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The Future of Film Talk Is on Letterboxd

As the pandemic and expansion of streaming changes how and when we see a movie, one unassuming social media site is positioned as a haven for the film-crit community

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One of the most popular reviews ever written on Letterboxd, a social media site for cinephiles, was posted about David Fincher’s Fight Club in early 2018. It was authored by Mia Vicino, a 24-year-old from Los Angeles who posts under the handle Brat Pitt. Vicino writes a repertory column for the Willamette Week, an alt-weekly in Portland, but her entry for Fight Club dispenses with the formalities. She writes in lower case. She doesn’t italicize the title. (If you’re posting directly to the site, you have to put in the HTML code yourself.) There aren’t even periods. Yet this 183-word nugget perfectly captures the film’s turbulent two decades in the culture, where it’s been celebrated as a barometer of masculine outrage and vilified as an instigator of the same. And it’s the type of writing that could have a home only on Letterboxd: a casual, personal shorthand that’s aimed squarely at the cognoscenti.

Vicino has been on Letterboxd since she was 19, when she had a developing passion for movies and wanted to keep track of everything she watched. “I don’t necessarily agree with a lot of the stuff I said in 2016,” she says, but the habit of logging titles and reviews, creating what the service calls a “Diary,” has allowed her to track her evolution as a moviegoer—and, to some extent, as a human being. That Fight Club review is a reflection of how our understanding of art can change as we do, reshaped by our own experiences or by the perspective of others, or how it settles in the culture.

“The diary aspect is my favorite part of it,” says Vicino. “Just having something that charts your life. For me, the movies and my life really intersect.”

“Diary” was one of the words Matthew Buchanan focused on when he and his cofounder, Karl von Randow, were conceiving Letterboxd in the years before it launched in 2011. The other word was “Lists.” Those were the building blocks of the service, and they’re almost embarrassingly true to how the cinephile mind works to compartmentalize the films that pass through it. The common denominator among Letterboxd users tends to be a compulsion to log and order the things they’ve seen, which many of them were already doing using spreadsheets or pen and paper. Letterboxd is a social media site that opens up those habits to public scrutiny, but the trade-off is that it also functions as a vast warehouse of opinion and hard data, an opportunity both to survey reactions to popular films and head down various rabbit holes. “Social film discovery” is how the homepage labels it—a phrase that’s in keeping with the no-frills, unassuming nature of the site.

For as long as users have trickled onto it, Letterboxd has seemed less like a dot-com than a utility—something that is simply on the internet, changing so incrementally that it never appears to have changed at all. There was never a time when its presence was trumpeted to the world, no event or scandal that suddenly drew attention to it or led to an eye-catching spike in membership. Most people either stumbled upon it themselves or had it recommended to them by a friend, and its growth to 2.5 million users (1 million of them active) over the past eight years has been slow and organic. Modesty is a defining aspect of Letterboxd: It’s the rare social media site that could be described as self-effacing.

Still, even though a site like Letterboxd could never have “a moment,” the winds of film culture are shifting in ways that are favorable to it. The pandemic has hastened the migration from theaters to home viewing, as well as the migration of film criticism from vocation to hobby. Fewer people are watching movies at the same time, and the traditional windows that used to separate theaters, home video, and cable television were already eroding before they collapsed entirely during the COVID shutdown. Whatever non-virtual ways we used to talk about films before—in college clubs or post-screening dinners or run-ins with fellow obsessives—are all but canceled for the time being. Letterboxd is suddenly positioned to be that place.

Release dates don’t matter at Letterboxd, and conversations can happen about any film at any time, which gives it an advantage over formal publications, which peg their coverage around embargo dates—often before the general public has access to a film—and quickly move on to the next thing. For the writer and comedian Demi Adejuyigbe, who approaches Letterboxd with a lightness of touch that fans will recognize—from his musical riffs on Will Smith and his annual video for Earth, Wind & Fire’s “September”—the diminishing significance of when people watch movies is part of the site’s appeal. “One thing I’ve always not liked about watching old TV,” says Adejuyigbe, “is that it feels like the discussion aspect around it is done. It’s like the day a show drops, you have that day to discuss it with people on the internet. Whereas with Letterboxd, it feels like I can watch a movie whenever and luckily there will be a forum around it right there if people want to discuss it with me.”

As a source for aggregate opinion, Letterboxd has an advantage over sites like Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritic because users can draw from hand-picked sources: The information page for a film on Letterboxd gives the average of all ratings on the site and the range of opinion, too, so it’s possible to know whether a title gets, say, three out of five stars on average because it’s a love-it-or-hate-it proposition or just an agreed-upon mediocrity. More helpful still is the chance to look at ratings and reviews exclusively from trusted friends and contributors to the site, who may have a more common sensibility. It’s not the most reliable source for criticism per se, but as a thumbnail sketch of what you might want to see or avoid, it’s uniquely personal and helpful.

Letterboxd began as a side project. In 2001, Buchanan and von Randow cofounded an Auckland, New Zealand, firm called Cactuslab, which remains the parent company of Letterboxd and an active builder of apps and websites, from cultural enterprises like New Zealand International Film Festival to corporate work in health care and accounting. Even today, Letterboxd doesn’t consume all of Buchanan’s time, and his team is still fewer than 10 people. At the time they first conceived the site, around 2008 or 2009, Buchanan was frustrated that there were social tools for sharing music, like, or sharing photos, like Flickr, but that film didn’t have a good home. So he created one.

“The IMDb existed, but didn’t have profiles,” says Buchanan. “It had no follower model. We really wanted to graft an experience that was a little bit of Twitter and a little bit of Tumblr and a little bit of IMDb, and put those together and see if we could create a space that people would feel comfortable sharing their experience with film.” Buchanan confesses to having the “collector mentality” that defines many Letterboxd users—he used to log his own huge DVD collection on Delicious Library, a Mac OS X software app that arranges titles on a shelf with covers, like a video store. That simple design aesthetic has been the foundation of Letterboxd from the beginning, with entries arranged against a black backdrop like a poster gallery. Click on a poster and a wealth of information appears: the cast, crew, and other production details; stats on how many users have seen it, how many lists it appears on, and how many people like it; a graph of aggregate ratings on its five-star scale; profile thumbnails of friends who have seen it (or want to see it) and their ratings; and a sampling of popular and recent reviews.

Little has changed about Letterboxd over the years. It’s been a site of minor tweaks and refinements, rather than the aggressive, pageview-courting overhauls that have crippled IMDb or Metacritic. There’s something charmingly Old Internet about having to use HTML to italicize titles on diary entries—the mobile app has ironed out that quirk—but also a sense of stability and sustainability that’s absent from the boom/bust model of Silicon Valley start-ups. Because so much of Letterboxd is user-generated and operated on a relative shoestring budget—even the film data is imported from The Movie Database, a crowdsourced site, rather than IMDb, which was deemed too expensive—it never seems like there will be a day in the future when years’ worth of diaries and lists will be vaporized.

In terms of monetization, Letterboxd has a model more common to nonprofits. Free accounts are subject to the occasional third-party ad, but “Pro” and “Patron” accounts are ad-free and provide mostly greater profile-page flexibility and advanced statistics. If you want to know the genre you watch the most or the stars or directors whose films you’ve rated highest, that information is there for you, along with the number of hours you’ve spent watching films and the countries you’ve sampled. There are bar graphs and pie charts, and a detailed spread of ratings given and breakdowns of films watched by weeks in a year or days in a week. Statheads may pore over the forensics of their raging cinephilia, but most of the power users I talked to tend to think of Pro and Patrons subscriptions more as support levels than essential services.

“There’s value in our data for sure,” says Buchanan, who says that the model supports future expansion, but hastens to add that the site is “fiercely protective” of its members and wouldn’t want to do anything they would consider “creepy.” “People can sniff out bullshit pretty quickly, especially in our community. There are other ways to run a business like this, but this is the way that works for our members.”

IndieWire critic David Ehrlich considers himself “the MySpace Tom of Letterboxd.” At over 74,000 followers, he’s currently the most popular user on the site, an early adopter whose reviews have surfaced on the home page for seven years, which in his words are “a self-sustaining mechanism” to reinforce his ubiquity on the site. Letterboxd does have an “Activity” stream that’s similar to the feeds on social media giants like Twitter and Facebook, but it’s mostly a decentralized culture where users curate their own space—who follows them, who they choose to follow—and conversations are limited to the comments below an individual review. Ehrlich is the rare exception, which has turned him into a kind of mascot for the site, and occasionally a target.

Ehrlich says he’s the type of guy who keeps a messy apartment but orders his Criterion Blu-rays by spine number. “Film lovers are sick people,” he says, knowingly quoting François Truffaut. “I think it has something to do with having affinity for a medium that is so ubiquitous but also so young. There’s still the delusion that you can see everything, that you can really have an encyclopedic knowledge of the entire expanse and breadth of the medium, which is not really on the table when it comes to literature or art.”

The compulsions that Ehrlich describes certainly apply to Sean Baker, the director of independent films like The Florida Project, Tangerine, and Starlet. Since high school, Baker has written down all the films he’s seen—first in notebooks and later on a log he kept in his email. Letterboxd was a user-friendly platform that was “as easy as writing myself an email”—and it could show him whether any of his friends had seen a film in question as well. He likes the chance to communicate with other cinephiles, finding out about titles that he hasn’t seen before, and, in rare instances, connecting with users who link him to obscurities. “I had one filmmaker reach out and give me the original cut of Boaz Davidson’s Lemon Popsicle, which was the original coming-of-age sex comedy, the one that spawned all the Hollywood rip-offs,” he says.

Baker approaches Letterboxd as if it’s a personal database. He always notes how he sees a movie—specific streaming services or movie theaters, screener links, and various physical media, often with special features listed—and will occasionally offer a drive-by opinion, though never anything negative. The only film he’s ever rated is a one-star review of his own movie The Florida Project, which was his way of announcing that he was deep in development on his next film and wouldn’t be doing much more on Letterboxd than logging titles. “As a filmmaker who’s working right now,” he says, “the last thing I could ever want to do is criticize another filmmaker. So I really just lean toward what I find positive about the movie.” This has led some commenters to speculate on their own. “If I write too little,” says Baker, “if I write just like, ‘I watched this on a DVD,’ people say, ‘Oooh, Sean didn’t like it because he has nothing to say about it.’ That’s not true.”

The community aspect of Letterboxd isn’t easy to define, because it can vary greatly depending on where conversations take place. Each member can build a mini-fiefdom out of followers, like interacting with a circle of friends, but there’s not a mechanism for calling attention to any one review post. Links can be shared on other social media platforms—the popular Twitter account Lebbertoxd (@InsaneLetterboxd) screengrabs absurd reviews that get referred to it—but it’s mostly a closed circuit for those without a big following. That limits the amount of blowback that regular members can get from strangers, since they’re mostly interacting with a friendlier core of followers.

At times, Letterboxd can seem like a million small tributaries without a river, in that it’s better understood as a collection of subcultures than one big, definable culture unto itself. No one is getting paid to write for the site, so the majority of diary entries are drive-by reviews or jokes, or perhaps an isolated observation or memorable quote from a film. Enough likes will elevate entries from average members to “Popular Reviews,” just as likes or retweets would on Twitter, Facebook, or other social media sites: One popular review of Tenet quips that director Christopher Nolan is “so scared to flop he designed a movie you have to see twice”; a Mulan pan simply lists better ways to spend $30 (“buy your mom some flowers”); and one user gives Charlie Kaufman’s new Netflix film, I’m Thinking of Ending Things, an elegant one-word response (“same”). But individual pages also have options for spoiler-filled reviews, which can naturally lead to more substantive discussions of details that cannot be mentioned in formal reviews or bandied about on open forums.

If ordinary members want to expose a lot of people to their opinions, however, they usually have to congregate on heavily trafficked accounts like Baker’s, where the comments section can become a free-for-all. For better and worse. Though Baker has interacted frequently with fans on the site, he doesn’t believe the site is removed from the problems that affect other social media platforms. “Somebody is going to have an issue with something you’ve written, or perhaps even what you’ve watched, which is mind-blowing to me,” he says. “I understand we’ve gone through a time when some filmmakers out there are starting to be seen as problematic, and perhaps even canceled by certain people. And therefore, if you watch their films, you’re looked at as supporting these filmmakers. And then suddenly you’re attacked. People literally want to destroy your livelihood because you’ve watched a Louis C.K. movie.”

Moderating any social media network is a perpetual game of whack-a-mole, and Letterboxd is partially populated with the abusive reply-guys present on other sites. There are community policies in place, enforced by an anonymous volunteer team of moderators who pore through flagged comments. “For every public spat that blows up on Twitter about Letterboxd,” says editor-in-chief Gemma Gracewood, “there have been 500,000 things dealt with behind the scenes swiftly and quietly and very deliberately.”

The closest Letterboxd has come to a major public controversy is its decision to pull a review of Inglourious Basterds from its site because its author wanted the soldiers from Quentin Tarantino’s WWII epic to come back and take up arms against the Nazis currently living in the United States today. The company’s explanation via Twitter—“We don’t wish to promote any form of violent hatred on our platform, no matter which side you come down on”—drew a backlash. There was then a follow-up tweet that the people behind Letterboxd were not, in fact, Nazi sympathizers, and an update to its policies to make its rejection of white nationalist ideologies absolutely clear. It was obvious that Letterboxd was guilty of a too-literal application of its moderating policies, rather than providing an unexpected safe space for genocidal cinephiles. But it was a lesson in how difficult moderating a community can get. “Part of the job is to basically wake up and do a sense check of how America is feeling today,” says Gracewood.

Up until this year, members had no ability to combat abuse on their own review pages, other than to flag ugly comments and hope for the best. Now they have the option to curate their own space. They don’t have to wait for moderators to make judgment calls.

Yet it can still be a hassle—the culture of Letterboxd is still messy. (Buchanan estimates that there’s about a 60-40 split between men and women on the site.) Adejuyigbe will occasionally mix it up in the comments, but he’s become more wary of the drain on his mental energy. His two-star Joker review underwent multiple edits in response to a barrage of responses (nearly 500 comments), with Adejuyigbe finally sighing, “Alternatively, I can just agree with whatever you guys think if it means you’ll stop yelling at me.”

“There was a time where I was like, ‘If someone’s gong to have a fight, let’s fucking hash this out,’” he says. “Now I’ll block them or make a pissy comment about how dumb I think it is that they’re yelling at a stranger because I didn’t like Joker or whatever.”

With Gracewood on board as a full-time editor-in-chief, however, Letterboxd has started to discover its voice and shape the conversations that happen on the site. Before she took over social media, the Letterboxd Twitter page was just technical support. (“I was like, ‘You’re not even into movies, you weirdos,” she says.) Now it can encourage film enthusiasm and lead people back to a site that has an editorial voice, with a new podcast, filmmaker interviews and lists, and calls for crowdsourced list-making “showdowns” on topics like underdog sports films or L.A. stories. In the past, Letterboxd could seem like a warehouse of opinions; now it has a more human identity.

Adejuyigbe and Vicino have formed a close friendship through Letterboxd—Vicino makes an appearance in Adejuyigbe’s new video for Eric Slick’s “Over It.” When Vicino moved to Los Angeles in January, Adejuyigbe was one of the only people she knew in the city, and they’ve been part of each other’s quarantine pod for the past six months. (“It’s been totally worth the mean comments,” says Vicino.) Though Gracewood emphasizes the “friendships and romances and marriages” that have grown out of the Letterboxd community, the site now seems well-suited to a time when such real-world connections are put on temporary hiatus. In the most literal sense, it’s the safest space for film discussion we’ve got.

Scott Tobias is a freelance film and television writer from Chicago. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, NPR, Vulture, Variety, and other publications.

An earlier version of this piece misspelled Demi Adejuyigbe’s name.

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