It’s hard to believe but today, October 17, marks the exact day 25 years ago that IMDb (aka Internet Movie Database, but that’s not the preferred name for these film geeks) made its debut in the world and changed everything for those who live, breathe and write about film and awards like I do. That is the day in 1990 that Col Needham, founder and CEO of IMDb posted a set of shell scripts to the USENET group rec.arts.movies, thereby creating a searchable database of everything — and anything – film. Eight years later Amazon entered the picture and IMDb was officially an Amazon subsidiary. It has been going strong ever since, a must-stop on the net for anyone looking for info, reviews (both professional and user written), awards data, technical aspects, cast and crew lists, ages, who’s alive, who’s not and so much else I could list its features for days. Actors can even tell you what their “STARmeter” score is and now since 2013 IMDb has itself gotten into the awards business giving STARmeter trophies to grateful stars, most recently when Room star Brie Larson won the honor at IMDb’s annual dinner at the Toronto International Film Festival (they do these dinners that also test the invitees film knowledge in Cannes and Sundance as well – Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs among those playing at TIFF this year).
On Thursday night Amazon and IMDb held an elegant party at the Sunset Tower hotel in Hollywood to celebrate the milestone of its 25th anniversary and the turnout was impressive. It was also amusing to see that the sponsor of the event was Visine, the eye-drop product. If ever there were people in need of Visine, it is the dedicated crew that brings some context to the infinite number of movie and TV titles that make up its core. It is rather astounding to me the amount of “data” (well over 100 million items they say) IMDb has and how it operates. I didn’t really know anything about it until one day several years ago on a flight to Telluride Roger Ebert mentioned it and said it was a “must.” Since then I probably go to that site or its apps at least 10 times a day. For this I thank Needham, an affable guy who, growing up in the UK, got into home computers when he was 12 years old in 1979 and instantly combined his aptitude for that with his love for movies (the first one he ever saw in a theater was Disney’s Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs, but his absolute favorite to this day is Hitchcock’s 1958 Vertigo). “It was a build-it-yourself. You got this thing in kit form and you soldered it together. It was a really, really small computer but it got me interested in technology,” Needham told me when we spoke recently. “So I love technology and it was also the early 80s home video revolution. I had VHS tapes absolutely everywhere, so I’m starting to see so many movies I’m losing track of which ones I’ve
seen and which ones I haven’t. So the classic film geek thing to do is start a paper diary. I wrote down what I saw on what day. About two weeks in I think ‘why bother with a paper diary when I could create a database?’ If it was on VHS, TV or I rented it or whatever, I would rewind the tape and I’d just type the main credits in just for my own use. It was a ridiculously geeky thing to do but it kind of turned out all right in the end.” That’s an understatement. By 14 he was running his own software company writing and designing computer games, but it was still the movies that were his passion all the way to that date of October 17, 1990 when the first version went live, even pre-dating the world wide web. It was the internet stone age and it wasn’t even his day job until 1996 when it turned from the most elaborate hobby ever into a limited liability company, with eventual advertising and the entry of Amazon.
To listen to him talk about how it has continually evolved is dizzying to a technology-challenged guy like me. But we share a love of movies and what Needham (who has been labeled by The Guardian as “the most powerful Brit in Hollywood”), with the help of Amazon, has done with this simple idea is rather mind-boggling. It’s a feast for movie lovers, and a necessity for those of us in this business. At a certain point they also added TV shows just in case the staff didn’t have enough to do. For me especially the extensive awards info attached to every entry is sheer nirvana, so unbelievably handy in covering the awards beat as I do. Want to know if Sandra Bullock won a teen choice award in addition to an Oscar? It’s all there. These people are what I call “completists.” And over the years they keep expanding the services, acquiring the Without A Box team which enables users to submit their entries to film festivals including Sundance in a very big way (it was no accident that the key Sundance Festival team was at Sunset Tower Thursday night raising a glass to the 25th). There’s also IMDb Pro, a subscription service designed for industry usage, and the acquisition of Box Office Mojo for gross data. In 2009 they launched their first mobile app and have since had over 115 million downloads. X Ray for movies and TV shows is another innovation that allows you to freeze the scene and find out the name and instant bio of anyone in the scene. IMDb is also moving into producing original content such as their series What To Watch, which focuses on a single movie or tv show.
So how many people actually run this site? Needham can’t say because, as a division of Amazon they are not allowed to disclose group sizes. But it obviously takes a village. There is a team in Bristol, England where a lot of the content originates. A Santa Monica office handles many of the more industry-based divisions. The rest of the team for the consumer website and apps are based in Seattle. “We’re in this position now, we’re in this very mobile world and IMDb can be with you wherever you go kind of thing. It’s super exciting because to me my interests still remain movies and TV and technology. The thing is that as technology grows you build more and more experiences and more and more powerful apps. You would never, 25 years ago, imagine that you would have the world’s entertainment knowledge at your fingertips wherever you go,” said a proud Needham.
Happy 25th IMDb. It will be interesting to see what the next 25 hold.