At the start of the last decade, Matthew Buchanan and Karl von Randow, web designers based in Auckland, New Zealand, were looking for a passionate project. Their company, a web design studio called Cactuslab, was developing apps and websites for various clients, but they wanted a project of their own that their team could focus on when there wasn’t much going on. to do.
Buchanan had an idea for a social media site about movies. Back then, he reflected, he was using Flickr to share photos and Last.fm to share his musical tastes. IMDb was a database; it was not, in essence, social. This left a void on the ground. The result was an app and social media network called Letterboxd, which its website aptly describes as “Goodreads for film.”
After being featured at the Brooklyn Beta web conference in fall 2011, Letterboxd has gradually grown into a small but passionate audience of moviegoers eager to keep up with their movie viewing habits, build favorites, and write and write. publish reviews. In 2020, however, the site’s growth has been explosive. Letterboxd has seen its user base nearly double since the start of the pandemic: they now have more than 3 million member accounts, according to the company, against 1.7 million at the same time last year.
And it’s not just more users. It’s more useful: “We saw more activity per member,” Buchanan said in a recent interview with Zoom. “Our indicators are on the rise in all areas.” Their income has increased, thanks to advertising and optional paid subscriptions, which provide users with additional features. The company is no longer just Buchanan and von Randow’s side project, and over the past year they have recruited several full-time employees.
The pandemic ravaged the film industry as theaters remained mostly closed and high profile blockbusters like “Tenet” significantly underperformed. But for Letterboxd, all that time at home has been a godsend. “We love to talk about movies,” said Gemma Gracewood, editor-in-chief of Letterboxd. “And we’re talking even more about what we love lately because we’re all stuck inside.”
At first, Letterboxd primarily attracted movie buffs: die-hard movie buffs, statistics fanatics, and professional critics looking to house their published work under one roof. Mike D’Angelo, a longtime contributor to Entertainment Weekly and Esquire, has used Letterboxd to retroactively record all the movies he’s seen, by date, since January 1992. In addition to uploading his old reviews to the platform, he uses the site as a sort of journal for more improvised reflections.
“If I write a professional review, I write for a large audience,” he said on a recent phone call. “While on Letterboxd, I don’t worry about pro forma things like the plot synopsis. I make jokes and references that you would need to have a fairly in-depth knowledge of cinema to understand. I find that much more liberating.
This freedom gives the writing on Letterboxd a sort of Old West quality. What rises to the top of the site for the most popular reviews varies wildly: there are obscure memes, diaristic essays, and sprawling screeds filled with pseudo-academic jargon. You might find political essays written with panting zeal: “As the world’s most destructive action, the source of more war, death and exploitation than anything this world has known since the birth of slavery, imperialism is, the most horrible aspect of capitalism, and we oppose it. (This is, of course, a review of “Wonder Woman.”) Or you may find a single cryptic phrase, such as one of the site’s most popular reviews of the movie “Joker”: “It Happened to my boyfriend Eric. “
Letterboxd’s unedited wit and all can be baffling: D’Angelo confessed that he finds it “infuriating” when writers “use all lowercase” or refuse “to use normal grammar or punctuation,” which which is often the case on the site. But the lack of rules or structure can also lead to interesting and unconventional critiques, and provides a platform for voices that otherwise might not be heard. On Letterboxd, you can discover not only new movies to watch, but also new reviews to follow.
Sydney Wegner, a single mom from rural Texas, started using Letterboxd in late 2012. Under the username @campbart, she has written vivid, free-form (almost exclusively lowercase) reviews of science movies. fiction, horror and action, including heartfelt track on “Minions” which reads like a poetic ode to his daughter. “I wrote this way because that’s what I love to read,” she said recently. “I find the review very boring unless it has a personal touch.”
Wegner said she “never intended to write professionally,” but as her account began to gain followers, she quickly found herself responding to requests for paid work as that critical. She has appeared as a guest on movie podcasts, made introductions for film screenings, and was commissioned by editors for several movie review websites, such as Film Freak Central.
Lucy May joined Letterboxd in 2015 and is today one of its most popular users, with almost 60,000 subscribers. The 26-year-old lives with her family in her hometown of Illinois, where she works in a movie theater and, in her spare time, watches movies and writes at length about them on Letterboxd.
Although May calls herself “first and foremost a movie fan” and unprofessional, she nevertheless now considers herself a critic. “I would call myself a critic of the Letterboxd era,” she said. She finds this “wave of modern criticism” on Letterboxd interesting, “because a lot of the old rules are being thrown out the window.”
“There is now less shame when lower ratings are given to older acclaimed films, and there is more love for things like romantic comedies,” she said. “I find this honesty fascinating on Letterboxd. I didn’t go to school to write or anything like that, but I consider myself a critic in that sense.
Letterboxd’s explosion of growth is indeed young. On the app, whose company shows how 75% of users access Letterboxd, the largest demographic is 18-24 year olds. “There has been tremendous growth among young members,” said Greenwood. And she said that once drawn to the platform, these young members often quickly find that their tastes start to change. “They come after watching ‘The Princess Switch: Switched Again’ and discovering ‘The Umbrellas of Cherbourg’,” she said.
This shift to a younger user base means Letterboxd is finally starting to expand outside of the hardcore moviegoer niche – and the over 1 million new users in 2020 is a lot of people “who aren’t strictly movie buffs.” Buchanan explained. . The growth has taken the platform to a new level of success and Buchanan sees even greater potential. “There are tens of millions of Netflix users, for example. We know we’re not going to please all Netflix users, but we also know that the appetite for cinematic content is on the rise. “
The growth spurt suggests that while the film industry has been devastated in many ways by foreclosure orders and the plague of the pandemic, film culture itself is still flourishing. We might not be able to go to the movies, but as Letterboxd’s success shows, we still want to talk about it.