How two New Zealanders created the go-to destination for movie buffs

By Karl Quinn

Letterboxd managing editor Gemma Gracewood and co-founders Karl Von Randow and Matthew Buchanan.

When Matthew Buchanan and Karl Von Randow dreamt up a website where movie buffs could share their passions a little over a decade ago, it was very much a side hustle to their main business, Cactuslab, which develops websites and apps for others from a tiny office in the suburbs of Auckland.

“We had peaks and troughs of work coming through the door, and we started to think, ‘well, we’ve got this great team, can we put them to work on something that’s just for us?’,” says Buchanan.

They had in mind the Google model, in which employees were directed to spend one day a week on pet projects, without mind to profitability. It was, he says, all about “just putting a little portion of your focus into something cool to get you away from the day to day”.

A dozen years after their site went into beta testing, and a decade after it launched to the public, Letterboxd is a bona fide success.

The company’s name refers to the cropping that takes place when a wide screen film is shown on a TV.Credit:Letterboxd

The film-focused social network, which allows users to review movies, share watch lists and browse what others are saying, is now in 200 countries, with 8.4 million active members. The company claims more than 103 million movie reviews have been written for the platform, 10.9 million lists created, and 1.25 billion movies marked as watched by its members.

It is, by any measure, a roaring success. And as Kiwi model Rachel Hunter might have said, it didn’t happen overnight, but it did happen.

“It took us nine years to reach break-even point,” says Buchanan. “For the first six or seven years, I answered tech support calls. We only hired the first person specifically for the business three years ago. Before that, we were just begging, borrowing and stealing from the other business.”

That first employee was Gemma Gracewood, editor-in-chief of the site (while the bulk of content is user-generated, its Journal section is commissioned interviews and features).

Gracewood knew Buchanan from their days together at a student radio station; she was the editorial director, and he built their first website. They were chatting at a barbecue one day when Gracewood asked her old friend why the Letterboxd Twitter feed was only ever about what was going wrong.

Letterboxd founders Matthew Buchanan and Karl Von Randow.

“I was like, ‘why is it always tech support? Why don’t you talk about movies?’,” she says. “And he was like, ‘well, can you do that?’”

Gracewood was hired, starting just as the pandemic was about to break. And while COVID-19 was terrible for the movie business – crippling production and shutting down cinemas worldwide – it was a boon for Letterboxd.

Three years ago, the platform had just 1.3 million members; the explosion in home viewing, and the desire for virtual social connections, drove growth beyond all expectations. According to Buchanan, between 4 and 5 per cent of active members are paid subscribers. Everyone else sees ads, which generate their own revenue stream.

Many people who come to the platform never write a thing – they’re the “lurkers” in Letterboxd parlance – but others are prolific reviewers (call them the workers). Professional critics, filmmakers, and industry professionals are all on the platform, some openly – such as directors Paul Thomas Anderson and Edgar Wright – and others on the sly.

For proof of the mutual lovefest between the platform and the industry, look no further than the “Love Letters From Letterboxd” clip created with and for the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences in the run-up to this year’s Oscars. There you’ll see Tar director Todd Field confessing that he reads, and learns from, people’s contributions on the platform; Ke Huy Quan tearing up at a fan’s kind words about his performance in Everything Everywhere All At Once; and writer-director Rian Johnson (Knives Out), actor Paul Mescal (Aftersun), director Edward Berger (All Quiet on the Western Front) and others soaking up the affection.

It’s not just for insiders though, by any means. Anyone can create a list of the films they’ve seen and instantly assign a rating (out of five stars), or a list of the films they want to see. Members can follow other people – reading their reviews, poring over their lists, expanding their range of interests and knowledge.

Ratings are averaged across all users, and determine where a particular title sits in the popularity stakes, which helps with its discoverability. Right now, the most popular film of the week is John Wick: Chapter 4; of the month is Scream; of the year is The Menu; and of all time is Parasite.

The end game is driving discoverability, which Gracewood believes contributes to the viability of the movie business as a whole.

“I see Letterboxd not as an audience, but as many audiences that intersect around shared interests,” she says. “It’s not demographic, not even psychographic, it’s just who likes this movie. And if you like that movie, you might like this movie, and they might be two completely different movies.”

She takes enormous delight in seeing someone graduate from the mainstream to something more challenging, discovering as they go a world of cinema they might otherwise never have known about.

“My favourite thing is the Twilight to Personal Shopper [via Kristen Stewart] or Twilight to Good Time [Robert Pattinson] pathway,” she says. “You know, a young person who has seen an actor they like in a blockbuster they love and they want to watch their other films. Twilight as a gateway film to The Lighthouse – that’s what we need.”

Taking members on a journey of discovery that might lead from Twilight to the more indie films of stars Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart is one of the delights of the platform, says editor-in-chief Gemma Gracewood.Credit:Ian Gavan

As they celebrate 10 years of Letterboxd, the founders — Von Randow is still aboard, but concentrates mostly on the other business — and Gracewood are keen to shine a little light on what they’ve achieved, no matter how at odds that might be with the typical diffidence of New Zealanders.

“Even though we’ve got some respectable numbers, there’s still lots of people that have no idea we exist, and have no idea that we could represent for them something useful in their online lives,” says Buchanan.

Is there any chance that this sudden courting of attention might signal a future IPO, or an invitation to some overly liquid tech firm to snap up this niche operation of a dozen or so staff doing quite amazing things from across the Ditch?

“No, I think the people that might be interested in that angle probably already know of our existence,” he says. “And if they don’t, they probably need to check their sources.”

Well, Elon’s been kinda busy. Are you definitively saying you’re not on the sale trail?

“I think anyone who categorically says anything when it comes to money in business is probably deluding themselves a little bit,” Buchanan says. “But that’s not what our focus is.”

Gracewood adds: “Any tool that can corral an audience … so that filmmakers can keep making movies, is a good tool.

“If what we value is movies, and more filmmakers making more films, and more films from our past being more available, then let’s build a community around that vision.”

Find more of the author’s work here. Email him at [email protected], or follow him on Facebook at karlquinnjournalist and on Twitter @karlkwin.

Find out the next TV, streaming series and movies to add to your must-sees. Get The Watchlist delivered every Thursday.

Most Viewed in Culture

Source: Read Full Article