Thursday night outside a Chelsea theater, Lil Bub – one of the world’s most famous cats – crouched on the red carpet for the Tribeca Film Festival premiere of Lil Bub and Friendz. Paparazzi lined a police barricade, reporters extended microphones and cell phone cameras clicked. Lil Bub’s alien-like cartoon eyes were unfazed by flashes, her tongue extended over her toothless, chinless grin and underdeveloped limbs limited her movement to a military crawl. “So she’s just a very very strange looking thing,” Juliette Eisner who produced and co-directed the doc told Rolling Stone. “And I think that’s why people gravitate towards her, because they just can’t take their eyes off her when they see her.”
While these days physical attraction alone can confer fame, the doc by Vice Media explores the broader appeal of cats on the Internet. A place where YouTube clips morph into memes, memes translate to million dollar merchandizing franchises and cats are treated like rockstars. (“I think she’s the Nirvana of celebrity animals,” Lil Bub’s owner Mike Bridavsky says in the film.)
The film features “A-list celebrity cats” – as measured by social media – including Nyan Cat, Grumpy Cat and Keyboard Cat. Filmmakers also interview a meme manager who helps Internet celebrities monetize their brands into everything from totebags to tanktops. They travel to a cat video festival in Minneapolis where more than 10,000 enthusiasts have gathered from across the globe. A feline sociologist theorizes that cat videos create communities for cat owners in the same way dog parks offer communities for dog owners. Fans point out the clips allow owners to project human feelings onto animals, as well as try to analyze these otherwise cryptic creatures.
But co-director Andy Capper, who previously worked on the Snoop Dog documentary, Reincarnated, argues that these videos are one way to escape a crazy world. “We were just at NBC and we were in the green room and they were just looping those guys that blew up Boston and everybody is scared shitless at the moment, and this is why this is popular,” Capper said. “You put [cats] on and you just feel happy instantly. You feel confident that the world isn’t this big horrible scary place. Plus with the internet, your cat doesn’t have to stink up your house. You can be a crazy cat person without the police coming to your house to take all of your cats away.”
But like any moment in pop culture, only time will show if the animals have staying power. “I think that these cats, today, have become or are becoming the new Hello Kitty, the new Garfield,” Eisner says. “I don’t know if people will be so obsessed with them forever, but I kind of imagine that they‘re going to be around for a while.”