Laura Greenawalt tossed a handful of popcorn into her mouth and eagerly glanced up at the blank movie theater screen, waiting for the lights to dim, the film to begin and for her cat, Schuster, to become momentarily famous.
Greenawalt and Emily Starr, both residents of Lawrenceville, came out to a Friday night movie screening at the Row House Cinema for Pittsburgh’s first-ever Cat Film Festival.
Running from Nov. 10-16, the festival features three previously released cat-themed films — Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele’s comedy “Keanu,” a documentary titled “Kedi” and the animated film “A Cat in Paris.” The festival also features Row House’s original film, “Pittsburgh’s Pretty Kitties,” a feature-length film compilation of cat videos submitted by local cat owners.
“It’s such a good idea,” Starr said, “How much time do we all just spend looking at cat videos?”
For “Pittsburgh’s Pretty Kitties,” Greenawalt sent in a slow-motion video of her cat Schuster leaping off a couch. But she had plenty of cat videos to choose from on her cell phone and couldn’t resist playing a few of them before the movie for Starr, who was sitting beside her.
The film is comprised of more than 160 cat videos and includes cats leaping after wand toys, spinning in circles after their tails and a montage of cats trying to catch dots of light from laser pointers set to the sexy beat of En Vogue’s “My Lovin’ (You’re Never Gonna Get It).”
“Feel free to get loud when your cat comes up on the screen,” a Row House employee announced at the Friday evening showing. “Your cat’s famous. This is legitimately fame right now.”
Cat culture has been on the rise in Pittsburgh. From cat owners bringing their furry friends out to Schenley Plaza every month for First Caturday to the city’s first-ever cat cafe, Colony Cafe, to the Carnegie Museum of Art’s youth programs mascot, the Art Cat, this cat film festival is just one of many celebrations of feline friends in the city.
The popularity of cats in Pittsburgh may have something to do with their popularity on the internet. Cats, with their knack for squeezing into almost any impossibly tight space — glass jars, fish bowls, cramped cardboard boxes — have also slipped into endless memes and viral YouTube videos online, luring procrastinators in everywhere with “just one more cat video.”
According to Casey Taylor, the marketing coordinator at Row House Cinema, the film festival was partly inspired by the popularity of cat videos on the internet.
“Internet cat videos are such a big and viral thing these days,” Taylor said. “We wanted to bring that excitement here to Pittsburgh.”
Jedd Hakimi, a graduate student who teaches an introduction to visual culture course at Pitt, said people on the internet are drawn to videos of cats because a cat will do what a cat wants to do, unlike a dog, who can be trained.
“Cats are really hard to manage,” Hakimi said. “There’s something about capturing cats on camera that has to do with capturing something authentic and something you couldn’t stage.”
Cats just can’t be tamed — they’ll duck into boxes, leap onto high surfaces and sprawl out right in the middle of family games of poker. It’s this spontaneity that makes videos go viral, according to Alison Patterson, a professor who teaches a visual literacy course in Pitt’s film studies department.
“What often fails is when someone tries to produce something for the purpose of a video going viral,” Patterson said. “It has to have a sense of spontaneity or happenstance or serendipity about it.”
Pittsburgh recently had its very own moment of serendipitous online cat fame. A video posted online on July 13 by the Humane Animal Rescue featuring Twerk the Dancing Cat — a then-3-month-old tabby cat who bounces up and down on her paws due to a medical condition — quickly became popular, with over 228,000 views on Facebook.
“When you have a chance to look at a video of a cat who is essentially dancing, it catches your attention,” Sara Garbin, a resident of Penn Hills who fell in love with Twerk’s video and adopted her in July 2017, said.
Twerk has cerebellar hypoplasia, sometimes called wobbly cat syndrome, which causes involuntary tremors and jerky movements. It’s a lifelong but painless condition, and her unusual movements have enchanted viewers far and wide.
“I had been taking a break from work, and stumbled upon the video they had posted,” Garbin said. “I realized that her condition was manageable and I could take care of her.”
To keep fans of Twerk updated, Garbin started a Facebook page for her newly famous cat.
“In the initial first couple of months, it was questions and messages and comments just every hour of every day,” Garbin said of the Facebook page.
But Garbin says the attention is worth it, because it gives her a chance to raise awareness about adopting cats with cerebellar hypoplasia.
“I’m grateful Humane Animal Rescue was able to come up with [the video],” Garbin said. “Hopefully other cats like Twerk are going to be able to find good homes too.”
Even while juggling classes, jobs and extracurriculars, some Pitt students have given good homes to cats of their own while still in school, occasionally indulging in internet cat culture by posting about their cats online.
Emma Oaks, a junior chemistry major, takes care of two animals, a service dog named Aiden and a cat named Annabelle. Since this past August, she and her girlfriend have started separate Instagram accounts for their two furry friends.
“I find a lot of personality in both of my pets, so displaying this personality online is really fun,” Oaks, who says her cat Annabelle is sassy and spoiled like a princess, said.
Having an online presence isn’t just snapping photos of Annabelle curled up on a couch or Aiden bounding around outside the Cathedral. It’s a time commitment, according to Oaks. Oaks said she hopes to make money off her Instagram accounts, thinking if the pages rise in popularity she can run ads and make extra cash to either donate or put toward any pet care needs.
But for Oaks, it’s mostly about getting to share her pets’ sass and spunk with others.
“It’s awesome that you get to share pictures of the things that you love most in your life,” Oaks said. “Everybody loves them, and it makes them happy.”
Even while she’s busy curating her own Instagram accounts, Oaks finds time to scroll past other silly animals on the internet.
“I love it, it’s fun, I’m one of those people who follows like a hundred other [animal] Instagram accounts too, I just love them,” Oaks said. “I love indulging in that culture.”