Col Needham says he has to pinch himself when he gets to meet his cinematic heroes such as Steven Spielberg at the Oscars. Needham, 49, based in Bristol, Britain, is unassuming and friendly — and a powerhouse in the movie world.
Needham is the founder and CEO of IMDb.com, the website that’s a go-to movie database for consumers and professionals. A self-proclaimed film geek and computer nerd — he ran his own software company at age 14 — IMDb began in 1990 evolving from Needham’s personal movie database combined with other lists from like-minded fans.
The website now has 250 million unique monthly viewers and its mobile app has been downloaded 115 million times. The company also owns and operates WithoutaBox, a submission service for film festivals and filmmakers, and Box Office Mojo.
In town recently for the Britannia Awards in Beverly Hills, Needham spoke about the history of IMDb and his all-time favorite films.
You wanted to see 10,000 films by the time you turn 50 in January. And you recently hit that milestone when you saw the upcoming “A Monster Calls.” Do you remember the first movie you saw?
My very earliest memory is seeing “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”
Me too — I had to hide under the dashboard of our car at the drive-in I was so scared.
I was 5 years old and staying with my grandmother in Manchester. I won a coloring competition in the local newspaper [and got tickets to the movie]. I don’t know if a 5-year-old me had an idea of what a coloring competition was, but if grandma says “here are some crayons, color,” that’s what the obedient 5-year-old does. So I did it. That began my love of cinema.
Now, in the interest of honesty, I was reminding my grandmother about this about 10 years ago. She looked at me and said “I remember that. I have a terrible confession. After you went to bed that night, I couldn’t help but color in the pieces that you missed and go over things that were in the wrong color!”
When did your love for movies intersect with your love of computers?
I’m kind of developing this deep love for cinema, Christmas 1979 — I am 12 years old — and I got my first computer. This was a build-it-yourself kit, so that began my interest in technology and computing.
Fast forward to 1981, the home video revolution hit the [United Kingdom] and everywhere you go, VHS tapes are at the gas stations, grocery stores, libraries, video stores. For me, this was amazing. You could only see a movie in a movie theater or you could watch it on TV. The idea of being able to go like, “Wow, what has this person directed before, what other films has this person appeared in?” All of a sudden I’m feasting. The classic film geek thing to do is to get a paper diary and start to write down dates.
You must have abandoned paper and typed all the lists into your little computer.
I typed it all in the computer and then as I saw new movies, if they were on VHS or I’d recorded them from TV or we hired them from wherever, I would rewind the tape and I would type in the director, the producers, the writers, the cinematographer, the editor and most of the major cast. It became my electronic film diary.
I thought, ‘Well, I could take bits of software that I’ve got in my private database and software here and I could like throw it all together.’
So how did IMDb start?
I got my first email address in 1985 and in those early, early, early days, I found myself in this world of film discussion groups online where people could meet and post questions and share reviews and just generally share their passion for film. By 1990, I was in a film discussion group and one of the most frequently asked questions was, “Which films has this person appeared in?” We accumulated these really passionate people who cared. We got a quotes editor, a trivia person, a soundtracks person. It was just out of our love of film and TV. Somebody in the group said, “These files are great, but we could really do a database so you could search them.”
I thought, “Well, I could take bits of software that I’ve got in my private database and software here and I could like throw it all together.” On the 17th of October, 1990, the very first version of IMDb software was published online for anybody in the world to use.
When did the website become really popular?
In 1995, we really started to take off. People were going online in the millions. All of a sudden in a two-week period our traffic doubled, then two weeks later it doubled again. The thing was kind of crazy out of control. We’re like well, this is too hard to do as a hobby.
We agonized over how it would work. By this point, there were some of us spread through the world [working on the site]. Most of us had never met. We incorporated in January ’96. We launched IMDB.com in time for the Oscars. We bought our first Web server on a credit card and two weeks later I sold our first piece of advertising. That gave us enough to pay back the credit card before it became due.
I became our first full-time employee. When we could afford another salary, I would call up the next volunteer shareholder who was ready to quit their day job. And on the 24th of April, 1998, IMDb became a wholly owned subsidiary of Amazon.
How many people work for IMDB now?
I am allowed to give you a range — more than 150 and less than 300.
IMDb recently released your top 10 list of favorite films, with Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” as your top pick. Among your other films are Christopher Nolan’s “Inception”; Howard Hawks’ “Bringing Up Baby”; Billy Wilder’s “Double Indemnity”; Orson Welles’ “Touch of Evil”; and Stanley Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut.”
We’ve had some good feedback on that. They are proxies for other films — other films by the same director or other films in the same genre. No. 10 is “Touch of Evil,” which is my personal favorite Orson Welles film. … It’s a proxy for “Citizen Kane.”
“Eyes Wide Shut” haunted me for weeks. It’s a film that really just got into my head and made me think about a lot of things — a lot about relationships.