One Question Quiz
Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

MediaOctober 25, 2020

A New Zealand website is changing the way the world talks about movies

Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

Out of an office on Queen Street, the film buffs’ social network Letterboxd has thrown the rules out the window, attracting a young, progressive global base of users redefining what ‘good’ and ‘bad’ film is.

New Zealand’s back in level one, and cinemas are back in action. Ish. Productions around the globe have locked down (give or take mega-budget efforts to kill Tom Cruise and Robert Pattinson) and multiplexes in major markets are either closing or limiting numbers. As a result, studios are uprooting major films from the release calendar, promising they’ll return when it’s safe. New Zealand hasn’t been spared the relative drought.

And with time-inversion blockbuster Tenet seemingly failing to rescue the American box office and Mulan belying the viability of paid on-demand, options could be slim for a while. As of this weekend, trailers for the new James Bond were still in theatres, enthusiastically promising a November release despite news that it’s been pushed to 2021 — a call that precipitated the world’s second-largest multiplex chain announcing indefinite furloughs of its US and UK employees less than two days later. Globally, filmically, it’s been bleak. 

But in one corner of the film world, things aren’t so bad. That’s Letterboxd, the cinephile’s social network, run out of an office over Auckland’s Queen Street. With film fans having been unable to hit theatres, they’re spending even more time than usual scrolling its greener, grassroot-ier pastures, where everything old feels new again.

What is Letterboxd?

An online movie-logging platform for web, iOS and Android, Letterboxd functionally sits somewhere between IMDB, GoodReads and Tumblr – a place for users to keep a film “diary” by recording (and reviewing) their movie-viewing, collating lists, and comparing notes with friends and a wider community. 

“There’s something personally pleasing about keeping track of what you watch, what you read, what you eat, what exercise you do,” says editor-in-chief Gemma Gracewood, comparing it to both theatre-goers’ boxes of old playbills (“reminders of my cultured life”) and the health apps that track users’ periods. 

That’s the initial draw of Letterboxd: like so many lifestyle apps, it promises to painlessly inject a dimension of conscious thought into our passively consumptive lives, reframing recreation as a fun little project. It’s an ounce of structure in a world of disrupted plans, where most of us are watching more, and achieving less, than ever before.

“Painlessly” is the key word. Part of what sets the site apart from other movie databases and blogging platforms is its clean, calming design, organised around films’ posters, with neutral-coloured text and dark backgrounds letting them take centre stage. That aesthetic transforms a potentially daunting chore – individually logging every film you’ve ever seen – into a relaxing, almost mindful activity; the online equivalent of tending one’s garden. 

What’s more, it’s an easy way to find movies you’ll actually like. Skimming a film’s reviews or checking out collated popular posts leads to like-minded users, whose feeds offer an immediate source of recommendations to fill your watchlist. The site even makes a little money via affiliate links, pointing directly to where movies are streaming, bypassing the evening’s usual cycle of trawling Netflix and settling for less. 

Matthew Buchanan, co-founder, says these “organic” (i.e. non-algorithmic) recommendations are key to the site’s whole project – a conviction “that the best recommendations are those that come from following the writers and the members of the community that you feel a little bit of simpatico with, rather than some films that loosely fit a genre or a micro-genre”. And the platform’s seamless click-through structure makes it easy to follow those recommendations down the rabbit hole, jumping between movies and investigating the people involved – directors, actors, even niche technical role-players – in pursuit of new things to watch. Hungry for more Ryan Gosling? Here’s a list. Curious about the subsequent careers of Ace Ventura: Pet Detective’s five credited set decorators? No, probably not. But they’re on there should you ever be.

Letterboxd co-founder Matthew Buchanan and editor-in-chief Gemma Gracewood (Photos: Supplied)

That bottomless pool of information also represents a possible drawback of Letterboxd, its filmic twist on the double-edged sword of our increasingly app-ified lives. Users enthuse about the feeling of notching a small win on a shapeless day that logging a film provides, and the drive to push through directors’ and actors’ entire filmographies, chasing the satisfaction of 100% completion. It’s addictive. And it can become a source of pressure, making movie-watching feel like an obligation (gotta keep those numbers up) rather than relaxation — another venue for middle-class millennials’ need to feel productive.

The same is true of one of my favourite features: the stats. For $NZ19 a year members get access to an ad-free version of the site along with stylishly rendered, comprehensive breakdowns of their own viewing data. Every question you could ever ponder has been answered — which actors you’ve seen most often, which directors you’ve rated most highly, how often you watch new films versus revisiting old ones — meticulously broken down year by year, genre by genre. In moderation it’s a powerful tool for discovery, granting users granular, actionable insights into their own tastes. And even for progress, exposing unconscious biases in both personal habits and the film industry at large. I don’t much like Tim Burton, but apparently I’ve seen 13 of his movies. The closest any female director (of narrative feature films) comes for me is six. But on a site that cheerily facilitates obsession, the personal spreadsheet can become a funhouse mirror, a tiny hit of the tech-enhanced cocktail of narcissism and neurosis that makes other social media so emptying.

Members get access to stylishly rendered, comprehensive breakdowns of their own viewing data.

So who’s on it?

Mitigating the risk of myopia is the idiosyncratic community who’ve come to define the platform. “Online tool for film logging, amateur criticism, and list-making” sounds threatening, a dry blend of culture’s worst elements – the stuffiness and self-seriousness of magazine criticism, written by amateurs, saying whatever they want under cover of anonymity. Its closest filmic predecessor was the IMDB message boards – a place so competitive/hostile/toxically male that in 2017 IMDB closed them of its own volition, on the basis that they were “no longer providing a positive, useful experience for the vast majority” of users.

Instead, the platform has accrued a comparatively young, diverse set of members – and it’s their reviews getting sifted to the top of the pile. The site’s largest demographic is 18-24 year olds, and while its ±2.5-million user base skews male (roughly two thirds on the apps, and closer to three quarters on the web), Mia Vicino, a former IMDB lurker who’s become one of Letterboxd’s leading lights under the alias “brat pitt”, considers it “way more diverse and progressive than other film-related sites”. That impression seems backed up by her and others’ persistent success slinging unapologetically progressive, feminist takes. Gracewood credits the democratic nature of online – the absence of structural gatekeeping influences historically responsible for restricting critical taste-making roles to one narrow set.

The result is anything but dry. In fact, the typical post is closer to Late Night than Film Comment. Users like Vicino and Lucy May have gained followings by pioneering a sharp, quippy sensibility pitched perfectly to their audience – irreverent in tone but replete with in-jokes, indicating a clear love (and knowledge) of film culture. High art and blockbusters alike are equal fodder for memes. Scrolling through them is addictive, a sugar-rush version of cinephilia. Which is not to say it’s all jokes, either. Writer and comedian Demi Adejuyigbe, a notable early adopter, thinks of Letterboxd as a “swirl of the critical side of film, where it’s people who want to write very earnestly and critically and intelligently about film and then also the fun, almost Twitter-ish side of film culture where it’s people who are just having fun with movies that we’re seeing in the zeitgeist”. The sort of place that encourages bouncing around, where users will “have very intimate and intelligently written pieces about movies they like, but then also turn around and have, like, a one line joke review”.

Examples of Letterboxd users’ film critiques

Vicino acknowledges a protective function to “that casual light-heartedness… It makes me feel more comfortable posting whatever, because it’s kind of vulnerable to post your thoughts on any type of art”. But in between jokes, her and others’ profiles contain sincere critical essays and autobiographical accounts of films intersecting with personal life. Everyone I spoke to emphasised “authenticity” – the feeling that facades are lowered by the common ground of movies, as compared to more carefully curated profiles on Twitter and Instagram.

The site’s diversity – of members and their approaches – is a strength the editorial team has fostered. Letterboxd’s community policy (quoting Bill and Ted) exhorts users to “be excellent to each other”. They’re vocal about following the community’s lead, adopting its goofy sensibility with touches like an error message warning prospective reviewers of Fight Club that they’re “about to break the first (and second) rules”. But they’re also conscientious in their efforts to ensure everyone feels welcome, and proud of gestures like reaching out to trans and non-binary users for direct input on the pronoun options they’d like added, improving their product while demonstrating goodwill. 

Their wholesome, optimistic stance echoes the heyday of Tumblr, which Buchanan directly credits for his decision to let users “like” reviews, but not thumbs-down them. It’s about uplifting what’s good, without attacking anybody. Gracewood, for her part, describes the site’s two central tenets as “celebrate film-makers, and don’t denigrate anybody for their taste, whatever that taste is”. 

As told by Buchanan, it’s a relatively conventional origin story. The site began for him and Karl von Randow as a side project at their web design company Cactuslab. “A way to scratch an itch that we had as a business… to escape the peaks and troughs of customer/client services work … and then having had an interest in film and having a technical and creative background, bringing all of those three together.” The concept was simple enough: mixing a film diary with his desire for a good place to talk about movies. Then design, coding and ironing out details. Name selection was simple too. Following the path trod by tech brands like Flickr, Tumblr and Grindr, they subtracted one letter from a relevant word to make it own-able as IP. 

Gracewood first met Buchanan in the 90s, while he was building the website of another Auckland fixture, 95bFM, where she was editorial director. In the interim years she’s been a writer, director and producer (including on the early Flight of the Concords documentary A Texas Odyssey), as well as doing side-gigs in publicity and social media strategy. It was in this latter capacity she reached out to Buchanan in 2015 (having joined Letterboxd’s early-invite beta in 2011) to tell him the company’s social media was bad: “like, it’s tech support… you guys have gotta start tweeting about movies”. A few months down the track she took over those accounts from her base in New York, and after returning to New Zealand became editor-in-chief in April this year. Throughout, she’s relied on a “strong bullshit meter” honed in radio, ensuring Letterboxd’s own voice reflects that of its community: sincere, but not serious. 

And broadly it’s worked out. Letterboxd’s small-ish user base and niche focus fulfils social media’s original promise, of the bustling public square where people congregate to build and share understanding. It’s more engaging than Facebook, less draining than Twitter; platforms whose fast pace and diffuse structures strain attempts at positive discussions and connecting with strangers.

The trolls arrive

But public squares bring gadflies. The viral success of the progressive jokesters has drawn out a seething underclass of haters, aggrieved on two fronts. The first is passive-aggressive, a pseudo high-brow disappointment at the success of one-liners on a site they consider intended for serious criticism. The second is more combative, an untrammelled fury towards users (primarily women and people of colour) who dare to criticise the films they identify with in sociopolitical or representational terms. Uniting the two complaints is a misbegotten notion that an open-ended platform is somehow being subverted by the users who’ve thrived there. It’s a pretty familiar backlash in 2020; the reactionary identity politics of a majority-white group used to being treated as the cultural default, incapable of perceiving the slightest acknowledgment of their dominance as anything other than a personal attack. The result is equally predictable: endless belittling comments, driven by Quixotic faith that vicious abuse and endless “rebuttals” will eventually cause their chosen nemeses to either concede the point or leave the site, taking their viewpoints with them. 

This year Letterboxd enabled users to limit access to their comments, as well as to delete responses directly. It’s a long-awaited change, though the fight remains ongoing. As we spoke Gracewood was fresh from alerting her team of volunteer moderators about a looming influx of bad-faith child-exploitation allegations targeting Cuties, a French drama about to drop on Netflix (wilfully jeopardising, she notes, the career of its first-time director, a black woman). 

The trolls weren’t happy with this quip about 2015 film Carol from Adejuyigbe

For his part, Adejuyigbe has mostly given up feeding the trolls, playing it “pretty loose and fast with the block button” and advising those frustrated by the platform’s jokey vibe to “just go to the New York Times for reviews or whatever”. But it’s a testament to that vibe that he still reads every comment, enthusing about how exciting it is to have people dive into his reviews to offer their own perspectives, share trivia, or point him in the direction of key influences. Similarly, he describes the ability to see what other people are logging, and what they’re saying about it, as a motivating force in his own watching, keeping the love of movies perpetually fresh.

The Letterboxd effect

That feeling of constant renewal is the site’s secret weapon. Its real chance at a legacy – the “Letterboxd effect” – is the way it facilitates the rediscovery and re-evaluation of things unfairly forgotten or dismissed. Films enter users’ feeds in real time as people log them, ensuring a constant mix of new releases and older fare. If contemporary reviews are the first draft of film history, Letterboxd is part of something else – “not a rewriting, but a reframing of history, so that it’s more inclusive”, as Vicino puts it. 

First there are the under-heralded masterworks that somehow missed their moment that Letterboxd offers a chance at resurrection. All it takes is one user seeing and loving something for their followers to seek it out and love it themselves, in a potentially endless ripple effect. Gracewood’s favourite example is suitably patriotic: Kiwi Jane Campion’s erotic thriller In the Cut. Eviscerated on release because critics (mostly men) “couldn’t handle America’s Sweetheart Meg Ryan getting all sexy with Marc Ruffalo”, the film debuted at Letterboxd’s launch with a dismal average user rating of 1.5 out of 5. Although still an underdog, with only 7,976 recorded viewers, activity on the film’s page has trended steadily upward ever since, along with its star rating – now a comfortable 3.0, higher than the aggregate critical scores on Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic (32% approval with an average score of 4.9/10 and 46/100 respectively). That steady uptick in interest became a spike in March-April, possibly after Gracewood waded into the fray on the “lockdown thirst” edition of Letterboxd’s official podcast (launched February of this year) to sing its praises. And so the ripples expand: now it’s being discussed in a reputable online magazine (the movie’s wild, check it out).

Adam Davie’s “Black Life on Film” is a good example of the thoughtful way in which users can categorise movies they’ve watched to share with others

Second, by opening up the discourse to groups it’s historically excluded, Letterboxd offers them a platform to reclaim the movies they love. Beyond edgy art-house fare it’s revitalised the low-brow classics of recent years, recentring the way they resonate with their intended audiences. May, whose Twitter bio describes her as “spearheading the charlie’s angels full throttle renaissance”, frames it as a quiet revolution: “everything that has been so concrete and by-the-book about film, and what is good film and what are bad films, what films we ignore – all those rules have been thrown out the window by more progressive and younger viewers, who crave things like Mamma Mia instead of, like, Taxi Driver”. It’s a stark binary – male versus female, frothy versus dour, prolific auteur versus Swedish pop tunes. But it doesn’t have to be a contest. They’re different movies chasing different ends. What’s changed, as May puts it, is that historically a film fan wouldn’t brag about choosing “something comforting” over Scorsese. Letterboxd gives them a platform to shout their enthusiasm for Mamma Mia, or 13 Going on 30, from the clifftops, a space to say yeah I did rewatch it and I love it and I think it’s so good that I give it five stars”.

Fans old and new have flocked to 2001’s Josie and the Pussycats, whose campy pastiche of teen-movie tropes and acidic satire of consumer culture was dismissed as unfunny hypocrisy by contemporary critics, preceding a theatrical release that failed to recoup its production budget. Harder-edged is Jennifer’s Body, whose marketing laser-targeted “straight teen boys”with sexualised images of Megan Fox and not much else – missing, per Vicino, its clear-eyed insight into toxic friendships and female gaze. As they become part of the furniture on Letterboxd these films get second, third, 11th runs at audiences who missed them first time around – told they either weren’t for them, or weren’t worth their time. 

Even thirst is getting reappropriated, reflected in users’ signature willingness to be horny on main. Members readily admit to watching grim dramas like The King and The Devil All the Time purely out of love for Timothée Chalamet and Tom Holland, often phrased in starkly explicit terms. One popular list, titled “me after watching Portrait of a Lady on Fire” simply arranges various posters so their titles spell out “raw me Adele Hanael”. Quirky character-actor types get their due too – at time of writing my top five reviews tab features two separate endorsements of David Thewlis (Harry Potter’s Professor Lupin) as hot, and I wouldn’t have to scroll far to find lusty paeans to Bob Odenkirk, Steve Buscemi, or any other scruffy suit-filler you could think of. Vicino describes it as a “power thing”, women and queer users seizing back agency over desire, reversing the historic direction of the camera’s leering eye. It’s an attitude that’s spreading. The horn has gone mainstream, becoming yet another scrap in the collage of absurdism, honesty and film-buff-minutiae that defines the site. Case in point, David Sims, professional film critic for The Atlantic, whose 4.5-star review of family pig comedy Babe simply reads “Farmer Hoggett push me”.

Excitingly, the platform’s influence seems to be gradually edging beyond the home page and into the Hollywood pipeline. Gracewood recounts Academy members disclosing that their Letterboxd diaries are indispensable for end-of-year Oscars voting and Adejuyigbe mentions having his profile brought up by executives in meetings (including with Marvel). The risk that his saltier takes have negatively impacted his career in Los Angeles is one he’s “minimally afraid of, but I do think about it all the time”. Dedicated snoops can even track down film-makers’ accounts (some use aliases) and suss out what they’re writing via what they’re watching – like Searching’s Aneesh Chaganty, who admitted on Letterboxd’s podcast that a recent heist-movie marathon was research for a script.

From here to eternity?

“Letterboxd isn’t big in the sense of the world,” observes Adejuyigbe. “But it’s big in the world of movies.”

The question is what that bigness will mean in the years ahead. Right now the growth is steady, as the site transitions from well-loved secret to more widely used utility, with an ever-expanding range of features. What remains to be seen is whether it has a ceiling: if Letterboxd can integrate itself into the lives of people outside the pool of dedicated pop culture obsessives destined to find it – and what its expansion will mean for the community already there.

It’s hard to say. But at a time when many of us feel more isolated than ever, Letterboxd recreates a little of the buzz of a sold-out screening, the chatter of a crowded lobby. And as being cooped up wears out its welcome around the globe, there’s something to be said for making the world of movies feel deeper and wider than it used to.

Keep going!