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"The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run" "The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run"

Here’s some news that might unsettle even Spongebob. The buoyant sponge’s third theatrical outing, The Spongebob Movie: Sponge on the Run, may not make its August 7 theatrical release date. It may not reach theaters at all.

After ViacomCBS — the parent company of Sponge on the Run producer-distributor Paramount and producer Nickelodeon — reported its first-quarter earnings, its CEO Bob Bakish cast doubt on the film’s scheduled release in yesterday’s call to investors:

With respect to movies, yes, we moved them later. We thought that was the right thing to do to preserve asset value. We obviously look at the market and look at what it will be at a point in time, and we’ll make a decision if there’s sufficient critical mass of screens if you will, theaters to warrant opening a film.

Our first film on the schedule is Spongebob at the beginning of August — I think it’s August 7. So it’s too far out to call if that’s definitely going to be released or it’s definitely not going to be released. We hope it will release, but we will continue to look at and make the right decision in terms of the return on those assets because we got great films.

The feature has already played a good round of release-schedule musical chairs: its date has been changed twice since the coronavirus outbreak, and six times altogether. A large-scale reopening of theaters remains a distant prospect — only a handful of tentpole features, including Christopher Nolan’s Tenet (July 17) and Disney’s Mulan remake (July 24), are currently set to open before August 7.

If a “sufficient critical mass of screens” in August continues to look unlikely, ViacomCBS and Paramount have two options. The first is to delay the feature once more. However, the schedule from fall onward is currently bursting with films that have already suffered the same fate.

The second is to put it directly online, as some kind of premium video-on-demand (PVOD) release. Bakish’s comments leave this option open. If Sponge on the Run does end up on PVOD, it will be the third big-studio animated feature to do so as a result of coronavirus disruption, after Universal’s Trolls World Tour and Warner Bros.’s Scoob!, which comes out next Friday. (Sponge on the Run is predominantly cgi, with some live-action elements.)

As the first tentpole film, animated or otherwise, to forgo the theatrical window in this crisis, Trolls World Tour has become a cause célèbre in the industry. Jeff Shell, CEO of Universal’s parent company NBCUniversal, infuriated theater owners by trumpeting the success of the online release, and vowing to follow this distribution model even once the crisis has passed.

The dispute pivots around two questions: just how successful has Trolls World Tour been, and to what extent is it a fluke — the beneficiary of unique circumstances, such as a full-blown marketing campaign and a swift release early in the crisis? The performance of Scoob! will shed some light on these matters. Bakish and his team will be watching closely.

Sponge on the Run is the first film to feature fully cg versions of Stephen Hillenburg’s characters. Tim Hill (a writer and storyboard artist on 2004’s The Spongebob Squarepants Movie) directs from a screenplay by Jonathan Aibel, Glenn Berger, and Michael Kvamme. Animation is being handled by Mikros Image’s studio in Montreal, Canada.

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