An interview with IMDb founder Col Needham
IMDb founder and Chief Executive Col Needham is a confessed movie nerd. Growing up in Manchester, England, his earliest memories were formed in movie theaters -- seeing “Star Wars” when it was released in 1977, he recalled, when the cinema was “so full that people had to sit in the aisles.” So when at age 12 he got his first computer -- a do-it-yourself kit -- he began using the new technology to keep track of the movies he had seen.
“I’d be watching movies and would notice all of these connections between films. I was a big Cary Grant fan, so putting all of the information in a little database, for example, helped me keep track of which Cary Grant films I’d seen,” he said. “It’s a bit geeky, but it worked out all right in the end.”
That it did. Needham’s obsessive hobby evolved into the Internet Movie Database, the online resource that allows users to sift through information about 1.5 million movies and TV programs and 3.2 million cast and crew members. According to the Amazon-owned company, each month more than 57 million unique visitors use the website to search for details such as what movie their favorite actor might star in next or who directed that movie they just saw on TV. Those who shell out $15.95 per month get access to IMDbPro, where more detailed information resides, such as contact numbers for stars’ publicists and agents.
Days before the site celebrates its 20th anniversary, Needham, 43, spoke to Company Town about IMDb’s information vetting process, how he handles the demands of often egotistical industry folk, and the site’s new look.
Question: IMDb became a part of Amazon in 1998. How much was the business acquired for and why did you agree to the deal?
Answer: That’s not a number that’s been publicly disclosed. We had been approached before, but we were not interested. We had a very clear direction that we wanted to take the company, and we were profitable, so we didn’t necessarily need to be in that position where we needed to raise capital. [Amazon founder] Jeff Bezos explained how Amazon was moving from, at the time -- don’t forget, this was 12 years ago -- from selling just books into music and then into VHS tapes and these shiny new things called DVDs. He could see that it would be beneficial for Amazon to partner with a movie-related site, and how IMDb data could be used in the Amazon video store.
Q: With so many credits listed, how can you be sure the information is reliable?
A: The model we use is that we have a set of expert editors. So when information comes in, it goes first to them -- there might be a person that’s an expert of trivia or quotes or directors’ credits, or who knows a lot about upcoming projects.
Q: What happens if the so-called experts get the trivia or credits wrong?
A: We have had cases where somebody has said, ‘I’m not attached to this film,’ and then we look, and it’s their agent that’s actually told us about it. And surprise, a week later, they are publicly attached to the film. You know how it works: We get a tip from an agent or from the person themselves or somebody involved in the production. We are kind of like, very plugged in there. But obviously, things can change.
Q: Do you often get calls from celebrities asking that you remove, say, an unflattering news story that’s linked on their page or an embarrassing old credit?
A: The credits are the bread and butter. We want to list every credit for everybody, and there’s nothing they can do. We never remove factually correct information. So if somebody made this film, if this piece of information about somebody is the truth, we will always publish that. If somebody wants something removed, we’re not gonna remove it just because they want it removed.
Q: The Screen Actors Guild requested that you remove birth dates from IMDb because that information could lead to age discrimination for some workers seeking employment in Hollywood. Will you do that?
A: We just want to publish as much information as possible about everybody. What we’ve done on IMDbPro is we’ve provided some tools where people can highlight different aspects of their career -- if they want to, like, play down [their] age, there are tools on Pro that enable you to control your page a little bit. For example, you can upload photos of yourself that clearly illustrate what your age [playing] range is, or build your resume that has an age range [an actor can play] on it.
Q: You recently redesigned the website, and it seems users have had a mixed reaction.
A: We’ve got a really big group of users who are absolutely loving it, and they’re getting on and enjoying it. It’s much more about helping you make that viewing decision, so there’s an emphasis on show times in theaters, purchasing options and linking directly to movies and TV shows that are available online. For some people who are perhaps very accustomed to where things specifically are on a page, it’s taken them longer to adjust.