Wednesday, July 10, 2019

'SpongeBob SquarePants' at 20: Behind the Business of 'SpongeBob’s Big Birthday Blowout'

Nickelodeon’s hit SpongeBob SquarePants moved out of its own adolescence earlier this year when the animated series turned 20 in May. But the celebration of the modern classic about under-the-sea adventures is continuing well into next year as a “love letter” to the show’s creator, says Ramsey Naito, Nickelodeon Executive Vice President (EVP) of Animation Production and Development.

“Time flies,” Naito tells Variety. “I remember meeting Stephen Hillenburg in 1998 when we were both getting coffee at a coffee machine when he was just starting.”

Hillenburg, who was a marine biology teacher before stepping into the world of animation, created SpongeBob based on some of his own experience seeing children’s awe at sponges and starfish. The series became Nickelodeon’s first original Saturday morning cartoon, debuting in May 1999. Hillenburg unfortunately passed away from complications from ALS in November 2018 at age 57, before getting to see his beloved series hit this milestone — festivities for which have been dubbed “Best Year Ever” and include a new one-hour, mixed animation/live action special airing July 12, as well as a third film, The SpongeBob Movie: It’s a Wonderful Sponge, set to hit the big screen in May 2020.

Naito says the one-hour special, titled “SpongeBob’s Big Birthday Blowout”, will be dedicated to Hillenburg: “In some ways it’s written to him from the entire cast and everyone who’s been working on this franchise.”

In the special, SpongeBob (voiced by Tom Kenny) and Patrick (Bill Fagerbakke) journey to the surface world where they encounter live-action doppelgangers of the show’s animated stars, played by the actors who have voiced the animated characters for 20 years.

Co-executive producers Marc Ceccarelli and Vincent Waller say the idea of sending SpongeBob on a tour of the surface world has been around for years, but because it is such an ambitious idea, it took some time to come to fruition.

“To do live-action mixing with animation is difficult in the television pipeline, so now that it’s the 20th anniversary we pulled it out because we knew [executives] wanted to do something special for this occasion and it’s something we wanted to do, too,” Ceccarelli says.

SpongeBob has mixed animation with live-action in the past — and David Hasselhoff, who appeared in 2004’s The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie, returns for this special — but “Big Birthday Blowout” is the first time the show’s voiceover actors appear that way. They gather for lunch at the Trusty Slab restaurant, a play on Bikini Bottom’s the Krusty Krab.

“This is definitely the first time we’ve attempted anything this ambitious on the TV series,” says Kenny. “It gives that kind of a fun, weird, meta, Easter egg moment when you get to see the voice actors working at this diner.”

Beyond the one-hour special, the new season’s episodes also cater to long-time fans to further the milestone celebration.

“We went through the history of SpongeBob in our minds to think of characters that had been fan favorites in the past and we specifically pulled some of them out of the past and wrote stories around them,” Ceccarelli says.

Keeping all the “Best Year Ever” festivities on track is a full-time job for Charlotte Castillo, Senior Vice President (SVP) of Global Franchise Planning, Viacom Nickelodeon Consumer Products (VNCP). She describes her job managing SpongeBob and other Nick properties as akin to that of an air traffic controller.

“Given that we have so many groups internally and so many different initiatives with SpongeBob happening, we wanted to align on a theme that makes the most sense and tells a true story and really connects with the IP and is true to the show’s DNA,” Castillo says. “This meant his ‘best day ever’ optimism is front and center. That’s what the consumer relates to.”

Discussions of how to celebrate the 20th anniversary of SpongeBob began in November, says Castillo, who broke the approach into four pillars: content, products, collaborations and experiences.

In addition to “Big Birthday Bash,” content includes a dedicated SpongeBob YouTube channel that launched earlier this year, while on the experiential front, the show is getting an 1,800-sq.-ft. booth commemorating 20 years of the series from July 18-21 at Comic-Con International in San Diego. Talent will be on-hand to sign autographs, and there will be an interactive game inside the Krusty Krab, as well as a photo opportunity at Mrs. Puff’s Boating School and costumed character appearances. The show’s cast and producers will also be featured on a panel.

Collaborations include a SpongeBob wetsuit that debuted at a Cynthia Rowley New York Fashion Week show in February, followed in March by Dutch fashion designer Marlou Breuls’ SpongeBob couture collection at Amsterdam Fashion Week.

Artist Romero Britto reimagined SpongeBob in his own style for a mixed-media art installation that will be exhibited in a Los Angeles pop-up experience later this year.

Nickelodeon partnered with the Pantone Color Institute to create official SpongeBob Yellow and Patrick Star Pink colors. And then there’s new merchandise, which includes the first-ever crossover between SpongeBob and Nickelodeon Slime.

“SpongeBob and Slime are to Nick as peanut butter is to jelly,” Castillo says. “They’re always very much a part of our DNA. With slime there’s been a recent trend of kids really connecting with it and concocting their own and we have a line of Slime toys and we thought it was a great time to do a collaboration of the best of what kids want to play with.”

SpongeBob products are aimed at adults, too. Nick partnered with HipDot Studios for the first premium SpongeBob-inspired cosmetics line. Nickelodeon has also partnered with Boston Celtics Point Guard Kyrie Irving and Nike for a upcoming SpongeBob-inspired Nike Kyrie 5 footwear line.

“His demo is very broad in terms of age as well as [being] global,” Castillo says. “The thing about SpongeBob is he inspires people to be creative and makeup is all about being creative and reinventing yourself.”

And rather than grimacing over SpongeBob internet memes created by fans, Viacom execs have embraced the phenomenon, partnering with Alpha Group on viral meme-inspired vinyl figures, including Mocking SpongeBob, Imagination SpongeBob, Surprised Patrick and Handsome Squidward.

“People who are really into developing memes adopted SpongeBob as their language of choice; it’s how they communicate and express themselves,” Castillo says. “It’s really amazing how it’s transformed the connection with the consumer, and we wanted to celebrate that.”

Nickelodeon’s Naito says that connection with viewers is based on SpongeBob’s everyman qualities (“Everybody sees themselves in SpongeBob”) that have helped the show make a lasting impact.

“He’s equal parts heart, farts and smarts,” she says. “He appeals to kids and adults because he represents the better good in everybody. The success of the franchise is due to how authentic and funny the show is, the love for SpongeBob and the honest loving relationships he has with his friends.”

Ceccarelli says writing SpongeBob for a general audience — not specifically for children — helps keep the series funny and entertaining.

“We don’t really do a lot of teaching life lessons or moral moments that a lot of children’s television does,” he says. “I know that kind of stuff tends to push older audiences away so the fact that that stuff is not in there makes it open for everybody to enjoy together.”

The archetypal cast of characters can also be repurposed in multiple ways, which Kenny feels helps keep SpongeBob evergreen. “If something like SpongeBob starts chasing trends, it’s literally dead in the water,” he says. “The characters are who they are and because they exist in this world that is not ours, it doesn’t really date SpongeBob.”

To keep SpongeBob going for future generations, Nickelodeon wants to build out the show’s universe. This includes the aforementioned upcoming third feature film, as well as the franchise’s first television spinoff, Kamp Koral, which was announced in June as a CG-animated show that follows a 10-year-old SpongeBob during his summer at sleepaway camp. Ceccarelli and Waller will executive produce and showrun the spinoff, which they think will open “a new creativity in our writers and in our artists.”

Naito says it’s clear from the Memes and the busy nature of Castillo’s schedule that consumers want more SpongeBob.

“In many ways, Bikini Bottom is our Marvel Universe,” Naito says. “We are looking at ways to tell stories in this universe in the same way we’re gonna do with Kamp Koral, but it’s not without celebrating classic SpongeBob all the time. We are definitely in discussions about how we can find other ways to mine the universe in an authentic way because it’s really important that, no matter how we’re mining this universe, we keep the core values everyone loves about SpongeBob.”

Also from Variety:

Kristine Belson, ‘SpongeBob SquarePants’ 20th Anniversary Honored at 10 Animators to Watch Event

Variety‘s fifth annual 10 Animators to Watch celebrated what’s new, what’s different and what’s to come in animation.


Variety and Nickelodeon partnered for the event, held at NeueHouse in Hollywood on Tuesday night and hosted by Variety’s executive vice president of content Steve Gaydos. The 10 Animators to Watch — Henry Bonsy, Jérémy Clapin, Trevor Dalmer, Emily Limyun Dean, Valerie Lapointe, Natalie Nourigat, Keely Propp, Miguel Puga, Troy Quane, Malenga Mulendema — took the stage in honor of their auspicious careers in animation. Kristine Belson, president of Sony Pictures Animation, received the honor for Creative Impact in Animation.

“[Animation] is no longer a medium or genre for just kids. It’s a medium — and some of us think it’s the best medium — of storytelling for all audiences to enjoy,” Belson told the crowd upon accepting the honor.

Belson recalled the process of overhauling Sony Pictures Animation during her four year tenure: “Before we could figure out essentially how to rebuild the studio, we had to kind of figure out who are we going to be, what was our identity. We’re not Pixar, we’re not Illumination, we’re not Disney, we’re not Dreamworks. We don’t have the resources, the budget, we don’t have the timelines, networks, theme parks. The list of what we didn’t have went on and on, but what we realized is that it was quite freeing without that success.” She added, “There were no rules that we had to live by. We were going to get to make up the rules.”

Belson said she wanted to make movies that were not only “high quality,” but “looked different” and “felt different,” explaining that “we were seeing a lot of sameness out there.” That brought her to Sony’s Oscar-winning “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.” “They set out to create something that had never ever been seen before. These guys took so many risks along the way to create a story they thought was worthy of Miles Morales, this African-American Puerto Rican kid that was going to have to take this leap of faith and become the new Spider-Man,” Belson said of the creative team behind the film.

Peter Ramsey and Kristine Belson | Variety and Nickelodeon's 10 Animators to Watch, NeueHouse Hollywood, Los Angeles, USA - 09 Jul 2019 | CREDIT: DAVID BUCHAN/VARIETY/SHUTTERSTOCK

Peter Ramsey, who co-directed “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” introduced Belson, praising her for helping get the film made. “‘Spider-Verse’ has a lot of stuff in that movie which would give any studio pause — a heart attack. There’re a lot of gut checks going on. We saw Kristine go in there, throw elbows, stand her ground and fight for what she believed in,” said Ramsey. “She made a real space for us at the highest level for us to be able to make the movie what the movie was telling us it should be.”

The event also celebrated the 20th anniversary of “SpongeBob Squarepants,” whose eponymous sponge appears on the cover of Variety‘s 10 Animators to Watch issue. The voice actors for SpongeBob SquarePants (Tom Kenny), Patrick Star (Bill Fagerbakke), Sandy Cheeks (Carolyn Lawrence) and Squidward Tentacles (Rodger Bumpass) were all in attendance. The bar served “Spongebob” themed drinks, such as the “Bellini Bottom,” which riffs on the hometown of Spongebob and his friends, Bikini Bottom. A table of artists drew sketches from the show as well as caricatures of attendees.

Ramsey Ann Naito, Trevor Dalmer, Troy Quane, Keely Propp, Jeremy Clapin, Kristine Belson, Miguel Puga, Valerie LaPointe, Natalie Nourigat, Emily Limyun Dean and Peter Ramsey | Variety and Nickelodeon's 10 Animators to Watch, NeueHouse Hollywood, Los Angeles, USA - 09 Jul 2019 | CREDIT: JOHN SALANGSANG/VARIETY/SHUTTERSTOCK

About Miguel Puga - “The Casagrandes”

Puga would copy stills from Nickelodeon’s “Rocko’s Modern Life” as an 8 year old growing up in East L.A. When school teachers asked him, “Who drew this for you?” he knew he could be an animator.

Puga worked as a storyboard artist on a number of shows, including the series “The Loud House” on Nickelodeon — the network he “bled orange” for since his childhood fascination with “Rocko’s Modern Life.” His work on the show would lead to the spinoff series “The Casagrandes,” which is set to premiere this fall.

He recounts the genesis of the spinoff: “I sat with ‘The Loud House’ writers and they brought this up. They wanted to pitch this idea about Ronnie and Bobby. They had this idea about making a special, it wasn’t a spinoff back then.” The idea became “The Loudest Mission: Relative Chaos” which follows Ronnie and Bobby as they visit their extended Mexican-American family.

Puga says:, “They wanted to know which direction they should go [from me] having the experience of being Mexican-American. Pretty much everything you see in the special ‘Relative Chaos’ is every part of me growing up.” Many of the characters are based on Puga’s relatives. Even his grandma’s stomach-ache cure makes an appearance.

Now, Ronnie and Bobby are getting an upcoming show of their own with “The Casagrandes.” Puga is excited to put on a show centering on a Mexican-American family. “I feel a huge responsibility, especially to have a show that represents so much of America. I got so lucky that I got to hire a lot of people that could represent the show on our crew,” he says.

Whether it be his work for Nickelodeon or his future ambitions of directing live- action projects, Puga applies advice from his father: “There’s a thing my Dad used to tell me, ‘echale ganas.’ It’s Spanish for ‘give it your all.’”

— Dano Nissen



More Nick: Nickelodeon Brings SpongeBob SquarePants' Bikini Bottom to Life at Comic-Con International: San Diego 2019!
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