NEW YORK – 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 course, 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 that covered the simple, funny moment to polished animations and works made by trained filmmakers.
"People were spilling out into the streets. It kind of took our breath away. You hit the people that are the cat lovers but you also get people who just like sharing something on the Internet, and it kind of reaches across age groups," said the museum's Scott Stulen, who worked on the festival and helped curate entries.
Corporate kittydom is happy with the higher profile for the cat meme, which actually goes back to the '70s, when swapping VHS tapes was big and the word meme was barely known. It means, by the way, all the crazy, viral themes that spread online faster than you can say nom, nom, nom (cat-vid speak for the sound of a cat eating.)
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 -- some creators received a stipend to enter -- 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 U.S. animal shelters. Henri, the troubled Tuxedo, won another statue in Minneapolis and will soon begin a collaboration of food-focused videos with Friskies.
Oh, and Henri's putting out his first book in April.
Roly poly 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. She put out some videos after her existence as a living, breathing and not digitally altered feline was questioned, according to her site.
So why cats?
Cats are fluffy and unpredictable and usually kept behind closed doors, which lends them allure and appeal that other common pets -- I'm talking to you, dogs! -- don't seem to have when it comes to vapid, funny or deranged video. At least that's what cat fans think.
"Cats are going to do what they want to do and that's one of the reasons that we love them," said David Kargas, a Fresh Steps spokesman who worked on Catdance.
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 pampered 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?"
The gravy train for cat vid makers is a long one not likely to dead-end any time soon. Consider the ad revenue from YouTube and other social networks and personal websites. But while commercial ads are often included on the sites, so are fans looking to help cats in need.
On the Facebook page of Simon's Cat, for example, people post to find homes for wayward cats. The Facebook page of Oskar the blind cat, who hit it big on YouTube as a kitten when he came home to his older buddy Klaus, raises awareness that disabled cats can make great pets.
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, now an empire of sites for Huh, 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 and merge with other content.
"People are mixing and matching and the content can't be put into neat little boxes anymore," said Huh, noting that Grumpy Cat's still photos pop up just about anywhere nowadays. "That's the irony. That has caused the Cat Internet Industrial Complex to continue to grow."