What started as an obsession for cataloguing DVDs and keeping track of which friends had borrowed which movies turned into a startup adventure for Auckland developers Karl von Randow (far right) and Matt Buchanan.
The duo spent the past decade working together building websites and digital campaigns for other companies through their digital agency Cactuslab, but in 2010 kicked off their own project, a social network for movie buffs called Letterboxd. The site gives users tools to become Roger Ebert-esque film critics and movie connoisseurs – curating, sharing and reviewing the films they love (and hate) with other like-minded individuals. Think GoodReads, but for cinema.
The idea for creating an online community around movies is far from new – you only have to look as far as one of the most popular repositories of cultural knowledge on the internet, IMDB.com, to see prior art. Letterboxd’s founders say if it weren’t for a piece of desktop software for cataloguing movies that fell out of developer support five or so years ago, the site may not exist today. But Letterboxd strives to be different from filing software and online databases by embracing social networking over a pure deluge of data and trivia.
“You don’t follow your friends on IMDB,” says Buchanan. “It’s not a social experience, it’s a utility. Letterboxd is more involved than that – it brings together people who truly love films to share that experience with other people who truly love films.”
This community of movie aficionados has grown to around 60,000 users – mostly from the US. However, user numbers are an ethereal beast until a company can make use of it for money and on that front Letterboxd is still in its infancy. Building the social network has cost Letterboxd’s founders between $500,000 and $750,000 out of their own pockets, while development has been bootstrapped to where it is today by the money from their Cactuslab business.
“We don’t like to think of it as losing money – instead it’s much more cheerful to say we’re investing like crazy,” jokes von Randow.
Letterboxd isn’t profitable yet but it’s making baby steps towards the black line. In February the site launched a ‘pro’ tier, which for a monthly fee gives users access to extra features including analytics and a fancy little badge next to their profile that says ‘pro’. So far this has only been picked up by a few hundred users.
Buchanan and von Randow have toyed with other revenue models such as advertising, but haven’t found a way to make it work for their particular niche. The site does have some ads, but it’s incredibly subtle – von Randow admits it might be too subtle, as it’s hard to tell they exist on the site at all. Advertising is far less palatable than the user-pays model, which Buchanan says is fast becoming a trend for content startups.
“We’re seeing it more and more, this movement where people are saying they’re willing to pay money to support the online communities they love,” he says. “I think Letterboxd is one of those communities and we’ll see if people show that with their wallets.”
Von Randow says outside investment into the social network isn’t something the two are considering at this stage, but it’s not entirely out of the question.
“We’re not afraid of outside capital – we just don’t know much about it. What we do know about is the web, social and online communities, so what we’re doing now is what we have strengths in. We’re definitely not growing as fast as we possibly could because we haven’t sought that investment, but that’s been deliberate.”
The next step for Letterboxd is to roll out integration with Facebook’s Open Graph API, which, once connected, lowers the barrier significantly for the network’s users to share their movie posts and activities with friends – potentially opening up Letterboxd to exposure on the billion-strong social network. Buchanan says the same community that gives Letterboxd its strength could also prove to be its downfall.
“Apathy is our biggest worry,” he points out. “This site is built around a community that loves movies. If, for some reason, that love evaporates, so does our site. It’s not a likely scenario but it’s one we’re always keeping an eye on.”
Beyond that it’s just a waiting game to see if Letterboxd becomes a blockbuster in its own right.