Internet cat stars scratch the surface for fame

mugumogu/AP Photo Internet star Maru rests in a cardboard box in Japan.

They frolic in empty boxes and stick their heads under faucet streams of water. They dance on tippy toes and fly through the air with Pop-Tarts. They play piano wearing little frocks and get tickled to distraction to the delight of millions on YouTube.

I speak of the cat stars of the Internet, a place filled with felines and their wacky uploading humans since the dawn of bandwidth. Now, after years of viral viewing, they're coming into their own in lucrative and altruistic ways.

The first Internet Cat Video Film Festival drew a Woodstock-esque crowd of more than 10,000 - people, that is - to a Minneapolis art museum in August. Police closed a span of highway clogged with cars trying to get to the Walker Art Center for the free outdoor slate of 80 videos culled from 10,000 submissions.

In addition to the Walker's free night in cat video heaven, Fresh Step litter sponsored Catdance, an evening of felines on screen that coincided with January's Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. A fan-voted winner among five scripted finalists - 10 films were commissioned at the launch of the program - will earn $10,000 after online voting ends later this month.

In November, Friskies gave a lifetime achievement statue to angsty existentialist Henri, le Chat Noir, at the brand's own awards ceremony and donated 250,000 cans of cat food to shelters around the country. Henri, the troubled Tuxedo, won another statue in Minneapolis and will soon begin a collaboration of food-focused videos with Friskies.

Henri's putting out his first book in April.

Maru, the megastar in Japan with millions of views for nearly 300 videos since 2007, has three books and a calendar, among other swag for sale. The squishy-faced, often blissed-out Scottish fold who loves boxes and bags was used by Uniqlo when the Japanese brand launched its San Francisco store in October. Maru chose boxes, called "Lucky Cubes," stuffed with giveaways for human contest winners.

Not to be outdone, Simon's Cat, a funny feline in a series of line-drawn animated videos out of London, has a book and an online store, as does Henri, who lends his fame and some of his dollars to cat charities.

Even the funny faced Grumpy Cat, whose real name is Tartar Sauce, coughs up some bucks to animal welfare groups, while captions for her still photos fly around the Internet and she sells T-shirts off her website.

These days in the cat video game, acts of charity are expected as much as laughs, said William Braden, the Seattle filmmaker who morphed a family cat named Henry into the French-speaking Henri for a 2006 film school project. Cranking out Henri videos and managing the black-and-white long hair's growing projects are now Braden's full-time job.

"On the one hand you'd be stupid not to do charity because fans are sensitive," Braden said. "On the other hand, for the love of God, I make a living doing this... . How horrible would I be if I didn't give a little bit of it away?"

Animator Simon Tofield, creator of Simon's Cat, said from London that his first video, "Cat Man Do," changed his life. Inspired by his cat Hugh, one of several he shares his life with, the first video was his attempt to teach himself the computer program Flash. It features the hungry, googly eyed cat character trying to annoy his owner awake, wonking him with a baseball bat at one point.

The video was put on YouTube four years ago and received millions of views overnight, Tofield said. More than two dozen videos later, Simon's Cat views have exceeded 300 million.

"Before Simon's Cat launched, I was working as a freelance animator, which could be frustrating as you would never know when the next job would come in," Tofield said. "Although I was drawing, which I love, it wasn't as enjoyable as what I'm doing now by drawing and creating my own characters."

Nobody knows the cat meme better than Ben Huh, who with a group of investors bought the I Can Has Cheezburger site in September 2007. The site allows users to generate captions on cat photos using LOLcat speak, a language with spelling and syntax all its own.

Huh has none of Braden's guilt about making money off of funny cats on the Internet. He recently starred in his own Bravo reality show, and sees a healthy future ahead as cat memes spread.

"People are mixing and matching and the content can't be put into neat little boxes anymore," said Huh. "That's the irony. That has caused the Cat Internet Industrial Complex to continue to grow."

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