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."
Henri, le Chat Noir: http://www.henrilechatnoir.com/
Simon's Cat: http://www.simonscat.com/
Maru Greatest Hits VI: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8uDuls5TyNE
Internet Cat Video Festival: http://www.walkerart.org/openfield/programs/internet-cat-video-film-festival/
Follow Leanne Italie on Twitter at http://twitter.com/litalie