Whenever a grass-roots genre gets big enough to have its own stadium acts, corporate appropriation isn’t far behind. In November, Friskies cat food hosted an Internet cat-video awards ceremony; last month, Clorox-owned litter giant Fresh Step convened a cat-video screening at the Sundance Film Festival. “Keyboard Cat,’’ again at the vanguard, appeared in the first Internet cat-themed pistachios commercial in 2010.
“We already knew how popular cat content is. We’d have people submit their cat pictures to our Facebook page and get thousands of comments,’’ said David Kargas, a Fresh Step spokesman, explaining how his firm decided to embark on their Sundance project. “Cat videos have a lot of things going for them, but the one thing they’ve been missing is critical acclaim. We wanted to elevate cat videos to [the level of] art house films.”
Seattle-based cat director William Braden straddles a line between auteur and sellout. His black-and-white films of Henri, a diffident longhair tuxedo, gained a following for their protagonist’s miserablist worldview (“I am a depressive realist.’) and subtitled French narration, amusingly reminiscent of French new wave films of the late 1950s and ’60s. The Henri films have won the praises of Roger Ebert, as well as both the Walker’s coveted Golden Kitty Award and a lifetime achievement award from Friskies, a company for which Braden will soon make a series of sponsored videos. Random House imprint Ten Speed Press will publish “Henri, le Chat Noir: The Existential Musings of an Angst-Filled Cat” in April.
Braden has two words for any Somerville cat-video director who wakes up the day after the Copy Cat Festival to find his Fluffy is the next Internet sensation: social media. “I post something every day,” Braden says, explaining how he makes a living from a cat. In addition to his YouTube channel, Henri has a Twitter account, a Facebook feed, a website, and an Amazon author page. “Before Henri, I was just a video guy for hire,” Braden says. “I feel almost guilty having a cushy job like this.”
South Boston resident Coco Koh and her cat, Jacoby, tasted fame in early November when perplexed commuters snapped photos of the Abyssinian wearing a cowboy outfit while riding in a stroller on the Red Line at rush hour and a hashtag, #strollercat, was born. Local news outlets declared Stroller Cat an Internet sensation, and the Boston Herald put him on the front page, but the verdict was premature.
“The election came, and it got lost,” Koh said. She saw her blog readership dwindle from about 1,000 daily views down to about 150. She has given Copy Cat Festival organizers photos of Jacoby — a fraction of those compiled on her blog, The Daily Abyssinian — in hopes of reigniting his career. “My friends thought he should be a commercial, maybe a pistachio ad: ‘Stroller Cat does it on the go!’ I thought we should get him on ‘Letterman,’ ” she said. Another dream: plush toys. “Maru has one. . . . Why can’t Jacoby?”
Koh isn’t the only Bostonian who dreams of projecting images of her pet to a rapt audience of cat fanciers. The Somerville Arts Council received well over 100 e-mails containing up to 40 photos each. The number of hopeful participants likely has something to do with the overwhelming response to the festival: 300 tickets sold within the first 24 hours, warranting a second show.
Clea Simon, a Somerville author of a cat mystery series and a nonfiction title, “The Feline Mystique,” will take the stage to read from her recent novel, “Cats Can’t Shoot.” She’s not at all surprised by her community’s enthusiasm. “People interact with dogs as they do with children, but having a cat is like having an interesting adult roommate from another culture — they’re sort of independent, and they just can’t communicate,” she said. “The festival is like our exchange program.” And besides, she said, referring to the city’s makeover plans for itself: “Somerville is the city of the future, so it makes sense that we acknowledge our feline overlords.”
Eugenia Williamson is a writer and editor living in Somerville. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.