A Day With SpongeBob SquarePants: The Movie, a straight-to-DVD unauthorized spoof of the Nickelodeon cartoon, appeared for sale on Amazon on November 22, 2011. Sometime shortly after that, stock of the film mysteriously vanished from the site and everywhere else on the internet. Have you ever seen A Day With SpongeBob Squarepants? If so, there are a whole lot of nerds who would very much like to talk to you.

Go to Amazon today and you’ll still find a page for ADWSS, as the film is known to its cult of obsessive fans. There are customer reviews, a corny DVD cover featuring the Canal Street knockoff version of SpongeBob’s pineapple, some basic information about its format and run time. But for as long as anyone has been looking for the film, there have been zero copies in stock.

ADWSS is a piece of what’s sometimes called “lost media”: art or entertainment that is known to exist, or to have existed at some point, but of which no known copies are currently available. For the last several months, a dedicated community of SpongeBob fans and other internet sleuths have been on a mission to track down a copy on DVD, or any ephemera at all that may have trickled out to the public. But even for a piece of lost media, the film has proved particularly elusive: No verifiable clips exist online, and the searchers’ only knowledge of the plot comes from a five-sentence plot synopsis describing a kid who wins a contest to spend 24 hours with his favorite cartoon poriferan. (“The lucky winner is Seth, and he is ecstatic about his day with SpongeBob. However the day becomes a rollercoaster ride as things don’t go quite the way they planned.”)

“I don’t know what it is about this movie that compels me so much,” a particularly devout ADWSS follower named Matthew Elder told me via email. “It could be that there’s no trace of it other than a few small details.” In July, Elder started a page for ADWSS on Lost Media Wiki, a Wikipedia-style website dedicated to cataloging forgotten movies, cartoons, and video games, during a bout of depression. To divert his attention from the difficult time he was having, he began gathering every minor piece of information he could find about the film, which he’d discovered and become strangely entranced by when he stumbled on an earlier mention of it on the site.

What started as a therapeutic solo endeavor eventually developed a cult following. Elder’s Lost Media Wiki entry now runs 2,300 words long and has over 800 comments, and the search has spilled over to other sites: 4chan, a popular thread on Reddit’s “Unresolved Mysteries” board, and a dedicated ADWSS web forum and IRC chat. A conspiracy theory-style ADWSS explainer has nearly 200,000 views on YouTube. Some supporters have begun acting like investigative journalists—calling, tweeting at, and visiting any person or entity they can find with even a vague connection to the movie.

They are attracted to ADWSS because of, not despite, the difficulty they’ve had finding it: On an internet that studiously preserves your inane workplace Gchats for posterity and makes century-old sound recordings available for streaming on Spotify, A Day With Spongebob Squarepants’ near-total unavailability gives it a strange and rare allure.

Even after a three months of hunting, the entirety of public knowledge about ADWSS can be summed up in about a paragraph. It was distributed not by Nickelodeon, but a small-time Atlanta company called Reagal Films, which specializes in no-budget unauthorized documentaries about celebrities and has no affiliation with the Viacom-owned network. Reagal has not responded to attempts from both the searchers and this reporter to contact it, and Inovisim Films, the production company credited on ADWSS’s cover, has no website, no contact information, and no entry in a nationwide database of registered businesses. The smiling kid in the image who appears to be “Seth,” the star of ADWSS, is actually a stock image model who happens to be the first Google Images result for “excited boy jumping.” And the generic praise that appears on the cover alongside him is attributed to film critics that don’t appear to actually exist, writing for outlets that don’t exist either.

“Fantastic, a total crowd pleaser” — Larry Fields, Tono Films

“Great film, very creative” — Tracy Levitz, Film Look Magazine

“Hilarious, fun, for everyone!” — Robert Fritz, Kids Todler (sic) Wizard Magazine

It is probably very bad.

The ADWSS hunters know so little about their quarry that a single three-year-old tweet is considered a major piece of evidence in their search. On New Years’ Day 2012—month and a half after the film’s apparent release—a user named @TheDanielSean tweeted “Watching A Day With Spongebob SquarePants: The Movie.” His replies are filled with thirsty ADWSS fans. “Hey man we’re trying to get some information about this movie. If you can help out that would be great,” reads one. “DID YOU HAVE THE DVD?! IF SO PLEASE UPLOAD IT TO YOUTUBE!!!!!!” goes another.

Did @DanielSean get an ADWSS DVD for Christmas that year? Did he have any idea of the white whale he was witnessing? We’ll probably never know. As far as I can tell, he’s never responded to any of his pursuers, myself included.

Of course, when you’re searching for something strictly on the basis of there being so little proof of its existence, it’s only a matter of time before you run up against the uncomfortable possibility that it have never really existed at all. In August, when an anonymous 4chan user posted what he purported to be the first known ADWSS screenshot, another 4channer responded with “I really hope we’re not being rused. I have high hopes of watching some blatant shit.” It seemed legit at first: SpongeBob is ill-proportioned and creepy enough to appear legitimately bootleg, and the kid standing next to him vaguely resembles the boy on the cover. But soon, the sleuths at Lost Media Wiki revealed it as the ruse it was: the SpongeBob image had been taken from a fan-made 3D render video on YouTube, and the kid was copied and pasted in from an unrelated green screen photo. The very thing that makes you want to look for ADWSS also all but assures that it will never be found.

The 4chan screenshot.

Since then, a number of ADWSS clips of dubious provenance have emerged on YouTube. There’s a poorly-animated video that claims to show the movie’s first scene, complete with an ADWSS-branded DVD inserted into a player at the beginning:

There’s “A Day With Spongebob Squarepants - Theme Song,” which sounds more like a forgotten Residents b-side than anything you’ve ever heard on Nickelodeon:

There’s a second supposed intro that’s even more disjointed and unsettling than the first:

And there’s a host of obvious fakes designed to lure eager fans into watching, rickroll-style:

I conducted my own brief search for the film while reporting this story. Every stone I overturned had nothing underneath save for scattered signs that the searchers themselves had already gotten there first. Reagal Films did not respond to several emails I sent to the address listed on its website, so I found the name of the agent who registered Reagal as a business in Georgia—Josh Weinstein—and set about calling every publicly listed phone number associated with that name in the state. No one knew anything about Reagal, and one woman accused me of repeatedly calling her despite her insistence that Weinstein didn’t live at her household. It was the first time I’d called. Had the ADWSS hunters reached this poor woman already?

I also contacted Jason Boritz, a filmmaker-turned-wellness-guru who directed Amy Winehouse: Fallen Star, one of the cheapo celebrity films listed on Reagal’s website. His connection to ADWSS was tenuous, but it was the only thing I had. He was hesitant to speak with me. “I’ve had a lot of strange people contact me lately,” asking about SpongeBob, he said. “I’ve had to block a lot of people on social media.” (A search of Boritz’s Twitter mentions confirms this.) He told me he knew nothing about Reagal or ADWSS and made it clear he wasn’t interested in discussing the matter further.

The searchers’ own ADWSS quest appears to have reached a minor climax when an anonymous 4chan user visited and photographed the office of Music Video Distributors, or MVD, a Pennsylvania company that lists ADWSS for sale on its website. Elder inquired to MVD’s customer service department about the incident and about Reagal Films, and received an uneasy email in response. “I don’t feel comfortable talking about another company, especially when people were taking pics of the MVD office and putting MVD’s voicemail on YouTube. getting a little weird for my tastes,” it reads in part. (The photos were posted to 4chan, which automatically deletes old threads. Just like ADWSS itself, they may be lost to time.)

Elder told me he is certain that the anonymous channer forced his or her way into MVD’s office in hopes of obtaining an ADWSS DVD. That probably isn’t true, but its mere existence as a rumor speaks to the fans’ rabid desire for the movie. Clint Weiler, MVD’s publicity director, said that ADWSS searchers contacted the company several times, but denied any knowledge of a break-in. “I don’t know anything about that, honestly. No one here does,” he said when I inquired about the rumor. “I don’t know where they broke in, but it wasn’t here. Or if it was, we don’t know.”

At the end, the most important question about ADWSS remains unanswered: does it exist at all? The supposed proof offered up by Elder and others—the Amazon page, an entry on a barcode lookup site—is far from conclusive. Reagal Films, the one entity that might be able to answer, isn’t talking. And despite the ADWSS page on MVD’s website, the company never actually had it in stock. “This title was added to our distribution database but there was never any info added, and there certainly was never a copy of it. It was removed before the producer ever manufactured it,” Clint Weiler said.

Still, Elder is undeterred. “Of course I believe the movie exists. It was listed on Amazon, on the Music Video Distributors website, and on countless other websites,” he told me. “So really, there’s no doubt in my mind that the movie’s out there. Of course I’ll be the happiest person ever if I, or someone else, finds it.”

Early in the search, a 4chan user who claimed to be a former Reagal employee advised the pursuers to call off their hunt. “Why it’s so hard to find?,” he wrote. “Only a small number of copies were produced...I know you guys are committed to tracking it down, but it’s not worth it. It’s not terrible, it’s not amazing, it’s not even that much of a piece of history. I can see if I can do something, but I’m telling you guys. it ain’t worth finding.”

Maybe ADWSS isn’t worth finding, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be found. If you know where to look, email me.