith that he was paid $250,000 to be in the Hulu documentary. Furst confirmed to The Ringer that participants were paid licensing fees for footage and that McFarland was paid some money, but that McFarland is lying about the $250,000 figure. (The Ringer article points out other interesting back-and-forth controversies regarding both films.)
▪ Netflix’s “Fyre” documentary will land on the streaming site Friday, Jan. 18. It is directed by Chris Smith and also runs about 96 minutes. “Fyre” has a lot of “behind-the-scenes” footage featuring McFarland and his team while planning Fyre Festival. (Smith’s documentary is produced by Jerry Media, the marketing team for Fyre Festival and a group many believe own some of the blame for McFarland’s con).