Col Needham created IMDb
The gig: Col Needham, 45, is founder and chief executive of Internet Movie Database, the world’s leading online source for information about movies and television shows and for celebrity news. Every month, the site attracts more than 160 million visitors who come to watch movie trailers, read reviews or check out the comprehensive rundown of a movie’s cast and crew. Its database contains more than 100 million items, including information about more than 2 million movies and TV shows and some 4 million cast and crew members.
Lifelong movie fan: Hollywood provided the highlights of Needham’s childhood. His earliest memory is of seeing Walt Disney’s animated classic “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” at age 5 with his grandmother, after winning a newspaper coloring competition. “She took me in a taxi to the middle of Manchester, the town in the north of England where I grew up,” Needham said. “I can remember the taxi, I can remember the movie.”
The 1975 summer thriller “Jaws” kept Col — who at the time was 8 — out of the local swimming pool. The home video revolution allowed him to more thoroughly indulge his passion for film. A family friend who owned a video rental store would lend him video cassette tapes for up to two weeks. “My ridiculous claim to fame was as a 14-year-old when I saw “Alien” 14 times in 14 days,” he joked.
Computer geek: An early technology enthusiast, Needham received his first computer — a do-it-yourself hobbyist kit — as a Christmas gift when he was 12. “My love of film and love of technology were kind of on a collision course for the creation of IMDb.” Before long, Needham converted his paper diary of the films he’d watched into a computer database that included each movie’s title, director, writers, principal cast and crew and plot summary. He would watch movies on VHS tape and faithfully record each film’s credits.
Finding movie fans online: Needham graduated from Leeds University in 1988 with a computer science degree and began working in Hewlett-Packard Co.’s research lab in Bristol. Around that same time, he turned to an early type of Internet discussion group, known as the “usenet,” to chat about films with other cinephiles. Invariably, talk would turn to actresses — and one member of the news group compiled a list of actresses with their credits.
Needham merged this list with his own data, then took it upon himself, in 1990, to prepare a companion list of actors, and later, of golden-age Hollywood actors and actresses who had died. At the suggestion of someone within the online group, he converted his private database to a version that could be used by any computer connected to the Internet. The IMDb was launched Oct. 17, 1990.
World Wide Web: A doctoral student at Cardiff University in Wales urged Needham to adapt IMDb in 1993 for upstart World Wide Web. At the time, he had no thought of making money with his passion project. “We were all just volunteers who cared passionately about movies, about TV shows, about personalities, and we wanted to share that love with the rest of the world,” he said. But after a period of rapid growth, Needham and three others incorporated IMDb in 1996, using a credit card to cover startup expenses. Within two weeks of launch, IMDb sold its first ad. “We were able to pay off the credit card debt before it was due,” he said. “I’d like to think that we became the world’s first profitable Internet company.”
Amazon comes calling: Needham quit his day job in the summer of ‘96, after IMDb sold its first movie studio ad (to promote 20th Century Fox’s “Independence Day”). Within a year, Amazon.com’s general counsel approached Needham to arrange a meeting with the online retailer’s chief executive, Jeff Bezos, in London. Such an email should have sent Champagne corks popping, said Needham, who mistakenly believed the face-to-face session would focus on advertising. Bezos had something else in mind.
“Jeff had such a clear vision for how IMDb could fit within the Amazon family yet exist as a separate brand,” Needham said. “The information on the IMDb site would be optimized for search and discovery, helping you find great things to watch. At the same time, IMDb data could be used on the Amazon website where it would create a great customer experience for buying movies. So we found ourselves saying ‘yes.’” The deal was announced in April 1998.
IMDb grows up: Amazon’s acquisition afforded the resources to redesign the IMDb site and update the information daily instead of weekly. It began diversifying its offerings in 2002, with the introduction of the IMDbPro subscription service for entertainment industry professionals. It developed more extensive information about television programs in 2006, providing details about individual episodes. This fueled a period of explosive growth for the site. IMDb made a pair of purchases in 2008 to augment its offerings, acquiring online box office reporting service BoxOfficeMojo and a site that streamlines the film festival submission process, Withoutabox.
Going mobile: IMDb made the leap to smartphones in 2009 and has been downloaded more than 50 million times. Mobile users make an average of 175 million visits every month. “We can see our U.S. usage very much mirrors the peak [TV viewing] time,” Needham said. “So clearly people are accessing IMDb while they’re watching TV shows, while they’re watching movies.”
Amazon’s Kindle Fire tablet boasts X-Ray for Movies, a feature powered by IMDb that allows users to retrieve casting information and other details with the touch of the screen. A new version of the IMDb app for Apple Inc.’s iPad focuses on discovery and recommendations. “People suffer from overwhelming choice,” Needham said. “Having IMDb there with our rich database ... combined with your own personal watch list data, we can come up with a list of things that you should see next.”
All-time favorite movie? Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo.” “It’s been my favorite movie since I first saw it in November 1989.... It changed the way I view movies. Alfred Hitchcock played me like a piano.”
Favorite movies of 2012? Top of the list is Ridley Scott’s sci-fi thriller “Prometheus,” the indie critical fave “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” and the French drama “Rust and Bone.”
A credit of his own: Col Needham is listed in IMDb, for his appearance in a 2001 television documentary “Shawshank: The Redeeming Feature.”
Getting personal: Needham and his wife, Karen, have twin daughters. His main hobby is watching movies, although he describes himself as an avid swimmer, “which is quite ironic given my experience of seeing ‘Jaws.’”