New SpongeBob SquarePants movie ditches theatrical release for streaming premiere

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Following in the footsteps of Trolls World Tour and Scoob!, The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run will skip its theatrical release and head straight to video-on-demand marketplaces before landing on CBS All Access.

The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run was originally slated to hit theaters on August 7th, but is now delayed to 2021. The movie will premiere first on premium video-on-demand services (like Amazon, iTunes, and other marketplaces) for an undisclosed amount of time before it moves to CBS All Access.

By the time it does move to CBS All Access, all prior seasons of SpongeBob SquarePants will also be available to stream, the company confirmed today. Earlier seasons of SpongeBob SquarePants are available for non-cable customers to watch via NickHits on Amazon — a separate Nickelodeon channel of sorts that offers access to a number of Nickelodeon shows for $7.99 a month.

“We’re happy to give kids and families a much-deserved lift in any way we can, and the PVOD release of the new SpongeBob theatrical and putting all seasons of the TV series on CBS All Access are two of the best ways I can think of to get immersed in the optimism and joy that this terrific character represents,” said Ramsey Naito, executive vice president of Nickelodeon’s animation production and development division.

ViacomCBS isn’t the first studio to move one of its films to a digital release, but the timing of it sheds some light on how the studio sees the marketplace moving over the next several weeks and months. Questions about whether audiences will head out to theaters to watch a movie while the pandemic rages, and directives from organizations like the CDC that suggest avoiding being in close proximity of other people, still linger. Warner Bros. delayed Christopher Nolan’s highly anticipated time-bending blockbuster, Tenet, by two weeks from July 17th to July 31st, and analysts are questioning whether Disney will delay Mulan again from its current July 24th spot.

Movies geared toward children have seen some success going the digital route. NBCUniversal spouted big numbers for Trolls World Tour, and Scoob! saw some action. SpongeBob has more in common with those two films than Tenet, Mulan, or Wonder Woman 1984, which was also recently delayed for a second time by Warner Bros.

Although it’s unlikely that The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run will make as much going strictly digital as it might have in theaters, it’s a movie that ViacomCBS can pivot as a direct-to-consumer release. It’s not Tenet, Mulan, Black Widow, Wonder Woman 1984, or James Bond, where theatrical release is a big component. Plus, bringing it to CBS All Access at the same time that ViacomCBS continues its expansion and rebranding of its streaming service makes sense for the company.

Arguably, the group most frustrated by the decision is the National Association of Theater Owners (NATO). The organization has come out swinging over the last few months as major studios including Disney, NBCUniversal, Warner Bros., and now ViacomCBS remove their movies from theaters and go straight to consumers. Universal’s decision to make Trolls World Tour a digital exclusive led to a lengthy statement from AMC Theaters chair-CEO Adam Aron.

“It is disappointing to us, but Jeff’s comments as to Universal’s unilateral actions and intentions have left us with no choice,” Aron wrote, referring to comments made by NBCUniversal CEO Jeff Shell in a Wall Street Journal interview. “Therefore, effectively immediately AMC will no longer play any Universal movies in any of our theatres in the United States, Europe or the Middle East.”

Earlier this month, AMC Theaters warned investors about its shaky future following financial fallout from the pandemic. The company noted in publicly released documents that “substantial doubt exists about our ability to continue as a going concern for a reasonable period of time.” Studios have pushed back against AMC Theaters and others, reiterating their commitment to the theatrical release.

As it stands right now, it seems unlikely that major blockbusters from the biggest studios will move to video-on-demand releases or streaming exclusives. That said, Disney, NBCUniversal, WarnerMedia, and ViacomCBS all have their own streaming services, so it’s likely some titles will continue to pivot going forward as studios remain uneasy about theater attendance.

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