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Second Take: Film review app Letterboxd successfully brings cinema lovers together

(Matthew Park/Daily Bruin)

By Avery Poznanski

Feb. 12, 2024 12:39 p.m.

This post was updated Feb. 15 at 7:02 p.m.

Letterboxd is powerfully sweeping the box office of public opinion.

It’s an all-too-familiar sight – moments after the credits begin to roll, a dark theater lights up with tiny beacons of orange, green and blue. Frantic fingers fly across touchscreens, racing to publish the most niche one-liner possible. Letterboxd is the new social media platform for film lovers – and it’s not going anywhere. While the memeification of the app has sparked debate about its hand in the “death of cinema,” Letterboxd succeeds in provoking dynamic discourse and engaging audiences with film in a relevant and accessible way long after the credits have rolled.

Founded in 2011 by New Zealanders Matt Buchanan and Karl von Randow, Letterboxd allows users to engage in film criticism by ranking, reviewing and organizing films. Letterboxd describes itself on its website as a “global social network for grass-roots film discussion and discovery,” imparting a down-to-earth quality to the site’s body of criticism. The website instructs users to track and engage with films as they watch them or to log an overview of past films watched. This control over the level of engagement is key to Letterboxd’s popularity: one can diaristically log their films for personal collection purposes or actively build community by posting and responding to reviews.

[Related: Second Take: Audiences deserve an intermission from formulaic and overdone biopics]

Only reaching mainstream popularity during the COVID-19 pandemic, Letterboxd has grown to attract many different demographics. From young Twitter critics to die-hard “film bros” to celebrities like Ayo Edebiri, Letterboxd offers a social experience that unites archetypes behind the opportunity to talk about film. There’s something singularly democratic about the Letterboxd experience, which is further self-described as “Goodreads for movies.”

But is the ironic popularity of Letterboxd – the Gen Z lingo, the one-line quips, the infamous “This happened to my buddy Eric” model of review – threatening the integrity of the site’s purpose? Or film itself? In the larger conversation about the “death of cinema,” Letterboxd might be seen as a democratic progenitor of young filmmakers and cinephiles or another way in which film is over-commercialized and devalued. The facetious nature of Letterboxd and its potential for legitimate and intelligent film discourse are not mutually exclusive. In fact, the ability to include both adds to its success as a site.

In actuality, Letterboxd is largely uncommercial. While users do deal with ads, the basic Letterboxd experience is free. Anyone can post a review, as Letterboxd participation exists outside the world of sponsorship and paid reviews. The ranking system works on a standard five-star scale, but actual reviews vary in length and earnestness. Many Letterboxd users wax poetic about their favorite films, offering full synopses and analyses, while others have found the review section a platform ripe for riffing.

Letterboxd seems to be in on the joke, leaning into their social media presence by reposting memes on X, formerly known as Twitter, or asking celebrities their “Four Favorites” on the red carpet for TikTok. The platform seems to have moved beyond its original and successful goal of uniting film lovers, now growing towards a curated image, atmosphere and audience – one that is hip and cultured but never too serious.

Interestingly, Letterboxd recently found itself uplifted by and aligned with one of the figureheads of the “death of cinema” conversation: Martin Scorsese. Recently rising as the internet’s grandpa thanks to his daughter Francesca’s TikTok account, Scorsese also took to Instagram to promote his newly created Letterboxd account in October. Scorsese ruffled film fans’ feathers in 2019 when he criticized Marvel film productions, stating publicly and reaffirming in a New York Times op-ed that they are pure entertainment, not cinema.

Five years later, as Marvel peters out in relevancy, and cerebral blockbusters like “Oppenheimer” and “Killers of the Flower Moon” dominate film discourse, we can see that Scorsese may have been right all along. Scorsese’s endorsement of Letterboxd, however facetious, signifies something earnest and pure about the site or the culture it engenders. After all, the internet film community was the birthplace of “Barbenheimer,” a funny meme and cultural phenomenon that earned billions in movie ticket sales. If streaming and sequels are what’s “killing cinema,” shouldn’t a platform that celebrates live film attendance and subsequent open discussion be celebrated?

The humorous side of Letterboxd can be a source of particularly hilarious material but has occasionally veered too far. After posting a critical review of Emerald Fennell’s “Saltburn,” saying, “My man’s is doing all of this but can’t eat runny eggs?”, Edebiri was criticized on X. She removed her profile picture, the review and asked followers to not “harsh the vibe.” Edebiri’s experience highlights how the Letterboxd audience tends toward intemperance and frenzy – if you’re not on the right side of internet opinion, be prepared to defend yourself.

[Related: Film review: Opulent aesthetics can’t save ‘Saltburn’ from narrative vacuity]

On the dark and turbulent space that is the internet, there will always be a select few “harshing the vibe.” But in a moment where film stands at a precipice, the future of cinema is uncertain in the face of AI negotiations and labor reform. Audiences should return to the most basic motivating principle: a simple love of film. Letterboxd not only achieves its goal in bringing film lovers together but also encourages engagement with films. What does it matter if it’s a joking one-line reference or a full-length dissertation?

For keeping the love of cinema alive for new generations, Letterboxd earns a shining five stars.

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