The 7-Figure Scowl: How Grumpy Cat Is Building a Media Empire

Grumpy Cat Scowl - H 2014
Sam Comen

Grumpy Cat Scowl - H 2014

As her owner quits her job at Red Lobster to focus on the feline full-time, one thing's for sure: Cat videos aren't just for the Internet anymore.

This story first appeared in the Aug. 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Amid the screaming teenage girls and YouTube heartthrobs at the fifth annual VidCon in Anaheim, Calif., in June, one burgeoning starlet was having a very bad day. She slept through her two-hour meet-and-greet with fans, occasionally waking up to frown at the hundreds of people waiting in line. But this was Grumpy Cat, and her signature scowl had cameras flashing and grown men cooing.

It's Grumpy's disgruntled demeanor that has propelled her to stardom, garnering 15.7 million views for one of her first YouTube videos, 6.2 million likes on Facebook, 228,000 Twitter followers, more than 433,000 Instagram followers, a TV movie and a national commercial, all in less than two years. There are more than 400 products (think T-shirts, coffee mugs and plush toys) that feature the frowning feline, and her first book, Grumpy Cat: A Grumpy Book (Chronicle), has sold more than 500,000 copies in 15 languages. She even has her own iced-coffee drink, Grumppuccino, available in select cities at specialty shops.

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Ben Lashes, Grumpy's manager, estimates that the cat has generated about $100 million in revenue. He won't disclose percentages or how much the cat nets but admits, "This is a seven-figure cat, for sure." Don't worry, she's insured.

Two-year-old Grumpy -- real name Tardar Sauce, a misspelling of the mayonnaise-based condiment -- earns enough money that owner Tabatha Bundesen, 28, was able to quit her job as a Red Lobster waitress near her home in Morristown, Ariz., where the famous feline also lives. Her brother, Bryan Bundesen, 35, a former Time Warner cable technician who posted the first photo of Grumpy on Reddit in September 2012, says the cat's celebrity has changed their lives: "It's been great for our family." It was Bryan's original photo, taken when Grumpy was 4 months old, that transformed her from a cute pet to Internet meme. Suddenly her face was all over the web, annotated with curmudgeonly sayings like, "I had fun once. It was awful."

Lashes, a Los Angeles-based meme manager who also represents Keyboard Cat and the animated Nyan Cat, began working with Grumpy in 2012. He says the minute he came face-to-face with her blue-eyed stare in New York City, where he had booked the Bundesens and Grumpy on NBC's Today, "I fell in love with her instantly. Right away, I was like, 'Wow. She could be a superstar.' "

The world seems to agree -- and that can be attributed to the way in which Lashes and the Bundesens have built her brand. "They are very smart," says producer Todd Garner, whose Broken Road Productions had a movie deal with Grumpy until the Bundesens walked away and struck a deal with Lifetime for the upcoming special Grumpy Cat's Worst Christmas Ever. 'They've built a story and a character around the cat."

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The ubiquity of that famous frown -- Grumpy has appeared on The Bachelorette, American Idol, shopping channel QVC and the MTV Movie Awards in the past four months alone -- might imply that her branding is ad hoc. But Lashes insists there's a strategy, adding that Grumpy turns down more offers than she accepts ("about 15 reality shows so far"). "I've got one rule, really, and that's just: Keep it cool," he explains. That's why he says he passed on about 20 TV commercial opportunities before settling on a 30-second spot with Honey Nut Cheerios. The national commercial from Saatchi & Saatchi New York has aired nearly 2,000 times.

But perhaps her biggest project is the Lifetime special, which begins filming in August in Vancouver. Arturo Interian, vp original movies at Lifetime, says he was "blown away" by the international response to Grumpy's first starring vehicle, adding that "there's something about Grumpy Cat that makes people smile." Interian won't disclose how much Lifetime is paying Grumpy, but he says she's likely "the highest-paid cat in a movie in Hollywood."

Lashes says her contracts typically come with requirements such as right of approval and unlimited breaks. On the set of the Lifetime pic, she'll have her own trailer and stunt doubles from Jim Henson's Creature Shop. That might make Grumpy, who travels up to three times a month in a special carrier "that helps disguise her," seem like a diva. But Lashes, who calls her "the Marilyn Monroe of cats," says he's just making sure that Grumpy, who "likes the attention, being cuddled and the camera," is treated with respect. "Just because she's a cat, you shouldn't be able to take advantage," he says. "If it's worth putting the star in your picture, you've got to treat her like a real star."