Internet Cat Video Film Festival purrs into Minnesota

Cat-meme lovers unite for a meowing—or wowing—first-ever event

With more than 170 million views on his channel, Maru is the most popular non-animated cat on YouTube, according to Jessica Mason, YouTube's "cat expert" who also works in the company's communications department.

"It seems that there are actually more dog videos than cat videos, but overall I think cat videos are viewed more frequently," Mason says. "I think one of the reasons pets do really well on YouTube is the same reason babies are popular on YouTube. You don't need a translator or a certain global point of view. Pets are a unifier."

Jack Shepherd begs to differ. The community manager and animals editor at Buzzfeed, a site that detects viral content on the internet and reports on that content editorially, Shepherd argues that there is an ineffable magic to cats, or at least the ones who become stars.

Chris Torres created Nyan Cat (here as a toy)
courtesy of Chris Torres
Chris Torres created Nyan Cat (here as a toy)
Charlie Schmidt and Keyboard Cat
Ben Lashes
Charlie Schmidt and Keyboard Cat

Shepherd has watched hundreds upon thousands of cat videos, and has spent a lot of time and energy trying to figure out why cats are so sticky on the web.

"I think some of it is an accident," he says. "The LOLcats became so popular and cats have sort of had this edge since 2007. But as a cat partisan, I think there's more to it than that."

Shepherd cites the tendency for most cat videos to be cute, soothing, and short in duration, giving viewers a quick and efficient break from their hectic modern lives. (Much like Eric Nakagawa needed on that fateful crappy day before he wound up launching I Can Has Cheezburger).

Shepherd also asks the age-old question: Why cats and not dogs? Then he supplies the age-old cat-partisan answer that dogs are desperate and try too hard, while cats are cool and aloof and therefore more mysterious and interesting to watch.

All of this is true in general, he says, but it all comes down to the stars.

"Maru is a triumph — he's a legend and a genius," Shepherd says. "There's an ease of anthropomorphizing that makes successful cat videos fascinating. There's an intelligence to Maru and other cat celebrities. When they're doing something un-catlike and much more human, that's what's fascinating."

According to Shepherd, the best internet cat videos are coming out of Japan and Russia. Maru lives in Japan, and Maru's biggest contender is a Japanese cat called Shiro Neko.

While Maru is quirky and energetic and appears solo in his videos, Shiro Neko is very Buddha-like and has an entourage of similarly chilled-out cats who surround him.

The Americans also boast several respectable cat-video stars, Shepherd says. Winston Bananas is a master of the art, a classic, according to Shepherd, and Lil Bub of Bloomington, Indiana, is a breakout star, mainly because of her unique look.

Still only a kitten, Lil Bub was born with several deformities — no teeth, a shortened lower jaw that causes her tongue to permanently hang out, dwarfism, an abnormally long body, very short limbs, and an extra toe on each paw. But by some quirk of nature the combination of these deformities adds up to an extremely adorable appearance.

Mike Bridavsky, who took in Lil Bub when she was only two months old, began posting her photos on a blog, LilBub.com, and posted videos to YouTube almost as an afterthought. The blog and the videos instantly became famous, though Bridavsky thinks Lil Bub's popularity is more the result of her personality than her looks.

"She's very self-unaware," Bridavsky says. "She has these deformities, but she doesn't let it get to her. She's very confident, and it gives people a sense of pride and hope. I get a lot of emails from people telling me Bub has made a huge difference in their lives."

Shepherd says that a cat video's success also has a lot to do with the person behind the camera. He talks about how Mugumogu, the YouTube handle of the person behind the Maru videos, knows how to play to Maru's strengths.

"The best cat videos have an arc to them — there's a payoff in the end," he says. "There's a craft that goes into it that has legitimacy."


A crudely animated woman LOLspeaks to her cat while driving.

"What's do yous wants to eats?" she asks breathily.

The cat meows, a thought bubble appearing above his head: "I don't know. What do you want to eat?"

The woman's mouth, big and red, moves slowly and rather spookily: "We's coulds get fish tacos. Yous likes those."

The conversation goes back and forth without much variation for several more seconds.

Katie Czarniecki Hill clicks it off. "It's a little too creepy for me," she says. "It's a little too harsh."

"It's not funny," Scott Stulen says, adding that the genre requires videos to be funny, or at least cute in that they're playful or anthropomorphic.

Over the past couple of weeks, Hill and Stulen have been working tirelessly along with a jury of artists and curators to select the best cat-video submissions to be shown during the hour-long film festival. This jury model is something MNartists.org, a joint project of the McKnight Foundation and the Walker, typically employs when seeking submissions for shows.

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