If you’re wondering how on earth Grumpy Cat scored a movie deal, it’s not just because of the feline’s delightfully disgruntled mien. She has good management.
Ben Lashes know how to handle an Internet famous cat; he’s a meme manager by profession. If that job title made you raise an eyebrow, you’re not alone – Lashes says many people couldn’t contain their laughter when he tried to tell them what he was doing and where he thought the entertainment industry is going. But this occupation is proving more than a novelty, and Lashes has grown his business considerably since he took a leap of faith on Keyboard Cat back in 2009.
“Every day is like waking up in an Internet comic book. There’s always a different weird thing going on.”
“After a decade of playing music I took a break from playing and was working on the back end, doing music A&R [artists & repertoire] and marketing. And my family friend, Charlie Schmidt, who is the creator of Keyboard Cat, called me.”
Lashes’ appreciation for Schmidt goes beyond his ability to wrangle kitties into performing YouTube sensations. ” He’s an amazing, genius artist who’s famous in my hometown of Spokane, Washington,” Lashes says. “He’s a total punk-rocker artist, a 61-year-old guy. A modern-day Warhol kind of spirit. So I’ve always been a big fan; I got an autograph the first time he came over to my house.”
So Lashes was excited when Schmidt called him and explained that a video he put on the Internet was going viral, and he wasn’t sure the best way to handle it. Schmidt was getting tons of emails and offers, but didn’t know which ones were worthwhile. Lashes knew that Schmidt would have plenty of opportunities if he harnessed his fan base in the right way, so they started working together.
“We both came to the decision that Keyboard Cat was a musician, a character, and it needed a manager, in the same way that the Beatles needed Brian Epstein. So I started working with Schmidt while I worked at my main job,” Lashes says.
“We had this goal from the beginning: What would Disney do with it? If Disney put Mickey Mouse out on YouTube and it became a huge hit, what would he do to make people happy and not do the wrong thing?”
“That was the mantra: Let’s do the cool stuff, and only the cool stuff, and that will be enough to make this work. So we started doing that; we got commercials, our first commercial with Wonderful Pistachios which blew up, and has been renewed every year since,” Lashes says. Unlike traditional licensing agreements, Lashes doesn’t make his clients sign over their rights to them, so they retain more control over their affairs than many managed talents.
“Once it got to a point where there was a foundation of stuff that we’d done, I’d become so immersed in the meme world and thinking it was kind of a Wild West where certain companies would take images and sell them and make t-shirts … and everyone kind of had this idea that once it hits the Internet, it’s free. I’m a huge fan of pop art, and the digital memes that go around now are a social art form that’s going to be studied for years to come, and it’s totally a new way of communicating with people. So I love the art side of it, the sharing and the mashing up, but I hate when the snakes get in there and start making products and squatting on sites. It just steals the fun out of it.”
“People were walking by and asking ‘who’s playing?’ and they’d be like ‘what band is that?’ and people would be like ‘it’s a cat!'”
Torres and Lashes got along well, and their partnership quickly proved fruitful. “Nyan Cat became was the first [meme] with a real merchandising program, with t-shirts at major retail shores, toy deals – a plush they debuted at Toy’R’Us – and really it became this cultural phenomenon that made it mainstream on all kinds of TV shows. It won Webby of the year the first year it was an award; there was a pop-up store in New York City last Christmas, all full of Nyan Cat merchandise and on the front is completely painted and skinned like the Nyan Cat; there was an art store next door with Nyan Cat art.”
The success of Nyan Cat gave Lashes even more momentum, as did the mainstreaming of memes. He began to add non-cat clients, like Scumbag Steve, Success Kid, and Ridiculously Photogenic Guy. “I become friends with them. Everyone I work with is so cool. We put a lot of heart into it because a lot of people think we’re crazy,” Lashes says.
Lashes is especially fond of Scumbag Steve, who has embraced his meme status with gusto. “We’ve definitely become good friends. Scumbag calls me late at night and is like ‘what up!’ and I’m like, you’re totally a scumbag Steve, calling me at two in the morning,” Lashes explains.
Although some of Lashes’ clients were thrust into the limelight and didn’t actually create the memes they’re known for, Lashes’ primary objective is to stay true to the intentions of the original meme. So his services aren’t for people who are angry about being memes or who want to change public perception – he works with people who are more than willing to play off of the genuine, random love the Internet has thrust upon them. “Our goal is never to hijack what is already happening and change it to fit some outside need,” Lashes says. “Like, hey, I’m not really that much of a scumbag, so can we tone it down? Like, can we make me more of a ‘nicebag?'”
Lashes thinks Scumbag Steve is a prime example of someone who makes the best of his meme-hood. “Not everybody can handle it the same way Scumbag Steve has done it. He’s a total natural genius of an entertainer,” he says. “Luckily, with him, he got it. He understood the humor behind it. It could easily be perceived as cyber-bullying, and I can’t necessarily say they’re wrong for thinking that because I’m sure they feel like that,” Lashes says. “It totally depends on the person, how they deal with it, and the timing of it.”
Lashes brought up Stars Wars Kid, noting that he might not have been so angry about being a meme if he’d known the money he stood to make off of it, or the benefits he could’ve reaped. “He could’ve been standing at the Star Wars premiere!”
Lashes hooked up with his highest-profile client in 2012: Grumpy Cat. “Things had started taking off, and I fell in love with the cat. And I’m not a cat lady or anything. We started working together, choosing some stuff we thought was cool to do and to show up at, and it’s been a wild ride since. Memes have hit a new level. Even people who don’t know what the word is, or the science behind it – they still see Psy, they know what the dance [Gangnam Style] is, they can still sing along to the ‘sexy lady’ part. It doesn’t matter if you’re 10 years old or 65 years old – if you have a pulse, you’ll know enough about it.”
With his widening roster of clients, Lashes now has a booming business as the first full-time meme manager. “Every day is like waking up in an Internet comic book. There’s always a different weird thing going on. It’s taking silly stuff really seriously. I have a sense of humor, that’s why I’m into this stuff in the first place, because it’s funny. But when you’re going over contracts with lawyers, looking at all these details and making sure certain things are in there to protect certain rights, you’re thinking as seriously as you do about anything.”
“I get up, I work from home with my dog, Cowboy. I do a lot of phone calls, emails, I end up going out and meeting with people quite a bit,” he says. Sometimes Lashes conceptualizes ideas for his clients and scouts around for partners, other times people come to him or his clients about different opportunities. And some of those opportunities are getting bigger and bigger. “I went to Switzerland with Nyan Cat, we went for a four-day pop culture conference where Nyan Cat was one of the feature stars. We did SXSW, where Grumpy Cat did her first public appearance, and Scumbag Steve and Nyan Cat were both there.”
Grumpy Cat’s debut at SXSW was a harbinger of the larger things on the horizon. “That was the first wave of things turning into a crazier level. There was a thousand people lined up blocks to meet Grumpy Cat for hours on end. People were walking by and asking ‘who’s playing?’ and they’d be like ‘what band is that?’ and people would be like ‘it’s a cat!’ That was a milestone for showing that something from the Internet can come into the real world and turn into an event.”
And at the Grumpy Cat book launch in Santa Monica recently, Lashes saw the same fervent reaction. He was surprised by the unbridled enthusiasm from people of all ages, including married adults with no children. “It was really a friendly, cool thing. I’ve seen concerts that are way more jaded than that, for bands that people are obsessed with. I think the innocence of it all makes people excited.”
Lashes has channeled all of the excitement around Grumpy Cat into several pretty major deals, including a movie deal. The movie is currently in development, so details are being kept under wraps – but it’s on its way. “We are going through scripts that have been submitted, ideas from some top writers in Hollywood, and we’re reading through a bunch of them now,” he says.
Although Lashes is the face of his operation, he relies on a lawyer named Kia Kamran to handle the legal side. “Kia’s my secret weapon. I couldn’t have been doing anything I’m doing without him,” Lashes says. When Keyboard Cat first started getting really popular, Kamran wrote Schmidt to warn him about the dangers of getting taken advantage of, so when Lashes decided to team up with a lawyer, he turned to Kamran.
And Lashes definitely needs Kamran’s expertise, because he keeps securing major deals for his feline clients, including a coffee drink called Grumppuccino for Grumpy Cat.
Clearly, he’s doing something right – even though Lashes and Kamran were often told a meme management business was dead in the water.
“It’s coming up on four years total since I started talking to Charlie at the very beginning,” Lashes says. “People have totally thought we were crazy the whole time, and we just persevered and stuck to the motto: Respect the cat.”
The Internet definitely agrees.