Letterboxd is changing the way we talk about movies online

Imagine: It’s 2020. You tossed your scarf to the side and mounted your Peloton for an invigorating ride. Your latest film got a limited theatrical release amid a global pandemic. It’s been misunderstood by audiences, but you’re here to sweat it out. You’re jolted out of your workout when a song from your film starts playing. You’re Christopher Nolan.

The instructor says, “Anybody see this shit? Did anybody see this besides me? Because I need a manual. Someone’s got to explain this. Yeah, I’m not kidding, what the fuck was going on in that movie? Do you understand? Seriously, you need to be a neuroscientist to understand (it). And that’s two-and-a-half hours of my life that I want back.” 

Everyone’s a critic. 

While accepting his New York Film Critics Circle award last week, Nolan recounted that harrowing experience: “In today’s world, where opinions are everywhere, there is a sort of idea that film criticism is being democratized, but I for one think the critical appreciation of films shouldn’t be an instinct but it should be a profession.”

In addition to the rise of amateur critics on YouTube, TikTok, and even Peloton, one hotly debated online space that’s served to democratize film criticism is Letterboxd.

The app describes itself as a social network for “grass-roots film discussion and discovery” as well as an “organic recommendation engine” designed to act like a public diary. Think Goodreads for movies. It debuted in 2011, the product of co-founder Matthew Buchanan’s foray into the original Internet Movie Database (IMDb) in the ’90s and his interest in online movie cataloging pages.

While more than ten years old, the app only recently blew up, growing 3 million new users over the last year. It’s up from 5 million users in 2021 to over 11 million at the end of 2023, which some credit to the revitalization of movie culture in response to 2020 lockdowns.

The platform changed as more users joined, stirring conversation among those just discovering it and the longstanding cinephile community. From discontent at jokes overshadowing thoughtful reviews on the platform to entertainment aggregate accounts bringing actors’ reviews to new audiences, to a dislike of the 5-star rating format, seldom a day goes by where someone isn’t talking about Letterboxd online.

Its presence is now felt at industry events, with Letterboxd staff interviewing actors and directors on the red carpet. Acclaimed director Martin Scorsese even joined the app to promote 2023’s Killers of the Flower Moon.

Why is this decade-old platform, the brainchild of a ’90s web designer and his co-founder Karl von Randow wanting to log movies with friends, the center of film discourse these days instead of the films themselves?

As one Twitter/X user says, Letterboxd is just the weather app for what some would call film nerds.

Mashable tech and culture reporter Elena Cavender and social good reporter Chase DiBenedetto look at the pervading conversations about Letterboxd and the illness of documenting all your opinions on the internet.

The rise of Letterboxd and the state of the film community online

Elena: This endless conversation is the antithesis of the app itself because now we know more about everyone’s thoughts on the platform than their thoughts on the movies. 

Chase: Definitely. That’s the central issue here. The app has left its insulated role in the lives of movie lovers and moved to other platforms, including entertainment update accounts, meme pages, and the red carpet. Anytime that happens chaos ensues.

Elena: Even on the app, the reviews that tend to thrive are reflexive jokes rather than thoughtful analyses. 

Chase: Yes, it’s interesting because early opinions on Letterboxd reveled in the idea that the site was an “anti-social media” platform. Writer and Letterboxd contributor Fran Hoepfner recently called the site her diary, which she carefully uses as an “act of trust and exhibitionism.”

Elena: Forget about the film bro, now it’s all about the “cinephile” chained to their phone. When the lights in the theater go up this person pulls out their phone, opens Letterboxd, and writes a quippy review with zero reflection. They likely spent the entire film contemplating its rating and brainstorming zingers

Chase: I think Letterboxd’s rise among platforms reflects the lack of stable film communities on more popular social media sites. Reddit’s r/Movies community is probably the most robust “film community” online, with more than 32 million active members and the title of 8th biggest subreddit. It’s a go-to place for actor and director AMAs, and other movie-related subreddits garner millions of participants to discuss more specific topics, like genre films and box-office numbers. 

Beyond that, “community” seems hard to keep. In a Reddit post from 2017, a member mentioned the loss of IMDb message boards and sought out other sites for discussion. The responses were bleak but included sites like trackt.tv and The Movie Database (what Letterboxd pulls from to generate its log). 

Elena: In recent years, film Twitter evolved into a space where users treat enjoying movies like a fandom. People appear to be engaging with movies on the platform as a part of celeb idolatry or to be a part of a conversation often utilizing the language of stan culture. Entertainment news aggregators like @FilmUpdates and @PopBase further conflate appreciation of the art form with celebrity news. 

The posts on @FilmUpdates are seldom updates about film! Instead, it posts Jeremy Allen White’s Calvin Klein campaign and Barry Keoghan at the Louis Vuitton Pop-Up Store Opening in Hollywood, two pop culture events that are notably not cinema. 

This behavior migrated over to Letterboxd as more users joined. In a thread on r/Movies about Scorsese joining the platform one user wrote, “It seems like lately people are getting much more emotionally and personally invested in which numbers are associated with some film or game on whatever site. The internet slowly but surely infests every single thing with over-the-top tribalism.”

Chase: When Letterboxd released its annual user Year in Review on Jan. 5, the internet similarly erupted in comparative posts, memes, and fan behavior.

Elena: In another thread on r/Movies about Letterboxd rivaling IMDb in popularity, one user mused, “Wish Letterboxd’s more prominent users weren’t so obnoxious. These days I use Letterboxd for keeping track of the movies I’ve seen, but I go to IMDb to see what other people think about movies.”

Another user noted, “There’s something to be said for the social media aspect of Letterboxd causing some users to rate things differently than they might if the rating was anonymous. There are a lot of ratings for the ‘meme’ or ‘joke’ on Letterboxd.” So the question becomes: Are we honoring the films or ourselves?

‘Top Four’ goes mainstream

Chase: Exactly, who is Letterboxd serving these days?

Elena: It’s something all social media platforms struggle with once they leave a niche and go more mainstream. 

As a result, the editorial side of the platform leaned into one of the defining features of Letterboxd: the Top Four. On the app, you choose up to four movies that live on your profile as your favorites. Their prominent location — displayed directly below your username and profile pic — indicates their importance and association with your identity.

Chase: Some now use “Top Four” as a shorthand for a movie being particularly good or affecting, implying that it may deserve one of the coveted spots.

Elena: Now, the Letterboxd editorial team asks actors and directors for their Top Four on red carpets. The videos are then sliced up into bite-sized content on platforms like TikTok. This sort of rote distillation of taste thrives on social media. It’s the “starter packs” of cinema. 

Chase: And it’s sometimes perceived as an indicator of the person’s identity.

Elena: If not identity then their intellectual prowess. Last year, Letterboxd asked director Yorgos Lanthimos and the cast of Poor Things for their Top Four.

Chase: And all hell broke loose. The responses — films like Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights, Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, and Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves — were deemed too obscure for the general public, and X and TikTok users responded with claims that the cast was being intentionally pretentious to prove something.

One TikTok user asked, “Are these movies actually good or are they just being different?” Another said, “I will never give a pretentious answer: parent trap, matilda, clueless and toy story.”

Elena: Bizarre discourse that implies a lack of curiosity about film, despite Letterboxd being billed as a film-discovery platform, as well as a disregard for actors’ and directors’ expertise. I’m sorry Lanthimos is not going to have the same favorite film as you!

The vitriolic reaction to the Poor Things cast’s Top Four is curious because the Criterion Collection has done closet-pick videos for years where the films chosen are of a similar stature. It suggests that Letterboxd’s growing audience are not the cinephiles they think they are, and general audiences interpret films more akin to fandom than a curiosity about the art form. 

Chase: And compare that response to the more accepted four favorite answers of the May December team, which include Trolls, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, The Godfather, and Dirty Dancing, and only a few “unknown” films. 

Elena: As the Top Four video format gains traction and with all of this ire thrown at highbrow picks, will actors have to further appeal to audiences by throwing in a crowd-pleasing answer or two?

Chase and I did what Film Twitter was too afraid to do and watched some of the Poor Things cast’s picks. 

I watched Luis Buñuel’s Belle de Jour, Bicycle Thieves, City Lights, Miloš Forman’s The Firemen’s Ball and I’d already seen Poor Things, The Favourite, and the Coen BrothersO Brother, Where Art Thou?

Chase: I watched Barry Lyndon, Paul Cassavetes’s Husbands, and Jaco Van Doramel’s Toto the Hero to add to my already-watched list of Poor Things, The Favourite, Raising Arizona (also the Coen Brothers), O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and City Lights.

Elena: While these movies didn’t enter (the unhelpful framework of) our Top Fours, the importance and urgency of Bicycle Thieves was immediately evident. It paints a gritty portrait of one down-and-out man in post-WWII Italy and stars nonprofessional actors, making it an Italian neorealist classic.

Chase: I could see why Willem Dafoe would feel attached to the long historie presented in Barry Lyndon, not to mention the beautiful costumery and set design (it was nominated for several Academy Awards). And it makes complete sense that Lanthimos would cite Husbands as an essential film, which explores masculine connection, grief, and violence (and some period-specific sexual motifs) but was criticized by feminist reviewers like Pauline Kael — the same kind of discourse that has circled Poor Things

Elena: Aside from City Lights, all of Emma Stone’s picks informed her role as Bella Baxter which included Belle De Jour, another story of a woman drawn to sex work in Paris, not out of desperation, but curiosity. 

Chase: According to Letterboxd’s Year in Review, only 19.9 percent of movies logged this year were 2023 releases (the previous year’s stat was 24 percent). The website itself encourages discovery and rediscovery of old films, international films, and independent directors, so these red carpet responses are actually very in line with user behavior — the internet at large, however, frowns upon it.

Elena: I did wish I watched them in a film class or had someone watching alongside me who could explain their significance, which brings us to the importance of actual film critics. They detail this rich history and draw connections to today’s releases. Critics provide a practical benefit to viewers, something overshadowed by conversations gleefully declaring criticism dead.

Chase: And that’s not even getting into criticism as an art form in itself, which Nolan hints at in his New York Film Critics Circle acceptance speech. “What we have here tonight is a group of professionals who attempt objectivity. Writing about cinema objectively is a paradox, but the aspirations of objectivity are what makes criticism vital and timeless and useful to filmmakers and the filmmaking community.”

Statistics illness plaguing the internet

Elena: The internet’s addiction to numbers and tracking further stymies Letterboxd’s potential. Like with Goodreads and even exercise tracking apps like Strava, users desire to beat their followers by running up their numbers. In the case of Letterboxd, it’s the number of films they watched. It’s an unhealthy way to engage in hobbies.

Chase: And the Top Four interviews and virality of Letterboxd reviews offer more forums for others to affirm or repeat back your own “perfect” taste, including the celebrities, influencers, or social media accounts you like the most. Popular accounts become app celebrities in their own right, often leading to excessive vitriol from other users.

Elena: And like every other social media platform actual celebrities like Ayo Edebiri face backlash for their reviews too. 

Chase: Mashable’s entertainment reporter Belen Edwards told us she sees the app as a “double-edged” sword, offering movie discovery but also contributing to the “social media-ification” or “gamification” of movie reviews. The utopian vision of Letterboxd being a curated, opt-in site for film recommendations and movie lovers has faded.

As someone who follows internet trends, do you think this will lead to the revival of anonymous accounts? I feel like that was the norm for a while, and then we moved back into the popularity of very public, identity-driven accounts.

Elena: No, because everyone wants to be famous. There is inherently something performative and exhibitionist about posting on social media, Letterboxd included. If you truly just wanted to document the movies you were watching for yourself you could keep a movie diary.

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