Over the last couple years, the YouTube animation-sphere made a point of reanimating beloved works, with projects like Shrek Retold, The Dover Boys ReAnimated, the Kirby Reanimated Collab, and more. The Spongebob Squarepants Movie Rehydrated was one of the most anticipated of these projects as it was more than two years in the making. Rehydrated recruited upwards of 500 creators to redesign the original Spongebob movie for a not-for-profit fanmade film dedicated to Spongebob creator Stephen Hillenberg. Every two seconds of the film shows a different art style, with a mix of 2D and 3D animation, live-action, and small references to other popular pop culture titles. But just over a half-hour into the film’s premiere on May 2nd, the video was taken down after it was flagged for a copyright violation by Paramount Pictures.
#JusticeForSpongebob began trending on Twitter on Sunday night following the removal of Rehydrated from YouTube. Creators who had worked on the film as well as many in the Spongebob fandom met the takedown with outrage as people called out Paramount and Viacom for prematurely striking down the project over copyright infringements that some of Rehydrated’s creators were adamant had not been taken from the original movie.
Rehydrated’s filmmakers said they weren’t sure if Paramount Pictures (the studio behind The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie) was aware of Rehydrated’s existence, but “If they were aware, we were never contacted about it.” Viacom is notoriously strict with fan created content, however, Rehydrated’s creators had hoped that redubbing the entire thing would be enough to be considered ‘transformative’ under fair use.
As #JusticeForSpongebob rose to the top of Twitter’s trending page yesterday, users’ memes became centered around corporate greed and blamed both Viacom and Paramount for over-policing a project that was never intended for commercial use. Yesterday’s viral discussion about Rehydrated is part of a larger problem that community managers need an urgent solution to: why do brands with major fandoms sabotage good marketing opportunities that ironically destroy the same zeitgeist that makes their franchise so popular? Nintendo was quickly dragged through the mud along with Viacom and Paramount yesterday as Spongebob and gaming fandoms bonded over losing original bodies of work to overzealous copyright infringements.
For brands, Spongebob in particular presents an interesting case study, because it has been one of the most widely watched and to date, is one of the most frequently memed franchises of all time. On the Know Your Meme website, we have 681 entries and 27,000 images tagged under Spongebob. The Simpsons, which has been on the air 10 years and 19 seasons longer than Spongebob, only has 348 entries and 7,000 images tagged. The magnitude of Spongebob’s pop culture reach cannot be understated, and that is largely because of the fans. Fan art, viral discussion of new episodes that morph into memes and reaction gifs, they’ve become milestones that supersede intellectual property.
Looking back on last week’s blog about r/place, Spongebob’s Rehydrated is the perfect follow- up RE the power of digital community. The film brought together hundreds of creators willing to volunteer their time and resources for a non-monetary project simply out of love for the Spongebob franchise and its creator. For community managers, this could have shaped up to be slam dunk PR for Parmount or Viacom — repromote the original film along with a celebration of a truly unique piece of fan art made by the very fans and viewers that grossed the original Spongbob Squarepants movie $141 million. On paper, it seems pretty obvious that there are many different ways that Rehydrated could have been a huge brand win for Paramount.
Instead, they’ve become synonymous with Viacom and Nintendo’s overzealous copyright system and ironically ended up as the one-dimensional and money-hungry Mr. Krabs in memes that perfectly sum up why brands lose when they treat their fandoms as a threat instead of an asset.
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