Letterboxd Unboxed: How a Grassroots Social Network Is Revolutionizing Film Fandom
For the first time in three years, this year’s Oscars bore no trace of the pandemic: Faces were fully visible, celebrities packed the champagne carpet, and the Best Picture lineup included multiple box office hits.
The only sign anything had changed was the presence of Letterboxd, the social network for film lovers that quintupled in size during COVID. In January, the New Zealand-based company provided the virtual headquarters of the awards show. The partnership fortified what its devoted fans already knew: Letterboxd has become the go-to destination for serious film fans and something of an obsession for many filmmakers.
In the early days of the pandemic, when the world went into lockdown, many turned to movie-watching for comfort. Absent theaters and workplaces, movie talk migrated to the Letterboxd app, where users could engage in thoughtful critique and spirited discussion.
Over the next two years, Letterboxd’s member count exploded from 1.3 million to 6.5 million. By the end of lockdown, Letterboxd had become a favorite destination not just for film fans, but filmmakers as well. Industry insiders are now turning to the service for reaction and insight from a community that represents a “hyper-consumer” of cinema.
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Now at nine million members and counting, Letterboxd serves as a film diary where users log each movie they watch (ranging from classics to new releases) and have the option to give it a star rating (1-5) and written review. They can also see which movies their friends or followers watched, and can read or comment on reviews. In contrast to generalized social networks like Twitter and Facebook, Letterboxd is driven by users’ thoughts on one subject only: movies.
An internal survey conducted in late 2022 and exclusively reviewed by TheWrap revealed that 86.9% of Letterboxd users go to the movies at least once per month. More than half of all Letterboxers go to the theaters twice or more, and 17% go four times or more every month.
Letterboxd users outperform general moviegoers in all areas, whether that be the purchase of physical media like Blu-rays or DVDs (74.2% buy more than once a month), or digital media purchases and rentals.
Two-thirds of the respondents were between 18 and 34 years old, while audiences 35 and older account for the lion’s share of the rest. The vast majority (83.5%) don’t work in film or television, and at least half live outside of North America.
Letterboxd may not be the largest body of moviegoers in the world, but its users are highly engaged (roughly 5.2 million members and non-members logged on in February) and deeply invested. Over 63% of respondents in this internal poll said they trust Letterboxd’s average ratings more than any other combined rating metric on the internet.
It’s not without irony that the number of Letterboxd users rose dramatically during the pandemic, a famously catastrophic time for the film industry.
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Movie theaters shut their doors, and production skidded to a halt. Meanwhile, producers and distributors scrambled to figure out what to do with projects they had already slated for release.
“All the companies that were putting movies in theaters had to figure out how to stay alive, stay in place or grow during the pandemic,” Letterboxd strategy and business development VP David Larkin told TheWrap. “At that moment, we had this giant funnel of user growth, including more people in the movie industry.”
About six weeks into quarantine, the phone started ringing. Distributors, especially of the arthouse and independent persuasion, wanted to market directly to Letterboxd users. (As it turned out, Letterboxd was about to launch a similar enterprise for theatrical releases just before COVID.)
The idea was to deliver customized recommendations based on users’ “taste profiles.” It could be as simple as notifying someone that a film they’d pre-saved is now streaming, or as far-reaching as suggesting a movie with a “similar tone or vibe” to a previous watch. They also launched service-wide campaigns, like turning the home page monochrome to celebrate the black-and-white release of “Parasite.”
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Letterboxd’s growth spurt didn’t wane once COVID was in the rearview. Something had permanently shifted in both the business and the audience.
“Before the pandemic, the industry was very conservative, slow to change. Then everything changed,” said Larkin. “Now we’re in the synthetic phase, where I think a lot of companies have learned that the best approach is probably out-of-home-slash-in-the-home. A lot of companies and film festivals developed some chops to work in the virtual world and they didn’t just discard them now that things are open.”
Yet had the pandemic never happened, Letterboxd may have eventually arrived at the same destination. Its story began about a decade before its launch when Matthew Buchanan and Karl von Randow almost invented something akin to YouTube instead.
In 2003, the Auckland tech entrepreneurs created a website for uploading and sharing New Zealand short films. They shelved the project after YouTube came along, but the concept of a niche, film-first social network stuck with them.
Letterboxd took off in 2011 with three core features: a “diary” for films watched, lists and reviews, and a profile. Right up there with the goal of “engendering a grassroots love of film,” said Buchanan, was a desire to create a positive social media experience. (They took cues from Tumblr’s David Karp, among others.)
Astonishingly little has changed since the service’s early days. The home page revolves around carousels of scrollable movie posters, each one linking to a landing page with an aggregate rating, links to fellow user reviews and other ways to interact with the film.
The network’s editor-in-chief Gemma Gracewood, a filmmaker and communications strategist, joined the company in 2016 to ramp up Letterboxd’s community engagement efforts. She oversees Letterboxd.com, the marquee section for essays, interviews, podcasts, interactive “Showdowns” and an annual year in review. All of these tools work to amplify “the voice of Letterboxd”: that is, “film-forward, enthusiastic and ideally as non-toxic as possible.”
Ironically, the key to running a pro-social network is omitting typical social media features like DMs and birthday notifications. (People looking to connect off-network can do so by linking other accounts in their profiles. “There are a lot of Letterboxd marriages, Letterboxd babies out there,” Gracewood said.)
While some users go by their actual names, most choose to stay anonymous — or rather, to identify through film and nothing more.
“I think that that’s important, that Letterboxd is very much about sharing your life in film, sharing your love of film,” said Gracewood. “We find out about people’s personalities through the films they choose as their favorites, through the types of lists they create, through the types of ratings they give and reviews they write, rather than arbitrary demographic information,” like age or gender.
“It’s your classic film festival, cinema foyer scenario, where you’ve just got a whole bunch of movie lovers no matter where they’re from, or who they are,” she added.
In other words, it’s not about who’s watching, but how. What does it mean when a film like “Ma,” the 2019 Octavia Spencer thriller, has an average of 2.6 stars, but tons of likes? Which titles are most frequently rewatched? How many users added “Barbie” to their watchlists after the trailer dropped?
It’s easy to imagine where this data might come in handy. At festivals, where “distributors [are] trying to make consequential decisions in a compressed time frame,” said Larkin, “every bit of information helps.”
When a film debuts at a festival, Letterboxd serves as an aggregate for the first public reviews. Though not yet “fully productized,” there is a backend tool its distributor partners can use to look at community feedback in real-time.
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“[The tool] shows not just the reviews of a film,” Larkin explained, but also things like “how many people are seeing it, how many people are ‘watchlisting’ it at home, what the footprint of the film is at home during Sundance.”
In addition to purchasing decisions, Letterboxd shapes decisions made by festival programmers around the world, Gracewood said. So far, they’ve partnered with TIFF, NYFF and Sundance, meaning that Letterboxd curates top 10 lists, highlights user reviews and produces original content via Letterboxd.com. In a more organic or “circular” sense, members participate by generating buzz around titles, prompting other members to save them to their watchlists. When those films land on streaming services or in theaters, Letterboxd will let them know where they can watch them.
Beyond the festival scene, Letterboxd is trying to leverage its data “in the normal course of business,” said Larkin. Among the companies they frequently work with on theatrical, digital and physical media campaigns are the Criterion Channel, Bleecker Street and Searchlight Pictures.
Is Letterboxd on its way to impacting decisions at the studio level? The indie world, where films have scored deals based on their Letterboxd popularity, has certainly taken notice. For most in Hollywood, however, Letterboxd is largely a new tool, and it’s not one-size-fits-all.
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Lia Buman, founder of Tango Entertainment (the studio behind indie hits like “Aftersun” and “Never Rarely Sometimes Always”) and former President of Acquisitions at Focus Features, is a Letterboxd user both personally and professionally.
“We use it to see what’s resonating with the indie, cinephile community that maybe we’ve missed. It helps us see how people are reacting to a film that maybe isn’t coming across in the press or in critical reviews,” she said. “Sometimes it’s that audience response that maybe helps you understand what’s resonating with a film so that as you’re thinking of other films that might be similar, you understand what’s hitting. So in a way, it helps with comps.”
Buman acknowledged that Letterboxd isn’t a scientific research tool just yet, but the purity of the service makes it helpful.
“It’s not going to shape your opinion, it’s just one more thing to think about, it’s just one more input and it feels very pure,” she said, “which is why it’s such a good resource.”
To that end, Letterboxd has become a favorite of filmmakers for its lack of snark and cynicism.
“Our filmmakers really pay attention to what Letterboxd reviews are,” she said. “That gives us a lot of joy because that feedback from the Letterboxd community is so pure, and because there’s such respect for the community that’s putting out the film.”
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As Letterboxd use continues to climb, so do the acquisition offers — not that the company is entertaining any. More than a decade in, Larkin, Gracewood and Buchanan talk about the company as if they’re just getting started, and say they don’t have any immediate plans to sell.
Adding episodic television, a passionately argued topic among members, is in the cards. Gracewood wants to do more member screenings and live events such as podcast tapings. Buchanan said they’re toying with increasing the range of reactions available to use in reviews. Larkin has “at least two secret projects” in the works; he also wants to expand beyond the American festival circuit, reflecting Letterboxd’s international audiences.
Other new features on the horizon: theater showtimes (Letterboxd already has a partnership with streaming guide JustWatch) and tools “for folks in the industry who want to use Letterboxd in a more private way.” (Paul Thomas Anderson, Kogonada, Edgar Wright, Sean Baker and Rian Johnson have all copped to publicly or pseudonymously using the service. And who could forget Margot Robbie’s rumored account?)
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Absent from talk of the future is growth, at least in the traditional sense. As Gracewood put it, if members keep signing up but rarely engage, “What’s the point?”
“I’ve always held to be true… that something can be doing numbers, but what are those numbers doing? It’s not just about growing our membership across the board or in a particular area, but why? Who are those members and how is Letterboxd adding to their lives?” she said.
“Not to get too cheesy on it, but we approach business in the same way that we kind of approach living,” she continued. “Yes, of course growth is brilliant and important to any business, but at what cost?”
Letterboxd wears this philosophy on its sleeve. The staff consists of just 13 full-time and seven part-time employees, plus a few freelance workers, all serving those 9 million members.
Maintaining full ownership of the tiny operation has allowed them “to build up resiliency in the community over that decade and not have to have fallen back on any tactics to massively grow the audience,” said Buchanan. “And just to be in charge of our destiny, I suppose, rather than beholden to someone who’s holding purse strings elsewhere.”
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Letterboxd runs on the strength of a shared passion — one that long predates, and will outlive, the network itself.
Larkin likens the phenomenon to the recent resurgence of records. “You can’t say playing vinyl records is really a trend, but the people who like their vinyl records are super avid music lovers,” he said.
Put differently, Letterboxd is just one more way of bringing people together over the love that has always existed around the medium.
“Even though we’re a social network, we’re living by our first principles and not giving in to any temptation to get into another lane for now,” he said. “We just want to stay in the vinyl record collectors of movie lovers lane, and hope that enough people are going to keep coming.”
Adam Chitwood contributed to this report.
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