Those upsetting commercials inspired Michael Oosterom and his wife, Zachary Barton, to make short, funny films featuring a cat-costumed crusader who battles evil against animals. The Los Angeles couple were tired of calls to action that make viewers feel even worse about the plight of some pets.
"Most people turn away because it's too distressing," Oosterom said. "If you care about animals, that's the last thing you need to see. We figured we could achieve the same thing with humour."
Enter "AdvoCat!"— two-minute movies about a middle-aged cat lady who can't find the courage to help pets in peril until she dons a risque cat costume, complete with a tail.
Oosterom and Barton know that movies don't have to be serious to help animals, and they are among the filmmakers taking that message to the second animal film festival produced by California's Center for Animal Protection & Education. The event highlights the growing role of pets not only in animal lovers' everyday lives but also in their entertainment choices.
Some call it the animal version of the Sundance Film Festival — sans the star power — where the bulk of its entries came in the experimental category that doesn't garner awards. Short, funny films dominated, making up 277 of the 324 submissions. The competitive movies and six funny shorts — including "AdvoCat!" — will be screened Saturday.
In a trio of episodes, Barton plays the black-clad hero who saves a dog running off a leash near busy streets, a pooch burning the pads of its feet on sunbaked pavement, and a cat losing its home because a woman's new boyfriend is allergic.
She puts the offenders in their place, even stuffing people-sized cone collars on the couple trying to dump their feline, before hanging up her cat suit for another day.
Festival director Shelley Frost championed lighter fare such as "AdvoCat!"
"When people think about animal movies, they worry they might be sad or difficult to watch," Frost said. "Let's face it, animals go through horrible things, whether they are in a factory farm or laboratory, and that's why we offered the funny short category this year."
Frost said she and J.P. Novic started the event after their own movie was rejected by several film festivals. The pair had launched the Center for Animal Protection & Education 23 years ago, establishing adoption programs and a sanctuary in Grass Valley, a city in the Sierra Nevada foothills an hour northeast of Sacramento.
But the festival isn't all about laughs. Two feature-length films are finalists and delve into serious issues: "Cowspiracy," which claims environmental groups look the other way as the livestock industry damages the Earth; and "Sea the Truth," about depletion of the world's oceans. There are also two contenders for the student film prize and 14 for the short feature.
Winners get framed certificates, gift bags and vegan food. Though funny shorts aren't up for awards, which are chosen by a panel of filmmakers, television producers, teachers and community members, they could win the popular vote from attendees.
For many makers of funny films, the festival helps with exposure and money for their next movies. But mostly, it's about helping animals, said Oosterom, who's a Disney puppeteer by day.
"This is our way of handling some of our frustrations and turning them into something funny that we can share with as many people as possible," said Oosterom, whose shorts appear on YouTube and Funny or Die.