March 29th, 2017

Preview: Letterboxd, the social network for film geeks

Letterboxd logo.

Overview

Letterboxd is a “film diary” web app which has been in development since early 2011, built by designers and developers from the New Zealand design house Cactuslab. Building upon services like GetGlue, Flixster and MUBI, with Letterboxd you can keep track of the films you’ve seen, what you thought of those films, and find recommendations for what to watch next, all while keeping up with your friends’ viewing habits with a Twitter-like following system.

Currently in private beta, the site is due to be launched to the public very shortly and will be free to join. In true web start-up tradition there is no word yet on how the site is supposed to make money in the long term, but you can bet some kind of premium service will be offered as well as advertising.

Right now you can add your email address to the waiting list on the Letterboxd website, or contact me on Twitter or by email to get an invite.

Connecting to Twitter makes it easier to find people to follow.

The service offers two main functions. The first is a film diary in which you mark films as “watched” when you’ve seen them, and build up a list of all the films you’ve seen with optional ratings. You can also tag a film with the date you saw it and any other information you’d like to associate with the film. For example, I tag films with the format in which I saw them: cinema, Blu-ray, DVD, etc., but you can tag a film with literally anything you like. There is also a Watchlist for movies you haven’t seen yet but would like to.

For obsessive film geeks it’s surprisingly addictive to build a list of every single film you’ve ever seen in your life, and even the regular, non-obsessive movie-goer will find Letterboxd fun to use.

The second function is a social network in which you can follow friends and interesting strangers to see which films they’ve been watching and how they rate them, and in the process hopefully discover new films to watch and discuss.

One of the more useful features of the site is lists, which are exactly what they sound like: arbitrary collections of films which users can create on any theme and with any number of films. There are user-created filmographies, “best of” lists, genre collections, and some crazy lists with wonderfully specific themes (“The Curse of Commerce: Seven Horror Movies Set Inside Shopping Centres”).

I’ve only been using the site for three days and I’ve already discovered a bunch of movies to search out on DVD.

Film page.

The Good

To start with, the site is gorgeous, with expansive film stills and posters lending the air of an art gallery to most pages. Just have a look at the gallery of screenshots I’ve taken, at the bottom of the page.

But as well as being nice to look at, it’s also well streamlined to perform most tasks with a minimal amount of friction, which is important for one main reason: services like Letterboxd are mostly useless until a user has populated their profile with a large amount of data, which is a long and mind-numbing exercise when you first sign up for something.

Letterboxd deals with this by making it possible to perform central tasks – marking a film as “watched”, rating it, adding it to a list, etc. – without having to visit each film’s page individually. Anywhere a film appears – in a list, on a director’s filmography, etc – you can add it to your profile in a maximum of two clicks, and this makes it incredibly easy to populate your profile in no time at all.

Fly-out menus make it easy to mark and rate films from any page.

Easier still would be to import your ratings history from IMDb, which according to the developers will be made available to users before the service’s public launch.

The Bad

Due to the cost associated with accessing IMDb’s software API, the Letterboxd team opted to go with The Movie Database (TMDb) to provide their movie data instead, which is considerably less comprehensive and smaller in size than IMDb (approximately 80,000 titles versus IMDb’s over two million). While most of the major Hollywood and foreign releases are covered, and it keeps up well with newly released films, you may struggle to find a lot of classic films and lesser-known foreign movies, and credit information apart from director and cast is patchy at best.

For a service marketed to people who care about movies this is a terrible decision, but is mitigated somewhat by the fact that users have created filmography lists for the more well-known screenwriters and composers. Still, if iCheckMovies can afford to use IMDb’s API, Letterboxd should be able to as well, and it may be too late for them to ever change now that they’ve built their app upon the inferior service.

Letterboxd also has no mobile interface, but in interviews its developers have stated that they plan to launch their own API to allow developers to create their own mobile apps for the service. Expect iOS and Android apps to follow very shortly after that API is launched, and page load times and UI responsiveness should improve once the service goes public as well.

Profile page.

The Verdict

While it may not boast an entirely unique set of features, Letterboxd is certainly the most well-executed and easy to use website of its type. Once it moves out of beta and starts gathering film preferences for hundreds of thousands of users, the potential for improvement is huge.

Letterboxd essentially replaces GetGlue, Flixster and the user sections of RottenTomatoes already, and with a few small updates could also knock out iCheckMovies’s one killer feature. The only site with any sort of advantage over Letterboxd is MUBI, which has negotiated licensing agreements with distributors to enable streaming movies on its website and to users’ televisions through a PlayStation 3 app. But a lot of people use MUBI not to watch films but rather to rate, discuss and discover films, and virtually all of those people will find Letterboxd better equipped to serve their needs.

If the Letterboxd team add the ability to track list progress (“you’ve seen 210 films of the IMDb Top 250”), and gather enough data to add automatic recommendations like on Last.fm (“we see you like Jaws, perhaps you would like Alien?”), it will outshine any other media-related social network currently available in virtually every area. And look damn good doing it.

More social interaction and collaboration features would improve the service further, but as a brand new web app in private beta I could not be more impressed with the Letterboxd experience. If they manage to wrangle their back-end data into order I could see Letterboxd rivalling Last.fm as the best website of its type on the internet.

If you’d like an invite to use Letterboxd, send your email address to me on Twitter or by email.

About Bradley J. Dixon

Bradley J. Dixon is a freelance writer and blogger from Melbourne.

Comments

  1. Very interesting review. I’ve been using Letterboxd for a couple of days and you made the choice of TMDb clearer for me.

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