On July 26, 2020, Letterboxd user “M” posted a review of experimental filmmaker Charlie Shackleton’s 2016 film “Paint Drying” that made no reference to the film itself. “I was doing so good about watching new movies for a couple weeks, now I’m having a hard time even getting through rewatches,” M wrote at the time. “Don’t know what’s going on. Just want to sleep, or cease to exist.” 

With that simple yet emotionally raw post, M unwittingly christened a corner of the movie-focused social network (so popular that even Martin Scorsese is now a member) as a place for users to share personal updates that range from the mundane to the startlingly confessional, along with polls, contests, commentary on non-movie pieces of media (music, video games, TV series), and anything else that doesn’t fit within Letterboxd’s format of logging movies and writing reviews of them.

There are now more than 7,500 reviews of “Paint Drying” (official synopsis: “10 hours of paint drying on a wall”), almost all of them written since M’s initial 2020 review. Almost none of them are about the movie itself.

“It’s a perfect example of how our community finds ways to use the tools that we provide to do the things that they want to be able to do,” Letterboxd editor-in-chief Gemma Gracewood told IndieWire. Like any other Letterboxd user, Gracewood came across the “Paint Drying” page by accident. “It was this weird hidden corner that I stumbled into and was like, ‘What’s going on here?’”

Shackleton himself had a similar experience, after a friend alerted him to what was going on with the “Paint Drying” Letterboxd page. “I remember going to look at it and seeing the scale of that and being quite overwhelmed by it,” he told IndieWire. “It’s such an unlikely second act for this project, which was so specific in nature and limited in scope. I never really imagined it would have an afterlife.”

Shackleton created “Paint Drying” as a protest film to draw attention to film censorship. The movie was funded on Kickstarter and submitted to the British Board of Film Classification as a way to force them to view its entire 607-minute running time. Aside from a showing at the Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art in Brisbane, Australia, in November 2023, it has never been exhibited publicly or made available online. 

In a way, that makes it the perfect vehicle for unrelated self-expression, since no one is crowding out legitimate reviews. “I feel nothing but privileged to have any connection to this,” Shackleton said.

“Given that ‘Paint Drying’ itself was able to be made and able to be as long as it is due to crowdfunding, the Letterboxd community gathering a crowd around this film’s page just feels like a continuation of that spirit,” Gracewood said. 

About a month after M’s first review was posted, user “Felipe” took to “Paint Drying” for an even more momentous update. “I probably won’t be very active for a while because, and this is not a joke, my house burned down,” Felipe wrote.

Even in the face of such a traumatic experience, Felipe made sure to stay focused on the purpose of Letterboxd: “I may log some films every once in a while, but for now it’s obviously not a priority.” Early reviewers like Felipe also made token references to the content of “Paint Drying” itself, but that was soon left behind entirely as the practice of using the page for personal updates became more common. 

Recent reviews include well-wishes for Valentine’s Day, thoughts on the Super Bowl (and Super Bowl commercials), solicitations for suggestions of films to watch, invitations to view users’ own short films, birthday celebrations, and more serious updates about physical and mental health. Those updates, if they mention subjects like self-harm, can seem alarming, but users are never just shouting into the void.

“Every now and then, a life update on ‘Paint Drying’ will come to the attention of our community managers and our mods, because it’s deeply personal,” Gracewood said. “We absolutely reach out. It’s an essential part of our moderating philosophy, to make sure that our people are OK, and do what we can to help.”

The current most popular “Paint Drying” review, with more than 5,000 likes and more than 600 comments, comes from ReelTok podcast co-host George Carmi, offering a serious but positive report on his own health.

“Yesterday, I wrapped up my chemo-therapy,” he wrote on December 31, 2023. After detailing his journey through cancer diagnosis and treatment, Carmi offered an invitation to others on Letterboxd: “If you’re going through something similar and if you ever need a friend to talk to, please do not hesitate to reach out.”

Although Carmi has plenty of followers on other social media platforms, he deliberately chose Letterboxd as the place to share something so personal and vulnerable. “It just felt right to pop it on Letterboxd,” he told IndieWire. “These are the people that have been following my film journey over the last two years. These are the people that have watched me grow as a person and as a film enthusiast.”

Like Shackleton’s film itself, the Letterboxd “Paint Drying” page has become something more than its creators could have envisioned. In September 2020, M returned to “Paint Drying” to make what is their account’s final post to date: “This account is abandoned. I’m keeping it to remember the things I have written and the private lists I have made.”

But Carmi’s experience and the overall “Paint Drying” phenomenon point to how valuable Letterboxd has become for its users as it’s grown, as more than just a repository for star ratings on the latest blockbusters or arthouse releases.

“I feel a little nervous and sad that ‘Paint Drying’ is about to go mainstream,” Gracewood said, but that also means that more Letterboxd users will have the same opportunity for connection as Carmi.

“I read through those comments almost every day, whenever I need a pick-me-up,” Carmi said of the response to his post. And he — and the thousands of others who have made the page their own special place on the wilds of the Internet — will always have a place to do just that.

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