Feline film festival makes stars out of cats

Holly Bailey
National Correspondent
The Lookout

SAN FRANCISCO—Turns out even high-art museum goers appreciate a good cat video. So much so, a full night of such digital shorts, shown in a festival at Minneapolis' Walker Art Center last year, not only returns but is also going on the road.

This Saturday, the Internet Cat Video Festival lands in Oakland, Calif., one of several planned stops that began at Austin's South by Southwest in March and includes a June screening in Vienna, Austria. While thousands of people are expected to show up this weekend in Oakland, Scott Stulen, a curator at the Walker, one of the nation’s best-known contemporary art museums, says last year they wouldn't have been surprised if the first night had been a bust.

It all started, Stulen told Yahoo News, when he and his colleagues were exploring ways the museum could use its outdoor space over the summer.

In the past, the Walker had organized talks with writers and poets, and held performances by local musicians and artists on its four-acre lawn. But this time, the museum was looking for something a little different. What if, the curators wondered, the Walker were to put up a giant movie screen on the lawn for one night and play popular cat videos from the Internet? Visitors would submit their favorite clips and a panel, including Stulen, other curators and outside artists, would pick the best ones based on artistic merit.

“We thought maybe a couple of dozen people would show up,” Stulen recalled. “I mean, we are talking about cat videos.”

But their estimates were way off. On a Thursday night just before Labor Day weekend, an estimated 10,000 people turned out to see a 70-minute reel of videos of cats acting cute, behaving badly or just simply doing nothing at all—clips that had been seen on YouTube many times before. At least 1,000 more people had been turned away because of lack of space. According to Stulen, so many turned out that exits from a nearby highway were clogged and local police had to divert traffic from the museum.

“The response was something I can tell you in our wildest hopes and estimates was way beyond what we expected,” Stulen said with a laugh. “It was really unlike anything I had ever seen before. ... I knew people loved cats and cat videos, but I don’t think I realized how deep that love was until then.”

This Saturday, it will screen on the Great Wall of Oakland, the side of a 10-story building where, since 2006, large-scale projections of video art and film have been shown. Already, organizers are predicting more than 5,000 people will turn out for the festival, where proceeds from the $10 admission cost will benefit a Bay Area animal shelter.

The latest incarnation of the festival comes as cat videos seem to be more popular than ever, racking up tens of millions of views on YouTube and other sites. The videos have transformed some random felines—and their owners—into overnight celebrities, complete with pricey endorsement deals and book contracts.

One of the most successful so far is Will Braden, a Seattle filmmaker who shot a two-minute video of Henry, a fluffy tuxedo cat owned by his family, for his film class seven years ago. In his video, Henry was transformed into Henri Le Chat Noir, a French cat deep in existential crisis.

Filmed in black and white, the clip shows Henri lounging around the house, his thoughts spoken by a narrator with a French accent, as he complains about his mundane existence.

“I live a life of luxury,” Henri declares. “But I feel empty.”

Braden uploaded the film to YouTube for his friends and family to see. But soon, it had more than 1 million clicks. A follow-up film, “Henri, Paw de Deux,” was even more popular—featuring Henri lamenting about a life where he sleeps 15 hours a day and is “surrounded by morons.” The clip, which has been viewed more than 7 million times, helped land Braden a book deal. And last summer, it earned a “Golden Kitty,” the Walker Art Center’s cat video equivalent of an Oscar. That led to an endorsement deal with Friskies, which paid Braden to make several Henri films about cat food.

Combined with cash made by Henri’s YouTube clicks and an online store featuring T-shirts and other memorabilia, Braden now makes a living solely by making his Henri films—something he’s as amused by as anybody else.

“When I was a kid, everybody wanted to be a baseball player or firefighter. Well, I knew that I wanted to be a depressed French cat online. I just had to wait for them to invent the Internet,” Braden joked in an interview. “But no, really, everybody at film school had grandiose ideas of what they wanted to become, how they wanted to direct the next ‘Citizen Kane’ or ‘Easy Rider.’ I wasn’t quite that precious about it. ... I learned the technical aspects that you could use to shoot anything. Just so happens I am making films about a cat.”

His book, “Henri, Le Chat Noir: The Existential Musings of an Angst-Filled Cat,” was released earlier this month to robust sales—following in the footsteps of other cat owners who have earned book deals because of their pets.

Not surprisingly, that has prompted others to try to make their cats famous—some on their own, and some with the help of actual talent agents. It’s a subject explored in “Lil Bub & Friendz,” a documentary that premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival last month that looks at the rise of celebrity Internet cats. The film found that many cat videos are spontaneous and have made celebrities of their feline stars. But it also featured interviews with owners who seemed desperate to cast their cats as the next big star.

‘There’s definitely a subculture of people out there who have seen the success that some cats have enjoyed and think they can do the same thing,” Juliette Eisner, the film’s co-director, said. “But it doesn’t really work because it just seems forced.”

Indeed, organizers of this week’s film festival in Oakland say they have received dozens of unsolicited emails from people trying to get their cat videos included in Saturday’s line-up. Ditto for the Walker Art Center, which is currently organizing its follow-up to the festival, scheduled for later this summer. This year's Minneapolis event will be held at the State Fair of Minnesota at a facility built to hold an estimated 13,000 people. Organizers expect a sellout crowd.

Stulen said he has seen more organized efforts to promote videos this year, compared with last, and that he’s been contacted by aggressive owners and even their agents looking for a way to angle their way into the show.

“People are starting to realize there is a real economy to this and want in,” Stulen said.

But one mystery remains: Why are cat videos so popular? It’s a question that no one has a clear answer to—though Stulen, who joked that he’s seen every cat video in circulation in putting together the film festival, has a few theories.

One, he said, is that cats are different from dogs because they “could care less” about performing or interacting with the camera. “There’s intrigue to them,” Stulen said. “It’s easy to put human characteristics to them, which makes it funny.”

But there’s also the rise of cat culture. While people used to be derided for being obsessed with their cats, it’s become more acceptable in the age of YouTube, which Stulen described as the equivalent of a virtual dog park for cat owners.

“Where dog owners can go to parks to interact with each other and see other dogs, cats are, for the most part, in the home and their owners don’t really interact with each other,” Stulen said. “But exchanging cat videos online has become the cat park.”

He suspects that’s why the cat video festival has been so popular—it’s a rare opportunity for cat people to interact with each other and laugh at their pets.

“It’s one thing to watch cat videos at home and quite another to do it surrounded by thousands of other people,” he said. “It’s just laughter and joy.”