At the beginning of the last decade, Matthew Buchanan and Karl von Randow, web designers from Auckland, New Zealand, were looking for a passion project. Their company, a boutique web design studio called Cactuslab, developed apps and websites for a variety of clients, but they wanted their own project that their team could get involved in when there wasn’t much else to do.
Buchanan came up with an idea for a social media site about movies. At that time, he thought, he was using Flickr to share photos and Last.fm to share his musical tastes. IMDb was a database; it was essentially not social. That left a gap in the field. The result was an app and social media network called Letterboxd, aptly referred to on its website as “Goodreads for Film”.
After Letterboxd was introduced at the Brooklyn Beta web conference in the fall of 2011, it developed a humble but passionate following of movie buffs who wanted to follow their movie-watching habits, create favorites lists, and write and publish reviews. In 2020, however, the site’s growth was explosive. At Letterboxd, the user base has almost doubled since the start of the pandemic: According to the company, they now have more than 3 million member accounts. from 1.7 million at this point last year.
And it’s not just more users. It’s more useful: “We saw more activity per member,” Buchanan said in a recent Zoom interview. “Our key figures are available across the board.” Their revenue has increased through advertising and optional paid memberships that offer users additional features. The company is no longer just Buchanan’s and Randow’s side venture, but hired several full-time employees over the past year.
The pandemic has devastated the film industry as most of the cinemas are closed and high profile potential blockbusters like “Tenet” are performing drastically below average. But for Letterboxd, being home all along has been a blessing. “We love talking about movies,” said Gemma Gracewood, editor-in-chief of Letterboxd. “And we’re still talking more about what we’ve been loving lately because we’re all stuck inside.”
In the beginning, Letterboxd mainly attracted film obsessives: hardcore cinephiles, statistics fanatics, and professional critics who wanted to get their published work under one roof. Mike D’Angelo, a longtime contributor to Entertainment Weekly and Esquire, used letterboxd to retrospectively log every movie he has seen since January 1992 by date. In addition to uploading his old reviews to the platform, he uses the website as a kind of diary for more off the shelf thoughts.
“When I write a professional review, I am writing for a general audience,” he said on a recent phone call. “While with Letterboxd I don’t worry about pro forma things like the plot summary. I’m kidding and references, you would have to have a pretty deep knowledge of film to understand. I find it much more liberating. “
This freedom gives letterboxd a kind of Wild West quality. What is at the top of the site’s page for the most popular reviews is wild: there are obscure memes, diaristic essays, and sprawling floors full of pseudo-academic jargon. You may find political disquisitions written with breathless zeal: “As the most destructive action in the world, a source of more war, death and exploitation than anything this world has known since the birth of slavery, imperialism is the highest and most mean, the most terrible aspect of capitalism and we are against it. “(That’s a Wonder Woman review, of course.) Or you might find a single cryptic phrase, like one of the site’s most popular reviews of the Joker movie:” This happened to my buddy Eric. “
Letterboxd’s raw spirit can be repulsive: D’Angelo confessed that he thinks it is “crazy” for writers to “use only lowercase letters” or “refuse to use normal grammar or punctuation,” which the site often does . However, the lack of rules or structures can also lead to interesting, unconventional criticism and provides a platform for voices that might otherwise not be heard. Not only can you discover new movies on Letterboxd, but you can also discover new reviewers to follow.
Sydney Wegner, a single mother in rural Texas, started using letterboxd in late 2012. Using the user name @campbart, she has written lively, freely worded reviews (almost exclusively in lower case) on science fiction, horror and action films, including a heartfelt piece about “Minions” that reads like a poetic ode to her daughter. “I wrote this way because I like to read it,” she said recently. “I find criticism very boring, unless there is a personal aspect.”
Wegner said she “never intended to write professionally,” but when her account started gaining followers she soon found herself posting requests for paid work as a critic. She has appeared as a guest on film podcasts, introduced herself for film screenings, and has been hired by editors on various film review sites such as Film Freak Central.
Lucy May joined Letterboxd in 2015 and is now one of the most popular users with almost 60,000 followers. The 26-year-old lives with her family in her hometown in Illinois, where she works in a movie theater. In her spare time she watches movies and writes extensively about them on Letterboxd.
Although May said she was “primarily a movie buff” and not a professional, she now sees herself as a critic. “I would consider myself a critic of the letterboxing era,” she said. She finds this “modern wave of criticism” of Letterboxd interesting, “because many of the old rules are thrown out the window.”
“It’s less a shame now when prestigious older films get lower ratings and there’s more love to be interested in things like rom-coms,” she said. “I find the honesty at Letterboxd fascinating. I didn’t go to school to write or anything, but I call myself a critic in that sense. “
Letterboxd’s growth explosion is young indeed. In the app, which, according to the company, 75 percent of users access Letterboxd, 18- to 24-year-olds are the largest population group. “There has been tremendous growth among younger members,” said Gracewood. And she said that once these younger members are attracted to the platform, they often soon find that their tastes are gradually developing. “You saw ‘The Princess Switch: Switched Again’ and discovered ‘The Umbrellas of Cherbourg’,” she said.
This shift towards a younger user base means Letterboxd is finally expanding outside the hardcore niche of movie fans – and the more than 1 million new users in 2020 represent a lot of people “who are not exclusively cinephiles,” Buchanan said. The growth has taken the platform to new levels of success, and Buchanan sees even greater potential. “For example, there are tens of millions of Netflix users. We know we won’t be targeting every single Netflix user, but we also know that the appetite for movie content is growing. “
The spurt of growth suggests that the film industry has been devastated in many ways by lockdown orders and the scourge of the pandemic, but film culture itself continues to thrive. We may not be able to go to the movies, but as the success of Letterboxd shows, we still want to talk about it.