Which Fyre Festival documentary should you watch? Probably neither.

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In the history of cinema there have been numerous twin movies: movies that have come out at the same time that are about the same thing. Volcano and Dante’s Peak. Armageddon and Deep Impact. A Bug’s Life and Antz. And now, two dueling documentaries about the Fyre festival on Netflix and Hulu: Fyre directed by Chris Smith on Netflix, and Fyre Fraud directed by Jenner Furst and Julia Willoughby Nason on Hulu. They both dropped this week, and I want to tell you about which one you should watch.

Let’s talk about what’s similar about both films. They are both enthralling retellings of all the components that went into the Fyre Festival. In fact, both of them cover many of the same story beats and even use the same footage at times. They’re both competently made and they each run about 90 minutes.

Fyre on Netflix is a better shot film. Aesthetically, it just looks more pleasing to the eye with nice use of lighting and skillful situating of interviewees in interesting and dynamic backgrounds. It does a better job capturing the moment-by-moment existential dread of the lead up to the festival, as well as how the planning all went wrong. Also, in my opinion, the quality of the b-roll and footage they got is more compelling, and some of it is extremely damning. There are moments in Fyre that will be talked about and meme-ified for years to come.

Fyre Fraud on Hulu casts its net much wider and tries to assess the culture of influencers and social media that led to something like Fyre Festival even taking place. A lot of it is interesting and great modern context for the festival, but I also found the Hulu documentary much more irritating stylistically. It often used a computer text-to-speech program to read important documents, plus a bunch of stock footage? It was very distracting and I think it took away from the storytelling.

Both documentaries are competent overall and they’re almost complementary in how they illuminate the facts behind this incident. They also each have some pretty serious ethical issues.

The Hulu documentary has an interview with serial entrepreneur and scam artist Billy MacFarland, the man who created the Fyre Festival. That said, it doesn’t hold back on portraying MacFarland as a scam artist. It delves deep into his other businesses and does a better job of explaining not only the depth of his deception, but also the societal circumstances that would allow him to pull of a fraud of this scale. Despite all that, the MacFarland interview itself is pretty useless. MacFarland is almost completely unapologetic, and there is pretty much no self-reflection going on there. If you want the interview as a way to confirm that his lying is indeed pathological, then the Hulu documentary will deliver that, but many of the shots of MacFarland are just of him sitting silently, looking awkwardly down at the floor, refusing to say anything.

The problem is, the filmmakers behind Fyre Fraud paid Billy MacFarland for his interview. Just how much he was paid has not been confirmed, but MacFarland claims it was $250,000. The filmmakers have stated that it was “much lower” than that but they have not shared what the actual number was. So when you’re watching the Hulu documentary, you are, in some small way, helping to enrich the guy who put on the Fyre Festival. And that feels pretty gross.

What’s clear from these movies is that there was a massive human cost to Fyre Festival, beyond just a bunch of millennials having a bad camping weekend. Investors were defrauded but the most heartbreaking thing is all the people who worked on the festival itself. Locals who spent time building the tents, as well as those who worked on the festival that tried to salvage the situation. The festival created a ton of human misery and to be in some way supporting the mastermind behind it doesn’t feel good.

But if that sounds bad, just wait! There’s more!

The Netflix documentary, Fyre, is co-produced by Vice and Jerry Media, the latter of which is a company that helped market the original festival. In that movie’s telling of the story, the people from Jerry Media, who sit for on-camera interviews, were duped by this con-man. They had no idea that the festival was going to be such a disaster, and when they were cashing those marketing checks and enticing people to fly to the festival, they were just doing their jobs. For a variety of reasons, some of which are covered in the Hulu documentary, this strains credulity.

More galling is the fact that at no point during the course of the entire documentary prior to the credits is it even disclosed that the subjects of the documentary are producers on the film. Jerry Media was even named as part of the class action lawsuit against the festival. The fact that the Netflix documentary omits details like this is honestly pretty insane and I’m shocked they aren’t catching more flack for it. It also makes you wonder what other facts they’re leaving out.

So, both movies are in some ways ethically compromised and if you really want to know which documentary to watch and still feel like a good person, the answer is probably neither of them. Don’t support anything about any of what’s going on in trying to market this grift to you. But if you have to watch one, watch the Netflix one. It’s a better film, and at least you’re not helping Billy MacFarland out in any way – just the marketing people who helped perpetrate one of the biggest disasters in music festival history.


Some more links from the week:

500

As of this week, I’ve hosted and produced 500 episodes of the Slashfilmcast. You can listen to our 500th episode here. In this episode, my co-hosts and I reflect on how the show began, how the industry has changed, and what our favorite moments and films from the past decade have been.

The podcast has had a profound effect on my life and it seems to have had a strong impact on the lives of others as well. I’ve made so many friends and had so many wonderful conversations and experiences this past decade. It was nice to take a step back and just reflect on how unusual and interesting this entire journey has been.

I had a wonderful time making this episode and hope you enjoy listening to it.

What is clickbait, anyway?

Over the weekend, a Twitter user named Dakota Lopez posted a list of the websites that were most frequently called out by a Twitter account called FilmClickbait:

FilmClickbait quote tweets out headlines from film news websites and blogs, usually revealing the information that is teased. Here’s an example:

I have some thoughts on all this, but here are a few caveats before I proceed:

    Coming in sixth on that list is slashfilm.com, a site I used to write for regularly and that I currently still host a weekly podcast for.
    I have not verified Lopez’s methodology or his final counts, but nothing about the list strikes me as implausible.
    I can’t comment on whether there’s anything “disproportionately malicious” happening, but it seems possible that the sites that rank highest simply traffic more frequently in what FilmClickbait deems clickbait.

Here is the problem with FilmClickbait’s entire modus operandi: There is no widely understood definition of clickbait, and if there is one, it’s not one that seems to match FilmClickbait’s.

In 2014, Ben Smith wrote a piece for Buzzfeed (a site that would know or thing or two about clickbait) explaining why the site no longer used “clickbait.” In it, he defines clickbait as headlines that fundamentally mislead the reader about what the article is about. When Buzzfeed used to do this, they’d generate short term engagement, but they’d destroy user trust. So they stopped:

If your goal — as is ours at BuzzFeed — is to deliver the reader something so new, funny, revelatory, or delightful that they feel compelled to share it, you have to do work that delivers on the headline’s promise, and more. This is a very high bar. It’s one thing to enjoy reading something, and quite another to make the active choice to share it with your friends. This is a core fact of sharing and the social web of Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and other platforms.

The best way to ensure your readers won’t choose to share a story or a post is to trick them. Anyone who has spent the last 20 years online knows the specific disgust that comes with a headline that doesn’t deliver on its promise. It’s the kind of taste you get in your mouth from a glistening but spoiled peach. The publisher got the page view, and ComScore doesn’t record your flash of anger. But you’re hardly going to subject your friends to this experience. (Maybe your enemies.)

Smith even went on to provide tips on how to write good headlines:

Great headlines, meanwhile, tell you a lot about what you’re going to read, and persuade you to click because you know you’ll find a story that will satisfy your interest. The lists that BuzzFeed has long been known for are, as list titles tend to be, extremely direct; “31 Genius Hacks For Your Elementary School Art Class” is just that. As my colleague Ryan Broderick puts it, the goal is often, in fact, to “blow away the curiosity gap.” One of his recent headlines: “A 5-Year-Old Girl Raised Enough Money To Take Her Father Who Has Terminal Cancer To Disney World.”

When you look over Filmclickbait’s targets, there are certainly pieces that fall within the standard definition of clickbait. But there are at least as many pieces that simply don’t adhere to Filmclickbait’s version of a good headline.

Take today as an example. Many websites are writing about Game of Thrones final season premiere date:

Nothing in the headline that is being linked to is misleading. It simply doesn’t include the most crucial piece of information that is teased. And while some (many?) might find it annoying to click through to the actual article, it’s important to ask other questions beyond whether that info is in the tweet/headline itself: Does the article provide important context? Does it provide insights and information that you might not otherwise have known?

If no, then eventually readers will decide on their own that your website is not worth reading or sharing, and the laws of Darwin will eliminate the publication from the pool of going concerns. But if yes, then value is still being delivered to the reader. I don’t understand how that could be called clickbait, or if it can be, I don’t understand why that distinction is important because literally every publication does it.

Here’s a screenshot from today’s New York Times about U.S. tensions with Iran. It reads: “Pentagon Officials Fear Bolton’s Actions Increase Risk of Clash with Iran”

It would be ludicrous for a clickbait-like account to simply quote tweet this article and flippantly write, “He asked for military options to strike Iran!” Why? Because the article itself might contain other information that is important to know about! Simply because the headline doesn’t contain all the relevant information doesn’t make it a bad or clickbait-y headline. And sure, pop culture ephemera doesn’t have the weighty importance of national security, but the same concept applies.

I wholeheartedly believe that there are websites that act in bad faith. But by refusing to distinguish between actively misleading headlines and headlines that simply don’t (can’t?) include all the possible relevant information, FilmClickbait throws the baby out with the bathwater. It provides a skewed perspective on what “clickbait” and bad headline writing even is. That’s arguably an equal disservice to the fan community as the prevalence of actual clickbait.


A few interesting things from the web recently:

LG’s new roll-up TV looks amazing

LG just announced this 4K TV, which can roll itself into a box when it’s not being used. I love that we are at the dawn of TVs that are actually starting have aesthetic considerations as part of their design.

The big questions for me are whether a rolled up TV can look as good as a non-rolled up one, and how durable the rolling mechanism will be. Will it wear out over time? Either way, the price will probably be prohibitively expensive for many years. But we’ll see…

My top 10 films of 2018

It’s exactly one week into the new year, so what better time to release my top 10 films of 2018 than right at the edge of when people will find them relevant?

I’m going to try to commit to making two YouTube videos per month in 2019 so if you enjoyed the above, be sure to subscribe to my channel to get updates on my new stuff.

For the podcast version of this, check out this week’s /Filmcast where we count down our top 10’s and run through a bunch of other categories from 2018.

My 10 favorite longreads of 2018

Every year for the past few years I’ve put together a list of my 10 favorite longreads, which include lengthy journalistic features and other forms of online writing. This year, I actually feel like I read more than I ever have before, although much of it was shorter form and thus not the best fit for this list. With news moving at the speed it does these days, I found myself engrossed by detailed write-ups of current events, rather than expanding my mind with rich stories of people I’d never heard of before.

Still, there’s plenty of amazing writing to be found online as always. You can go here to read my previous years’ lists. Here are my 10 favorite longreads of 2018, in no particular order:

The Young and the Reckless – Brendan Koerner wrote a great yarn for Wired about what happens when hacking Xboxes goes from being a fun hobby to a life-altering, law-enforcement-provoking activity. As a former Microsoft employee, it was fascinating to read about this case, which I’d heard nothing about when I worked for Xbox.

Too Many Men – In China and India, men outnumber women by 70 million, and we are about to witness how this involuntary social experiment will play out on a massive scale. Simon Denyer and Annie Gowen put together a startling piece for the Washington Post about this vast gender imbalance and what it will mean for society.

Sperm Count Zero – Speaking of ways in which humanity is doomed, Daniel Noah Halpern has a detailed examination for GQ on how fertility is dramatically declining around the world, the possible causes, and what happens next.

What Ever Happened to Brendan Fraser, How Goop’s Haters Made Gwyneth Paltrow’s Company Worth $250 Million and The Trouble with Johnny Depp – Call this a three-way tie for celebrity profiles, but in an age when celebrities can share their inner thoughts instantly with millions of fans via Twitter and Instagram, these profiles creatively brought fascinating details to light. See also: the NYTimes profile of Alfonso Cuarón, and Rolling Stone‘s profile of M. Night Shyamalan.

Everything You Know About Obesity is Wrong – A bold story by Michael Hobbes for HuffPo, that suggests that the way we’ve been treating obesity is not only ineffective, it’s actively damaging.

The Kilogram Is Dead; Long Live the Kilogram – Loved this piece by James Vincent, which makes you rethink how you understand one of the fundamental assumptions you have about the world: how much a kilogram weighs.

How an Ex-Cop Rigged McDonald’s Monoply Game and Stole Millions – This piece by Jeff Maysh for The Daily Beast is by turns fun and disturbing. But perhaps most importantly, it answers the question: why the hell couldn’t I ever find that Boardwalk piece in the McDonald’s Monoply game?

The comforting fictions of dementia care – Larissa MacFarquhar wrote a fascinating piece for the New Yorker that asked one fundamental question: Should we lie to dementia patients to ease their pain? The answer is more complicated than it seems.

The Impossible Job: Inside Facebook’s Struggle to Moderate Two Billion Users – This exceptional feature by Jason Koebler and Joseph Cox for Motherboard challenges the popular notion that Facebook isn’t trying to moderate hate speech and other objectionable content on its website. But it also makes clear that while the task of moderation is noble, it’s also likely impossible. See also: This Radiolab episode about the same topic.

I’m broke and mostly friendless, and I’ve wasted my whole life – I make it a yearly tradition to link to a Heather Havrilesky piece. This year, it’s a column that displays Havrilesky’s characteristic style of humor combined with insight and compassion.

Alan Scherstuhl’s do’s and don’ts of film writing

Film writer Alan Scherstuhl has published his writing advice for film reviewers. I don’t necessarily advocate for every single thing here, but it’s all valuable and it’s all worth considering. With Alan’s permission, I’ve reproduced his entire list below. My favorite bit:

Do not forget that some 14 year-old version of you might happen into reading your piece, and that that 14 year-old wants to be invited into the world of culture and ideas, not shamed away from it for not knowing who Jafar Panahi is, so when you mention Jafar Panahi provide some enthusiastic context that might make that 14 year old look Panahi up rather than think “Fuck off, you snob.”

Always good to remember where you came from and how you got started.

Alan is one of the smartest, most astute film writers I know. Follow him on Twitter and check out his wrap up of 2018 in movies. And one last thing that Alan wanted me to share: a good writer can break any of these rules at any time. 

***

My advice on reviews is simple. First, the don’ts:

Do not open with plot summary

Do not write a paragraph of plot summary

Do not ever write this sentence: “CHARACTER’s NAME (ACTOR’S NAME) is an L.A. architect suffering from ennui in the years since her professional chef husband CHARACTER’S NAME (ACTOR’S NAME) had to close his dream restaurant and bury their child CHARACTER’S NAME (ACTOR’S NAME, adorable in sad flashbacks to a happier time)”

Do not forget that it is your job to highlight what is important and memorable and unique, whether good or bad, and to dash the rest to the rocks

Do not only characterize performances in parentheses

Do not laundry list, meaning don’t give us a paragraph of intro, one on the story, one on the actors, one on the direction, and then one of opinion

Do not just rely on adjectives to characterize a performance or a scene or a feeling. Instead, draw upon every bit of descriptive power within you to capture exactly you are attempting to capture. Summon up the moment itself rather than just how you feel about the moment.

Do not despair that the above is hard.

Do not put scare quotes around “wacky” or “zany” or other words. That asks the reader to guess what you think the word usually means and then what you intend it to mean this time and whether you’re putting it in someone else’s mouth.

Do not presume that your understanding of/tolerance for wackiness or zaniness or pretension is the universal standard. These words mean little on their own and demand you clearly characterize whatever strikes you as wacky/zany/pretentious rather than trust that tossing the word in there is enough.

Do not be all, “I don’t know, there were some decent action scenes.”

Do not rely on adverbs that merely add emphasis: “very” or “really” or “wonderfully” in front of an adjective characterize that adjective only in degree, not in character, and more than anything else they suggest that the adjective you’ve chosen is inexact and needs some help. “Stunningly” is just “very” with its eyes bugged out; “profoundly” is just “really” with a beard and its voice lowered an octave.

Do not use “titular” or “myriad” or “gleefully” or “iconic” or any of those godawful Variety terms like “actioner” or “laugher.”

Do not write sentences where the reader could start skimming halfway through and still know what you were going to say.

Do not ignore the real world and the film’s social/political context

Even if you’re exercised about that context, do not ignore the formal choices the filmmakers have made
— how is this film shot and edited, and why? Is it effective? If someone reading your review had never heard of the movie, would it be clear from the review that this was, in fact, a movie and not a play or a TV show?

Do not tut down at regular folks who might not ever see the challenging movie you’re savoring.

Do not write, “In a perfect world, [INSERT MOVIE YOU LOVE HERE] would be a huge hit.” You’re not the Commissariat of Enlightened Taste. Argue for what you love — don’t whine that it’s not as loved as you’d like it to be.

Do not assume that people who do not love what you are championing – or who love what you’re panning – are doing so in bad faith.

Do not forget that some 14 year-old version of you might happen into reading your piece, and that that 14 year-old wants to be invited into the world of culture and ideas, not shamed away from it for not knowing who Jafar Panahi is, so when you mention Jafar Panahi provide some engaging context that might make that 14 year old look Panahi up.

Do not think of your review as just one of the many reviews this film will get, as just a datapoint for the Tomatometer, as just some piece of consumer advice only likely to interest people already engaged with whatever you’re reviewing. Instead, think of your review as an event itself, as something that needs to win people over and get them to care.

Do not think that reviewing simply means setting down your subjective opinion. Key to it is to marshal as much objective evidence and memorable detail as you can to a) make your case, b) give readers a feeling of the experience of actually watching this movie, c) participate in the art yourself, as recording what you witnessed is immortalizing the work in another medium, and d) prevent you from spinning your wheels with dull-ass plot summary.

Again: DON’T WRITE PLOT SUMMARIES ANY LONGER THAN A LINE OR TWO. If you would skim it in other people’s reviews, they’re sure as hell gonna skim it in yours.

Do not worry much of what other critics have said except in the rare revisionist piece where you are proving everybody else wrong a month or so later.

Do not forget that Andrew Sarris and Pauline Kael panned 2001. Their reviews of it are persuasive.

And here’s a do:

Engage with the art, open yourself to the art, process the art, and respond to the art. If you ever sit down to watch something and think “Jesus, I don’t want to do this” the same way so many of those sad bastards we all see in the screening rooms seem to, ask me to re-assign because, seriously, there’s someone else who *does* want to do it.

And a Word on Profiles and Interviews:
I prefer our pieces be about how we “get” someone — as in offer rare context and insight — rather than how we “got” someone, as in put some famous person in the paper.

And here’s words I will always cut from reviews so don’t try to sneak them in:
titular, palpable, triptych, myriad, “pokes fun at”, groan- or chuckle-worthy, astonishing, stunning, iconic, painterly, veritable, fever dream, gleefully, plethora, laugher, actioner, most uses of “very,” and the very idea of the setting as a character which it just isn’t, ever. (Note the acceptable use of “very” in the preceding line, rather than the usual “very pretty” or “very funny,” where “very” is less a descriptor
than it is an admission that the adjective it’s paired with is insufficient.)