'Catfish' turns 10: How the $30,000 documentary coined popular phrase, opened America's eyes to fake online identities and launched a whole franchise

Nev Schulman in 'Catfish' (Rogue Pictures)
Nev Schulman in Catfish. (Photo: Rogue Pictures)

If you heard the term “catfish” in the year 2009, in all likelihood it conjured up an image in your mind of exactly that: a large-headed, rey-finned fish with feline-like whiskers (and let’s face it, the funniest looking of all potential seafood).

That was until a year or so later, when a $30,000 documentary not only made an indelible mark on our lexicon, but put the country (and the world) on notice with a cautionary tale about the growing threat of fake identities on social media and online romance scams. It also launched an entire reality franchise in the process.

Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman’s independently produced doc Catfish premiered to deafening buzz (and a small side dish of controversy) at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, where The Hollywood Reporter announced its “jaw-dropping” and “crowd-pleasing” effects. Relativity Media’s Rogue Pictures outbid the deeper-pocketed studio Paramount for rights to the film, and released it in theaters 10 years ago this week.

In the film, Joost and Schulman help the latter’s brother, the photographer Nev, attempt to track down the singer Megan he’s had a Facebook romance with after he begins to suspect there’s something fishy going on. The guys travel from New York City to rural Michigan, where they eventually uncover that Megan does not exist — and was the elaborate creation of the older, married, aspiring painter Angela, who used photos of a Washington State model named Aimee Gonzales to “catfish” Nev.

Aimee Gonzales in 'Catfish' (Rogue Pictures)
Aimee Gonzales in Catfish. (Photo: Rogue Pictures)

The story astonished Sundance audiences so much that one attendee at a post-screening Q&A accused the filmmakers of scripting and fabricating the entire documentary. More leveled critiques came from members of the media, like Kyle Buchanan, the New York Times awards columnist who was at the now-defunct Movieline at the time. Buchanan questioned why Joost and the Schulmans would begin documenting Nev and Megan’s relationship so early on, suggesting the course of events that unfold in the film may have been inauthentic.

When theatrically released in Sept. 2010, the film earned $3.2 million, a modest sum that made it the year’s 180th “highest” grossing films. But it was well above average for documentaries, and still 100 times its shoestring budget.

The cultural effect Catfish had, however, was far more substantial. That started with its title.

Its moniker originated from a metaphorical anecdote Angela’s husband Vince used to describe her in the doc. He says that when live codfish were shipped in vats from Alaska to China, they were paired with catfish to keep them active and thus maintain the quality of the fish. Angela, then, is his catfish: She makes the lives of those around her interesting. By extension she “catfishes” Nev. (Vince’s history lesson, according to the Boston Globe, is, rather fittingly, a myth itself, circulated by fiction writers Henry Nevinson and Charles Marriott in 1913.)

The term would explode in the years that followed the film’s release, especially with a high profile “catfishing” case involving Notre Dame football star Manti Te’o in 2013.

In 2014, the new meaning was added to “catfish” entries in Merriam-Webster and the Oxford English Dictionary.

Even before “catfish” officially became part of our language, the Schulman brothers capitalized on the success of the documentary.

Nev Schulman in MTV's 'Catfish'-
Nev Schulman in MTV's Catfish. (Photo: MTV)

On Nov. 12, 2012, they premiered the reality TV spinoff Catfish on MTV. Originally hosted by Nev Schulman and Max Joseph (later replaced by Kamie Crawford), each episode of the series follows someone in a romantic entanglement with someone they’ve never met face-to-face. An investigation ensues, typically culminating with a meeting between them and a resolution of whether or not they’ve been catfished.

“Whether or not two people are totally lying to each other and it turns out to be a huge disaster, that's only the first part of the story,” Nev said of the series in 2012. “We then want to know why they are doing it, who they are, what they are feeling, what led them to this place and why that resonates with thousands of other young people who have the same feelings, who don't have someone to talk to or don't know how to express themselves.”

Catfish the television series has now run for 150 episodes over eight seasons, with all-virtual episodes of the series currently airing on MTV.

Catfish (the movie) is streaming on Amazon.

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