Interview: Blackout Dates

Interview: Blackout Dates

Posted: by The Editor

Blackout Dates is a new podcast from Uproxx’s Zac Gelfand and The Onion’s Spencer Roth-Rose. On Blackout Dates, the two act as investigators seeking to discover the truth about what happened to MoviePass. The podcast’s cast features a range of stars, including Willow Hawks of The Sonder Bombs. Zac sat down with Zac and Spencer to discuss how the podcast came to be and where it may be going.

How did you get the idea to investigate MoviePass?
ZAC: I have a picture on my wall of the marquee of the State Theater in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where I went to college. Recently, I was looking at it and realized that I saw every single one of the movies listed on that marquee with MoviePass. We talk in the show about how that little red card opened so many doors for us not only to be entertained, but also to learn and not feel encumbered by the rising cost of just going to see a movie. We knew it couldn’t last, so we wanted to take full advantage of it. Spencer and I were co-workers in the summer of 2018 when MoviePass suddenly went dark. I ended up quitting that job approximately two weeks later because I was so distraught over the app’s demise (also wasn’t a good fit for the job, but just ignore that). Over the last several years, Spencer and I kept in contact pretty much exclusively to talk about updates with MoviePass, until finally we decided we should just make a project about it. What started out as a longform article turned into an investigative podcast, which then continued to evolve into the epic saga you have before you today. 
How did you put together your all star cast?
SPENCER: Guile! And by guile I mean personal favors. A dark secret of mine is that I used to be a theater kid, so a lot of my friends from high school and college have blossomed into really talented actors. Zac brought in a few stellar folks as well, including Willow Hawkes from The Sonder Bombs (who plays Agnes, the real MVP of the investigation). We feel particularly lucky that Ben Marshall and Caleb Hearon took time out of their busy shooting schedules to lend their voices to this project (Ben made his debut on Saturday Night Live this month and Caleb is in production on TBS’s Space). Once we got those two on board we were like, “Whoa, this is becoming a legit thing.” 
ZAC: Spencer’s contacts and acting experience were a great compliment to my lack of both.
Do you think there’s any comparable phenomenon or app to MoviePass? I get some Fyre Fest vibes – except not laughably dumb.
ZAC: There’s this app that I use all the time called Seated, which gives you cash rewards for going to restaurants in New York City. Basically, you make a reservation through the app and then you upload your receipt and you can get up to 50% cash back rewards. I have no idea how it works or how they make money, but I’ve gotten enough rewards to buy myself a new headboard for my bed, so I’m not complaining.  
SPENCER: Startup culture is rife with unicorns that never quite turn the corner into profitability. Hell, Uber has lost $22 billion since its founding. At least MoviePass wasn’t abusing its contractors or accelerating climate change!
I can’t really think of any particularly comparable radio shows to this one; how did this whole half history half fictionalized interview structure come to be?
SPENCER: Zac had the idea to do an investigative podcast exposing the inside story of the rise and fall of MoviePass. I thought, great idea, but are we really the people to tell that story? Who’s gonna go on record talking to two random guys with practically zero investigative experience? Plus, it seemed like a lot of work, and I’m very lazy. But I do love serialized storytelling, and I’d been wanting to try my hand at writing a full season of something. Zac was surprisingly amenable when I pitched him on doing just a single episode of actual reporting before diving into an entirely fabricated narrative. It definitely turned out to still be a lot of work, but it was less cajoling hostile sources and more writing bits that made us giggle. 
ZAC: We also dug about one inch beneath the surface of the service’s demise and determined that the story was really pretty simple: MoviePass just had a bad business model, at its most base level. Maybe Mark Wahlberg’s upcoming documentary series will be able to wring juicy drama out of that, but for our part, we decided to pivot to writing “historical” fiction… like Hamilton.
Why did you decide to go with a podcast format to tell this story?
ZAC: I made a podcast with friends during my senior year of college that was incredibly fun, and also budget-friendly. My friend Ryan Cox, who was a producer and engineer on that first show, moved to New York late last year and we hung out for about 20 minutes before I asked him if he wanted to be a part of a new project I was working on. I also asked another friend, Andrew Perelman, who had been working on podcasts on a freelance basis, if he wanted to be involved. So all of a sudden, we had two very smart and creative producer/engineers on board to help us execute our vision. 
The podcasting space also has a very low barrier to entry, in that you can use a free service like Anchor to distribute your show far and wide, and don’t have to rely on external forces to put the show in the right places. Plus, without the backing of a podcast network, we were forced to think on our feet and learn about everything from production to distribution to marketing. Remaining independent wound up being both creatively and financially beneficial.
How did you create the narrative that makes up Blackout Dates? 
SPENCER: Back in fall 2020, In the first few days of our brainstorming, we drafted a stream-of-consciousness outline for how we wanted the general plot to go: a sort of slow descent into occult conspiracy complete with mysterious disappearances, ancient cults, and elder gods. And we knew we wanted a dastardly reimagining of real-life former MoviePass CEO Mitch Lowe to be our villain (Mitch, if you’re reading this, we did it out of love). After we had the outline I spent the winter drafting the full scripts, with Zac providing punch up along the way. Pretty soon we had eight full episodes that boasted fleshed-out characters, running gags, and a narrative that surprised even us with how affecting it turned out to be. Also, hot beer. Lots of hot beer. 
What’s next for the intrepid investigators of Blackout Dates?
ZAC: Well, I think our characters are going to take a vacation to sip some hot beers on a beach somewhere because they “worked so hard.” The real-life versions of Spencer and I have already started brainstorming ideas for a second season. I’d really love to keep working with this team, if they’ll have me. I haven’t felt so creatively fulfilled in almost ten years and know I’ll be chasing this high for the next ten.
SPENCER: I’m actually planning to boot Zac from Season 2 and replace him with Dave Bautista. Sorry, bud.

Zac Djamoos | @gr8whitebison

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