Early last decade, Matthew Buchanan and Karl von Randow, web designers based in Auckland, New Zealand, were seeking a passion project. Their business, a boutique web design studio called Cactuslab, developed apps and websites for various clients, but they wanted a project of their own that their team could plug away at when there wasn’t much else to do.
Buchanan had an idea for a social media site about movies. At the time, he reflected, he used Flickr to share photos and Last.fm to share his taste in music. IMDb was a database; it wasn’t, in essence, social. That left a gap in the field. The result was an app and social media network called Letterboxd, which its website describes, aptly, as “Goodreads for film.”
After it was introduced at the web conference Brooklyn Beta in the fall of 2011, Letterboxd steadily developed a modest but passionate following of film fans eager to track their movie-watching habits, create lists of favorites, and write and publish reviews. In 2020, however, the site’s growth was explosive. Letterboxd has seen its user base nearly double since the beginning of the pandemic: They now have more than 3 million member accounts, according to the company, up from 1.7 million at this time last year.
And it’s not just more users. It’s more use: “We’ve seen more activity per member,” Buchanan said in a recent Zoom interview. “Our metrics are up across the board.” Their revenues have increased, from advertising and optional paid memberships, which give users added features. The company is no longer just Buchanan and von Randow’s side project, and over the last year, they have brought on several full-time staff.
The pandemic has ravaged the movie industry, as theaters have remained mostly shuttered and high-profile would-be blockbusters like “Tenet” have drastically underperformed. But for Letterboxd, all that time at home has been a boon. “We love talking about movies,” said Gemma Gracewood, Letterboxd’s editor-in-chief. “And we’re talking even more about what we love lately because we’re all stuck indoors.”
In the beginning, Letterboxd mainly attracted film obsessives: hard-core cinephiles, stats fanatics and professional critics looking to house their published work under one roof. Mike D’Angelo, a longtime contributor to Entertainment Weekly and Esquire, used Letterboxd to retroactively log every movie he had seen, by date, since January 1992. In addition to uploading his old reviews to the platform, he uses the site as a kind of diary for more off-the-cuff musings.
“If I’m writing a professional review, I’m writing for a general audience,” he said in a recent phone call. “Whereas on Letterboxd, I don’t worry about pro forma things like plot synopsis. I make jokes and references you would have to have a fairly deep film knowledge to understand. I find it much more liberating.”
That freedom gives writing on Letterboxd a kind of Wild West quality. What rises to the top of the site’s page for most popular reviews ranges wildly: There are obscure memes, diaristic essays and sprawling screeds packed with pseudo-academic jargon. You might find political disquisitions written with breathless zeal: “As the most destructive action in the world, as the source of more war, death, and exploitation than anything this world has known since chattel slavery was born, imperialism is the highest, most vile, most horrifying aspect of capitalism, and we oppose it.” (That is, of course, a review of “Wonder Woman.”) Or you might find a single cryptic sentence, such as one of the site’s most popular reviews of the movie “Joker”: “This happened to my buddy Eric.”
The unedited, anything-goes spirit of Letterboxd can be off-putting: D’Angelo confessed he finds it “maddening” when writers “use all lowercase” or refuse “to use normal grammar or punctuation,” which on the site is often. But the lack of rules or structure can also lead to some interesting, unconventional criticism, and the site offers a platform to voices that might otherwise not be heard. On Letterboxd, you can discover not only new movies to watch, but new critics to follow.
Sydney Wegner, a single mother in rural Texas, started using Letterboxd in late 2012. Under the username @campbart, she has written vivid, free-form reviews (almost exclusively in lowercase) of sci-fi, horror and action movies, including a heartfelt piece about “Minions” that reads like a poetic ode to her daughter. “I wrote that way because that’s what I like to read,” she said recently. “I find criticism very boring unless there’s a personal aspect to it.”
Wegner said she “never intended to write professionally,” but as her account began to gain followers, she soon found herself fielding requests for paid work as a critic. She has appeared as a guest on film podcasts, done introductions for film screenings and been commissioned by editors at several film review websites, such as Film Freak Central.
Lucy May joined Letterboxd in 2015, and today she is one of its most popular users, with nearly 60,000 followers. The 26-year-old lives with her family in her hometown in Illinois, where she works at a movie theater, and in her spare time watches movies and writes about them at length on Letterboxd.
Although May said she is “first and foremost a fan of film,” and not a professional, she nevertheless now considers herself a critic. “I would call myself a Letterboxd-era critic,” she said. She finds this “modern wave of criticism” on Letterboxd interesting, “because a lot of the old rules are being thrown out the window.”
“There’s now less shame when lower ratings are handed out to acclaimed older films, and there’s more love to go around for things like rom-coms,” she said. “I find that honesty on Letterboxd fascinating. I didn’t go to school for writing or anything like that, but I do call myself a critic in that sense.”
Letterboxd’s explosion in growth is indeed trending young. On the app, which the company reports is how 75% of users access Letterboxd, the largest demographic is 18- to 24-year-olds. “There’s been an enormous growth in younger members,” Gracewood said. And she said that once drawn to the platform, these younger members often soon find their tastes starting to evolve. “They’re coming on having watched ‘The Princess Switch: Switched Again’ and discovering ‘The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,’” she said.
That shift toward a younger user base means Letterboxd is finally starting to expand outside the hard-core movie-buff niche — and the more than 1 million new users in 2020 represent a lot of people “who aren’t strictly cinephiles,” Buchanan explained. The growth has brought the platform to a new level of success, and Buchanan sees even greater potential. “There are tens of millions of Netflix users, for instance. We know we’re not going to appeal to every single Netflix user, but we also know that the appetite for film content is growing.”
The surge in growth suggests that while the film industry has in many ways been devastated by lockdown orders and the scourge of the pandemic, film culture itself is still thriving. We may not be able to go to the movies, but as the success of Letterboxd shows, we still want to talk about them.
c.2021 The New York Times Company