Dossier

Under Fyre: Debt Culture in the Streaming Era


Nilo Couret

From Film Quarterly, Fall 2020, Volume 74, Number 1

In what trade papers termed an escalation of the so-called streaming wars, Hulu “rush released” Fyre Fraud (Jenner Furst and Julia Willoughby Nason, 2019) on January 14, 2019, four days before Netflix debuted Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened (Chris Smith, 2019). Both of these documentaries, each racing to be first, provide insider knowledge about the infamous Fyre Festival in the Bahamas, a fraudulent luxury concert experience turned notorious social-media disaster. Festivalgoers, who had paid anywhere from $450 to $250,000, went to the Bahamas expecting the “once-in-a-lifetime musical experience” promised by Fyre’s glitzy advertising, only to find a logistics and public-relations disaster: canceled musical acts, disaster-relief tents as accommodations, and dysfunctional management. Fyre borrowed money to finance the festival, expecting to pay back investors with future revenue that failed to materialize; Fyre was then unable to meet its debt obligations. Fyre Media faced dozens of lawsuits alleging fraud and breach of contract, and subsequent SEC investigations found that Fyre’s CEO, Billy McFarland, had fraudulently induced investments into the company.

Finance capitalism is fueled by credit and debt, ubiquitous yet elusive social forms that render online scams as ideal sites for unpacking the rise and fall of the consumer-credit economy. Back in 2008, in the wake of the credit crisis, Jeff Kinkle and Alberto Toscano surveyed (in this journal, no less) mainstream representations of economic crises and found that most narratives struggled to account for the economic collapse, yet the complexity of financial instruments, the immaterial labor of knowledge work, and the connectivity of global finance capitalism “[posed] obdurate problems for plot and image.”1 They wondered whether contemporary financial crises had given rise to aesthetic and narrative responses similar to the paranoid style of 1970s conspiracy thrillers, which Fredric Jameson argued at the time were symptomatic of the economic stagnation of that decade.

Perhaps the liquidity crisis that brought down Fyre offers an analogue for the culture of excessive financialization of the contemporary moment, one that leverages debt (of individuals, of corporations, of governments) to generate and circulate surplus value.2 That Fyre’s insolvency has disproportionately affected the Bahamian workforce to which it promised a windfall foregrounds the neocolonial and racialized dimensions of financialization.3 If the Fyre fraud gives narrative and visual form to the credit economy and its many shortcomings, then perhaps the Fyre documentaries can be read as allegories of the trouble the crisis would soon cause for filmmaking in the streaming era.4 They are allegories not because Fyre CEO Billy McFarland corresponds to Donald Trump but rather because they present his festival scam as a failure of representation; as such, they provide the occasion for an analytic process that registers the contradictions of finance capitalism. The scam is the aesthetic form of the credit crisis, and the temporality of “deferred losses and anticipated profits” that characterizes credit is also the temporality of the scam.5 Annie McClanahan’s recent study of the contemporary culture of debt examines how cultural texts made post-2008 have grappled with the consequences of financialization.6 She asks whether cultural texts can mediate—and perhaps help audiences recognize—the uncertain ground of the credit economy. Mobile-app development, social-media advertising, and streaming platforms invite speculation as to how contemporary debt and media intersect within this new methodology of crisis aesthetics.

Magnises: A Credit Card with No Credit

Disgraced CEO Billy McFarland’s schemes can best be understood in the context of the consumer-credit economy, which has been the defining feature of the American economy since the mid-1970s, with the credit card as its paradigmatic financial instrument. Before Fyre, McFarland had launched Magnises, a membership club for millennials with a membership card made of heavyweight metal, modeled after the American Express black card but at a lower price point. Magnises launched in 2014, offering members perks and privileges and the cachet of using a conspicuous card—which, unfortunately, was not associated with any financial institution. Merely transposing new members’ existing cards and information onto a blank piece of metal, it was literally just for show.

Disgraced CEO Billy McFarland.

Not only was the card worthless; the company also struggled with cash flow. The experiences promised by Magnises were usually ploys to secure liquidity: Hamilton tickets were paid today with the proceeds from tomorrow’s Beyoncé tickets, which would be paid with the money raised by offering Super Bowl seats the day after. It was a classic Ponzi scheme. Magnises foreshadowed the Fyre Festival in several ways—as an aspirational commodity promising one-of-a-kind experiences, with an initial valuation predicated on early adopters lured by marketing that was backed by venture capital leveraged by misleading investors; and finally, in its complete failure to deliver to both members and investors.7

The case of Fyre illustrates how debt financing and Ponzi schemes share a temporal logic of deferral and anticipation. During their start-up phase, businesses usually have little or no revenue or profits. The necessary liquidity for the business venture comes primarily from equity financing (selling a stake in the company) or debt financing based on a valuation of the company. All that matters is what the company is worth, not what it earns. McFarland’s business model follows the logic of financialization, which “allows capital to treat an anticipated realization of value as if it has already happened.”8 As with any number of Silicon Valley companies pitching venture capital, this logic allowed McFarland to postpone the realization of value and defer profitability into the future while collecting on it in the present.

Credit, like any swindler, makes promises about the future. This is why, as Hito Steyerl argues, scams are actually “reverse-mirrorings of financial protocols of business” because they rely on “replicating the quite fictitious ways of creating (or simulating) value in finance.”9

Fyre Media: “The Artist Is Present” as Sales Pitch

McFarland’s business ventures correspond to trends in finance over the past decade. Although ostensibly unrelated, both consumer credit and the apps of the “platform economy” must be understood as outgrowths of the financialization of the economy because their success stems from “the infusion of venture-capital … following the deregulation of banking in the mid-1990s.”10 In fact, the 2008 suburban housing crisis and seizing up of credit markets actually coincided with the launch of Apple’s iPhone and App Store. Although software applications preceded the smartphone, “apps” became “the fastest-growing subsection of software” because they integrated software into everyday activity.11 Naturally, there had to be a Fyre app—one more node in a speculative enterprise that combined the swipe logic of Tinder with the “attention capital” of celebrity.12

Fyre Media: “Tinder for Event Planning.”

McFarland’s Fyre Media, meanwhile, claiming access to a roster of celebrities, promised a talent-booking platform for consumers looking to hire musicians, artists, and celebrities through an auction marketplace dubbed “Tinder for event planning.” Fyre Media secured tens of millions of dollars in venture capital from over a hundred investors, recruiting performers and users by promising the ability to book celebrity entertainment without fees for agents or middlemen. These users could first be matched with performers with a swipe and then place bids.

With the Fyre Media app, “The artist is present” became a sales pitch. As Steyerl argues, the imperative that the artist be present fit an economy that put a premium on immediacy because human presence could still be manipulated by the representational regime of financial capitalism into delivering “(almost) real-time communication and physical absence.”13 If, for Steyerl, the idea of presence invoked a seemingly unalienated experience, it was one that Fyre Media packaged as a commodity within a market for attention.14 The Fyre app trafficked in providing experiences much as it had offered the Magnises card, substituting one financial instrument for another, auctioning physical presence to the highest bidder in a new marketplace.

Documenting Fyre

In their survey of films of the 2008 crisis, Kinkle and Toscano found “limits to denunciation.”15 Crucially, they faulted documentary films for failing to provide “a more systemic perspective on the shifting shape of American capitalism.”16 Surely they would dismiss the Fyre documentaries for merely personifying greed in the case of McFarland and his cronies along with the suffering of their many victims.

Both documentaries use firsthand accounts by Fyre staff, festival ticket holders, Bahamian laborers, and the owner of the @FyreFraud account to expose the event’s on-the-ground failures. The documentaries portray the festival as more than a massive failure in logistics. In McFarland, they find a character upon whom to assign blame and a figure representative of the excesses of finance capitalism: he associated with Aubrey McClendon, a fossil-fuel tycoon who was under investigation by his own company for suspicious financial practices and later indicted for violating antitrust laws; he expanded his brand into private chartered air travel (Magnises Air) and sporting events (SportsPass); and he was himself the son of real-estate developers.17 The combination makes him into a sort of ersatz Trump who can be humiliated and exposed.

I would suggest, contrary to Kinkle and Toscano, that the use of personification is of interest, for it works alongside as well as at cross-purposes with viewer identification. As Jia Tolentino notes, stories about scams allow the audience to have it both ways: “the pleasure of seeing the scammer exposed and humiliated, but also the retrospective, vicarious thrill of watching the scammer take people for a ride.”18 Nor does a judgment of character preclude judgments levied on the systemic or collective. Recalling that judgments of character lay at the heart of credit evaluation and that the rise of the novel with its socially legible characters coincided with narratives of credit evaluation, McClanahan offers personification as a way to denaturalize the concept of character and “expose the mediations that produce social persons.”19

These documentaries choose to personify in order to track the many ways personhood is mediated in the twenty-first century. Consider the opening sequence of Fyre Fraud. A narrator describes in voice-over a hypothetical scene of someone living a mundane life who happens upon a Fyre Festival video advertisement: embedded as it is in an Instagram post, its view count climbs precipitously until a cutaway to a shot of a moving camera circling around people frozen in action. This was an example of a “mannequin challenge”—a viral internet video trend popular in November 2016 in which frozen people are identified when a tag pops up with their Instagram handle. The same voiceover explains that “these influencers are people that you follow, that you aspire to be.” The sequence concludes with a final tag: “this could be you.” The sequence shows how well Fyre’s marketing team understood that social legibility under finance capitalism is a matter of social-media clout.

Rather than damning personification as an operation of ideological reduction, then, these documentaries foreground it as precisely what is at stake. Both documentaries question whether influencers—the “Fyre starters” who were hired to appear in the video and publicize the content to their followers—might be responsible (and indirectly liable) for the festival fiasco. In Fyre Fraud, Tolentino explains that influencers monetized their identity and offered a performance of an attractive life, followed by interviews with two influencers and one parodic influencer. The influencers speak about themselves as a brand: “Health. Wellness. And honestly just positivity.”

There is a significant distinction between characterization and personification. Both films seem to ask: “How could anyone believe this man?” As allegorical documentaries, these dueling programs embrace the impossibility of credibility within contemporary crisis narratives. McFarland is absent from one (Fyre) and compromised by the other (Fyre Fraud) since the latter paid him a reported $250,000 to appear. To fault the latter for paying McFarland, though, would be to subscribe to a model of characterization from the nineteenth century whereby credibility is conferred on a disinterested character. The troublesome issue of McFarland’s monetized presence or unmonetized absence underlines how that model has lost currency under financial capitalism.

Documentary or “Branded Nonfiction Content”?

Fyre Fraud may have paid McFarland to appear, but Netflix’s Fyre: The Greatest Party that Never Happened was produced by Jerry Media, the advertising firm responsible for the Fyre Festival video and social-media campaigns. After the fiasco, Jerry Media collaborated with Vice Media to produce the Netflix documentary. Despite Jerry Media’s conflicts of interest, it is important to point to Fyre’s preexisting and direct ties to the influencer economy.

Jerry Media is the media and marketing arm of the Instagram FuckJerry influencer account created by Elliot Tebele to scour the internet for memes that are then shared with fourteen million followers.20 At its height, the account was charging clients $50,000 for a single sponsored post, promising some eight million hits per post. Tebele’s ventures had deals with dozens of clients, including Subway, Express, and General Mills.21

Jerry Media’s campaign for Fyre Festival was predicated on “visual disruption.” The idea that advertising should capture viewers’ attention is not novel, but Jerry Media specialized in maximizing user engagement on social-media platforms by visually arresting web surfers’ practices of consumption. Its orange tile, a monochromatic teaser designed to jam algorithmically selected strings of images, enticed the compulsively scrolling Instagram user to stop. This “visual disruption” defines its approach not only to advertising and digital content but also to these documentaries. As Amanda Lotz explains, “[C]ontent that attracts subscribers” is different from “content that will gather a mass.”22

Membership programming need only provide enough value to justify subscriber fees. Is this what documentary produced by Vice Media does, too? Fyre places Jerry Media footage into the sensibility of Vice Media’s branded style of “immersive, docu-style content.” Although Vice positioned itself as part of a “new content revolution” and drew acclaim for its aggressive approach to journalism, users were most engaged by the salacious content that generated the bulk of its revenue—content low on the media-value scale.

In addition to advertising, video production, and event planning, Vice resold low-cost video to content-hungry markets. If Vice Media is the mirror image of Fyre Media, it’s no surprise that Vice’s ousted CEO Shane Smith bears a striking resemblance to McFarland. At his most successful, Smith was compared to Zero Mostel in The Producers (Mel Brooks, 1967), with the Hollywood Reporter marveling at his showmanship and unorthodox business model that “strain[s] credulity.”23 By the end of the decade, however, Smith was ousted after a revenue shortfall. Smith had grown Vice Media’s global empire by expanding operations with equity financing, but later Vice had to rely on debt financing to secure additional capital.24 Vice began to focus its energies on Vice Studios to access the money available from streaming services for production and development of original content.25

Netflix under Fyre

It is hard to ignore how the same features that fueled McFarland’s growth also characterize the Netflix model and that of most other online viewing platforms. Netflix provides less a physical product than a customer experience. As Amanda Lotz notes, what distinguishes internet-distributed television is the ability “to deliver personally-selected content from an industrially curated library.”26 Netflix relies on technological developments in data monitoring and analysis to tailor its library for different subscribers—a strategy of “mass customization” that not only shapes its highly individualized marketing and recommendations but also drives its content production and development.

The ultimate feature in finance capitalism is Netflix’s debt drive. As licensing agreements elapsed and new platforms arose to house legacy content, Netflix transitioned into developing original content to drive subscriber growth and justify its higher price point. Netflix now needs enormous sums of money to fund its original-content strategy.27

In order to raise this money, Netflix must either raise prices or sell debt. Although subscription rates increased in 2019, it prefers to borrow money and is known as a “serial issuer of debt,” raising $12.8 billion in high-yield debt in the decade 2009–19.28 Netflix burns through cash and takes on incremental debt to maintain its market position, spending a record $13 billion in 2018 alone.29 The question Netflix has long had to answer for its investors was whether its extravagant spending on content would deliver “the required pay-off to not only settle debts but also help Netflix maintain its position.”30

In mid-2019, Netflix seemed poised to decline after an uncharacteristic dip in subscribers.31 The 2020 pandemic, however, portends a reversal of Netflix’s fortunes, because of both its subscriber growth and the financial troubles of its competitors.32 Ironically, COVID-19 might ensure that Netflix can pay its debts. Pandemic emboldened, the rating agency Moody’s changed its outlook on Netflix to positive after years of warning that the company would not break even on cash flow until late 2023.33

With that, the Fyre fraud has come around full circle, recognizable now less as a spectacle of capitalism run amok than an exemplar of the inner workings of entertainment capitalism, its monetization of the experience economy now exposed and laid low, fuel for another round of documentary exposés intent on profiting from its demise.

Notes

1. Jeff Kinkle and Alberto Toscano, “Filming the Crisis: A Survey,” Film Quarterly 65, no. 1 (Fall 2011): 40. 2. Maurizio Lazzarato, The Making of the Indebted Man, trans. Joshua David Jordan (Cambridge, MA, MIT Press, 2012), 106. 3. Fred Moten has characterized Black being as a “being-in-collection” to explain the position of the Black “subprime debtor” as one of permanent indebtedness. See Fred Moten, “The Subprime and the Beautiful,” African Identities 11, no. 2 (2013): 239–40. 4. Following Jameson, allegory here signifies a “diagnostic instrument,” not the one-to-one correspondence by which features of a primary narrative are “correlated with features of a second one that then becomes the meaning of the first.” Fredric Jameson, Allegory and Ideology (London: Verso, 2019), 5. 5. Annie McClanahan, Dead Pledges: Debt, Crisis, and Twenty-First-Century Culture (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2018), 40. 6. McClanahan, Dead Pledges, 2. 7. Federal investigations later uncovered that the festival had been debt-financed through loans underwritten by fraudulent financial information and accepted under increasingly extortionate terms. More problematically, Fyre paid back loans with money procured from other loans. With a possible $25 million deal with Comcast Ventures on the horizon, Fyre sought to assure wary creditors and attract new investors with the promise of future collateral. See Joe Coscarelli, Melena Ryzik, and Ben Sisario, “Anger, Lawsuits and Inquiry Follow Music Festival’s Failure,” New York Times, May 22, 2017, A1(L). 8. McClanahan, Dead Pledges, 13. 9. Hito Steyerl, Duty Free Art: Art in the Age of Planetary Civil War (London: Verso, 2017), 126. 10. Steven P. Vallas, “Platform Capitalism: What’s at Stake for Workers?,” New Labor Forum 28, no. 1 (January 2019): 52. 11. Jeremy Wade Morris and Sarah Murray, eds., Appified: Culture in the Age of Apps (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2018), 2. In 2018, worldwide app revenues were $92.1 billion and are expected to rise to $139.6 billion in 2021. See also Anne Freier, “App Revenue Reaches $92.1 Billion in 2018 Driven by Mobile Gaming Apps,” Business of Apps, September 13, 2018, http://www.businessofapps.com/news/app-revenue-reaches-92-1-billion-in-2018-driven-by-mobile-gaming-apps/. 12. Morris and Murray, Appified, 3. See also Gaby David and Carolina Cambre, “Screened Intimacies: Tinder and the Swipe Logic.” Social Media + Society, April 2016, 1–11. 13. Steyerl, Duty Free Art, 117. See also W. J. T. Mitchell, What Do Pictures Want?: The Lives and Loves of Images (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), 149. 14. Steyerl, Duty Free Art, 22–24. 15. Kinkle and Toscano, “Filming the Crisis,” 48. 16. Kinkle and Toscano, “Filming the Crisis,” 50. 17. McFarland resurfaced in April 2020 from inside prison when he launched Project-315, an initiative to pay for the phone calls of federal inmates affected by the coronavirus. McFarland’s most recent scheme finds a marketable opportunity to address both the COVID-19 pandemic and the problems of the prison-industrial complex. 18. Jia Tolentino, Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion (New York: Random House, 2019), 182. 19. McClanahan, Dead Pledges, 58, 77. 20. FuckJerry has come under fire (cf. @FuckFuckJerry) for the ways it profits from meme culture with little attribution and claims of value-added via curation. See Vic Berger, “Op-Ed: It’s Time to Cancel FuckJerry,” Rolling Stone, February 5, 2019, http://www.rollingstone.com/culture/culture-features/vic-berger-opinion-cancel-fuck-jerry-media-789699/. 21. Alexandra Sternlicht, “Fyre-Proof: The Sudden Fall and Swift Reemergence of F*ckJerry’s Elliot Tebele,” Forbes, October 24, 2019, http://www.forbes.com/sites/alexandrasternlicht/2019/10/24/fyre-proof-the-sudden-fall-and-swift-re-emergence-of-fckjerrys-elliot-tebele/. 22. Amanda D. Lotz, introduction to Portals: A Treatise on Internet-Distributed Television (Ann Arbor, MI: Michigan Publishing, University of Michigan Library, 2017), https://quod.lib.umich.edu/m/maize/mpub9699689. 23. Michael Wolff, “Why Hollywood Is Drinking the Vice Media Kool-Aid,” Hollywood Reporter, September 19, 2014, 30+. 24. In 2014, A&E Networks invested $250 million for a 10 percent interest; a tech venture firm, TCV, followed with $250 million for another 10 percent; Murdoch bought 5 percent for $70 million in 2013 on behalf of 21st Century–Fox; Martin Sorrell, CEO of WPP, the world’s largest advertising and PR firm, put $25 million in; and Tom Freston, a former Viacom CEO, invested his own money. By 2019, Vice Media announced that it had raised $250 million in debt funding from investors including the billionaire financier George Soros. The Walt Disney Company, which invested more than $400 million in Vice Media for a quarter of the company, said in a securities filings that it doesn’t expect to get a return on that investment. See Marc Tracy, “Vice Media Shakes Up Digital Division,” New York Times, June 5, 2019, B5. 25. Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, Apple and Disney Plus will spend roughly $15 billion combined on original content next year, according to Rich Greenfield, a media analyst at BTIG Research. See Brooks Barnes, “The Frat Party Is Over. And Vice Has Matured,” New York Times, May 25 2019, B1 26. Lotz, introduction to Portals. 27. CEO Reed Hastings estimated the library content budget at $1.4 billion per month in early 2019. Meanwhile, Netflix reportedly spent $8 billion in total on content in 2018, $6 billion on acquiring content in 2019, and will spend an additional $7 billion in 2020 and $8 billion in 2021. See Brandon Katz, “Is Netflix Doomed as Competition Grows or Destined to Reign Supreme?,” New York Observer, July 17, 2019. 28. More than three-quarters of that amount has come since 2017, including $1.5 billion in April 2017, $1.6 billion in October 2017, $2 billion in October 2018, and $2.2 billion in April 2019. See Matt Egan, “Netflix’s Not-So-Secret Weapon to Win the Streaming Wars,” CNN Wire, April 25, 2019. 29. In addition to established rivals Amazon Prime Video and Hulu (majority-owned by the Walt Disney Company and now operating as a bridge brand alongside Disney+), Netflix faces increased competition from traditional media companies. In 2019, not only did Disney wipe its content from Netflix’s catalogue, it also launched its Disney+ platform with a limited slate of original content. AT&T’s WarnerMedia and NBCUniversal, meanwhile, this year launched their own streaming services—HBO Max and Peacock, respectively. Even Netflix’s international expansion face competition. For instance, US cable giant Comcast outbid the Walt Disney Company in 2018 to acquire European pay TV company Sky, ensuring inroads into the European market and talent and content sharing across the companies. See Kevin Curran, “Netflix’s Ballooning Debt Prompts Price Target Trimming on Wall Street,” RealMoney, October 16, 2018, https://realmoney.thestreet.com/articles/10/16/2018/netflixs-ballooning-debt-prompts-price-target-trimming-wall-street. 30. “Why the Increasing Netflix Debt Is Worth It to Stay on Top of the Content Game,” MarketLine NewsWire, October 25, 2018. 31. Jayson Derrick, “Analysts Weigh In on Netflix’s Rocky Quarter,” Benzinga.com, July 18, 2019, https://benzinga.com/analyst-ratings/analyst-color/19/07/14096170/analysts-weigh-in-on-netflixs-rocky-quarter. 32. On Netflix’s 2020 pandemic bounceback, see Edmund Lee, “Everyone You Know Just Signed Up for Netflix,” New York Times, April 21, 2020. AT&T and Comcast/NBCUniversal, owners of HBO Max and Peacock, respectively, lost domestic pay-TV customers. More urgently, Disney has lost all revenue from its business interests in Disney Parks, Experiences, and Products. Disney not only expects to take $150 million in tax deferrals from recent legislation, but had a significant stake in the company purchased at a bargain price by a Saudi fund. See Richard Rubin and Theo Francis, “U.S. Companies Start to Reap Tax Breaks to Ride Out Slump,” Wall Street Journal, May 14, 2020, A1; Rory Jones and Summer Said, “Saudi Fund Snaps Up some U.S. Stock Bargains,” Wall Street Journal, May 18, 2020, B1; and Drew Fitzgerald and Lillian Rizzo, “Businesses Join Move to Cut TV Cords,” Wall Street Journal, May 11, 2020, B1. 33. “Moody’s Affirms Netflix’s Ba3 CFR, Changes Outlook to Positive,” Moodys.com, April 22, 2020, http://www.moodys.com/research/Moodys-affirms-Netflixs-Ba3-CFR-changes-outlook-to-positive–PR_423255.

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