If you’ve run in online movie spheres in the last couple of years — or have crossed paths with someone who does — you’ve probably been asked for your Letterboxd handle.
Among those in the know, a common refrain is that the platform is “Goodreads for movies.” It’s a succinct mantra that has more or less come to be the site’s de facto slogan, though it’s of limited practical use. Ask a dozen users what Letterboxd is and you’re likely to get a dozen answers — but there’s little doubt that whatever it is, it’s transforming the way film is shared and talked about.
By technicality, Letterboxd is a social media site: There’s followers and likes and all of the engagement-boosting dopamine kicks that come with them. And yet, it doesn’t boast all of the features definitive of a modern social media platform. Without the ubiquitous feeds and infinite scrolls of other sites, Letterboxd is built tangibly different from its biggest contemporaries.
Its key functionality is twofold. At the most basic level, Letterboxd is for most users more akin to a personal diary than a traditional social outlet. Many of its features are based around logging films as one watches them: Calendar dates and metadata accompany each entry, and the option to add a review is made entirely optional. Features such as a watchlist and annual yearly stats — à la Spotify Wrapped — make the ritual of logging watched films feel just as personal as it is public.
But on a mass scale, Letterboxd doubles as a rich, user-driven discovery database. In addition to a numeric score, Letterboxd displays a bell curve of ratings that neatly summarizes a sitewide consensus (or contention) on each film, while its monthly “call sheets” spotlight the very best of user reviews and content.
In a similarly democratic spirit, the platform sources information on its films from The Movie Database, an open-source competitor to IMDB and other review aggregators. Since there’s no industry barriers or verification required to add films, and it relies instead on users to maintain and update it, The Movie Database is a far more accessible platform for indie and micro budget filmmakers. It’s not uncommon to stumble upon a true hidden gem in the robust Letterboxd search engine: Though the most talked about films tend to roughly correspond with what’s circulating in the general cinephile community, a review of an otherwise obscure movie from a followed user can place it front and center on one’s landing page.
It might be tempting to think of Letterboxd as an auxiliary platform, or a supplement to presence elsewhere in online movie discourse. A quick look at the platform’s most popular users might first suggest this, and a few names among the influencer class of Letterboxd may stand out to nonusers.
“The Florida Project” director Sean Baker runs what’s perhaps the most consistent major profile on the site, meticulously logging every film he watches in the site’s Diary feature. Ever the optimist, Baker’s only rated review is a facetious ½ star roast of his own breakout hit. And though he may regularly get millions of views on his YouTube video essays, Karsten Runquist’s humble and eloquent diary logs have made him the third most popular Letterboxd user. Other potentially recognizable names are 2.14 million subscriber YouTube personality I Hate Everything and celebrated indieWire film critic David Ehrlich, who round out Letterboxd’s professional class.
But while these externally popular figures may make strong mascots for the site, Letterboxd is most remarkable for how it’s avoided crafting major internal celebrities. At the time of publication, “ ‘She Did That!’ cinema” proponent brat pitt has the most followers of any user, but her near 70,000 followers are dwarfed by the site’s million strong user base. Behind the personna is Mia Vicino, a columnist for Willamette Week; not only does her Letterboxd presence predate her tenure at the traditional newspaper, but it also represents a distinctly nontraditional direction of film journalism.
Quips, sarcastic remarks and a distinctly internet-age sense of humor hold just as much of the spotlight on Letterboxd as beautiful, eloquent and traditional criticism. In contrast to festival-ranked lists from users such Ehrlich, Vicino’s curated lists vary in topic from unassuming yearly favorites to highly specific and hilarious observations, such as “movies in which an a list actor plays a lonely white guy with a creepy moustache who falls in love with someone/thing he shouldn’t.”
But though Vicino and her fellow popular users are the closest thing Letterboxd has to influencers, the platform is precisely designed to curate intimate networks of users: The only real distinction between large and small users are the sizes of their networks. Letterboxd is less of a large social network and more of a conglomerate of many — but its strength as a platform comes from just how effectively it harnesses these circles to challenge the idea of conventional film criticism. It’s a space that balances contradictions: prioritizing meticulous logging as much as it does discussion, fostering tight communities but aggregating them to foster collective opinion, promoting up-and-coming and establishment voices alike. So perhaps the next time someone asks what Letterboxd is, give them the honest answer: We have no idea.