Data man: How IMDB's Col Needham conquered filmdom with just the facts

Features

The founder and chief executive of the world’s largest film database, IMDB.com, is every bit the movie fan one could hope for. “I’ve now seen more than 8,500 films,” chuckles Col Needham, offering what proves to be a conservative estimate: As of publication, the official count on his IMDB user page was 8,666 titles. “If I finish the year somewhere between 400 and 500 films, I’m OK with that.”

As anyone who works in the entertainment industry, aspires to ingratiate herself within its ranks, or ardently or casually counts herself among its admirers knows: The Internet Movie Database is an indispensable resource. Who was that guy who was in that thing we saw last year? IMDB it. Which other movies has this director helmed? IMDB it. Who represents that actress, and how can I get in touch with her? IMDB(Pro) it. Coursing full-tilt as we are through an age that prizes among its forgoing virtues the notion of efficiency, one sure indicator of success is the refashioning of a brand name into a succinct verb: Think Google it, Facebook him, Instagram that. In just this way, and thanks to Col Needham, we now have the ability “to IMDB” any and all of our film and TV-related queries.

It is perhaps unsurprising that the history of Needham’s website reads like a cursory overview of the genesis of technology as we know it today. Thirty years ago, one of Hollywood’s most valued men was, as successful inventors so often begin, a teen geek. “If I can take you a little further back in time,” the affable Brit begins in a manner that sounds not unlike a narrative frame in one of his beloved classic films, “give you a little context: I love movies, I love technology. My earliest memories are all of movies. I just grew up, grew up with this love of film.” Starting in the early 1980s, when Needham was 13 and living in a small suburb of Manchester, “I was so seeing so many films I was losing track of which ones I’d seen and which ones I hadn’t. So like many a film fan, I began a little paper diary. How quaint! Just writing down the names when I saw the films. And my little paper diary lasted all of two weeks. Because I thought, why am I writing this down when I could create a database?”

IMDB in its initial incarnation was a simple running list of a file containing the names of those films Needham had seen and the dates he had viewed them. Soon, however, he was including more detailed information with each entry: principal actors, director, main crew, and “a quick one-sentence summary or two of what the film is about and then, oh, what did I think of it.” The dual cine- and technophile was also an early adopter of the Internet. “I’ve had an e-mail address since 1985,” Needham says proudly. He enmeshed himself within the niche Web culture that has today superseded most other materials to become the very fabric of our lives, communicating with the likeminded in the era’s version of a chat room. He found himself, circa the late ’80s, on a virtual bulletin board called Usenet. “In the film discussion group people would be chatting about what films has this person been in, what movies has this person been in, etc. etc. Now, of course, you just get out your IMDB app, all of that information is so readily available! But back then you would be lucky if you could get a printed guidebook that maybe would have 20,000 movies in it, but no more.”

Several of Usenet’s habitués each decided to compile a list of film credits not unlike the database Needham had been keeping for his own use. He offered to manage two lists himself: a file containing modern actors’ screen credits, and a file containing the credits of deceased actors. Needham’s work soon attracted the attention of other Internet users, and thus, their opinions. “‘I love these files, but I’m a really, really big directors’ fan. Have you thought about including directors?’” he recalls of one message he received. “So I wrote back and said, ‘Well, I’m a bit busy with my two files, but I have this handy list of all the films I’ve seen since 1980. I could give you this to start with, and I can give you software that will help you manage all the contributions to the list from people in the group.’” The user agreed, but it was the assistance Needham next rendered that would prove truly, and much more widely, advantageous. “‘This is great, but what about if we could search?’” wrote another. “So I actually, without getting too technical, converted the database software that ran on my machine into a language that would work on any computer connected to the Internet. And on October 17, 1990, that software was first published. And that was like the birth of IMDB. The ability to search a vast, although not as vast as it is now,” Needham laughs, “database of film information.”

Between 1985 and 1989, the number of computers connected to the Internet increased from a few thousand to a few hundred thousand. By the end of the ’90s, there would be hundreds of millions. “We ran the downloadable software from ’90 to ’93,” Needham continues, “and then we added a website in ’93,” the same year the first World Wide Web browser, Mosaic, became widely available. “It was very, very early days for the Web back then, but I guess it was early in 1995 when all of a sudden traffic doubled in a two-week period. And then that traffic doubled, and then that traffic doubled. Every two weeks it was literally doubling. So, as access to the Web just became more and more mainstream,” more and more users found their way to IMDB.

Needham was working for Hewlett-Packard at the time, maintaining, along with a few volunteers, his rapidly growing Web endeavor in his off-hours. “One day I got home from work and my wife said, ‘The New York Times has called.’ And I said, ‘Really?’ And she said ‘Yeah, they want you to ring this number in New York to talk about the site.’ So I rang The New York Times and did an interview with them, and it was kind of like: Wow! This person I spoke to at the Times [said], ‘Everybody in the film industry is using IMDB, and everybody that I talk to is using IMDB, and what do you think about this great international success?’ And it’s just like: Wow! I guess it is.”

The dramatic increase in traffic, verified or validated by recognition from abroad, convinced Needham his passion project was an initiative in which it would be worthwhile to invest more time and resources. He established an independent company in 1996. Two years later, an organization whose online stature was growing in mimicry of its mythological namesake, Amazon, approached Needham with an offer the IMDB founder had no wish to refuse.

Like Needham, Amazon.com’s Jeff Bezos formed his retail website in the early days of the World Wide Web. Bezos headquartered operations in his garage when he first launched his site in 1994, but by the time he met with Needham four years later, Amazon.com had gone public and expanded far beyond the parameters of Bezos’ home base in Washington State. In 1998, the company opened its first international offices in Germany and Needham’s U.K.

“Amazon was at the time just one of our advertising clients,” Needham remembers. When he first received word Bezos was visiting London and eager to meet with him, Needham thought, “Oh, we’re going along to discuss our advertising deal and see where we might take it in the future.” Instead, “Jeff explained that Amazon would be moving from books to selling CDs, at the time in ’98, and would then be looking to be the world’s best video store, which would be selling VHS tapes and these shiny new round things called DVDs. And they were looking for someone to partner with in the launch of the video store. Would we consider even going so far as an acquisition?”

Needham was impressed with Bezos’ vision for his company. “Jeff had a very clear picture of how IMDB would sit within the Amazon group of companies as a separate brand and separate subsidiary.” Given Amazon’s ample resources, and IMDB’s mounting collection of data, “it was kind of like a pitch of the proverbial match made in heaven. And I think it kind of turned out that way.”

What the pair has turned out in the ensuing years has revolutionized the entertainment industry as both the nexus of Needham-like fandom and its primary preoccupation, a business. Subscription service IMDBPro, for instance, is ubiquitously used among showbiz personnel, providing them with individual and company contact information, as well as with news of projects in development, pre-production and production. “The industry usage kind of conflicted a little bit with the regular film and TV-lover usage,” says Needham of the considerations that led him and his team to develop Pro. They decided they “could build a service that was aimed at the entertainment industry professional, and we could really focus on the things that they want, and at the same time, we could grow the regular IMDB site, and the way those customers want to go.” IMDBPro launched at the Sundance Film Festival in 2002. In 2008, IMDB acquired WithoutABox, a website that provides filmmakers with the means to submit their films to multiple festivals, as well as promote their films on IMDB, and distribute them on DVD and through Amazon Video on Demand via distributor CreateSpace.

Through each acquisition and adaptation, IMDB has never ceased to keep pace with the times. This past March, the site, now host to 190 million unique monthly users, celebrated the 100-millionth download of its popular mobile app. “Our vision has always been to be with our customers wherever they engage with any entertainment content. Way, way back that was a desktop, a laptop, a PC. These days, it’s in a mobile device that’s in your hands.”

One of Needham’s favorite new innovations is a mobile feature called X-Ray. By tapping the screen of your mobile device while viewing a film or program, you can summon a host of information, including the names of the actors in the scene, their past credits, the title of and band performing the song playing in the background, even the location where the scene was filmed and any “goofs” or inconsistencies. “Basically we’re making everybody into the human IMDB,” Needham jokes.

Of course, 25 years in so public a realm as the Internet have not passed wholly without controversy. Most recently, an actress named Junie Hoang sued IMDB because the website published her real, 1971, birthdate, instead of the 1978 date she had been telling prospective employers. Citing breach of contract, Hoang claimed the public disclosure of her real age lost her $1 million in earnings. A Seattle court disagreed, and ruled in favor of IMDB in 2013.

Needham remains unruffled. The buoyant entrepreneur, whose enthusiasm, much like his website, exerts a pull that can feel gravitational, recently experienced a small thrill when a walk-on role in the upcoming film Suffragette resulted in the addition of a new credit to his IMDB page. “It was funny to submit my own credit to IMDB and watch it be processed by the team and watch it go live on the app and go live on the site and be available in Pro. But it’s a bit of fun,” Needham says of the experience that “gave me another level of appreciation” for the work involved in creating the films he loves (foremost among which is Vertigo. “We’re coming up on the 25th anniversary of that being my favorite film. Oh dear! I hadn’t actually thought about it.”). But, having secured the opportunity by chance via a charity auction, Needham isn’t eager for a second close-up. “In some ways, I like to maintain the illusion of movie magic, and sometimes the more you know about the way something was created, the magic kind of goes, aahhh,” he says, mimicking the sound of a balloon deflating. He’ll stick with the role that has thus far served him and his fellow film lovers rather well: Superfan. “If it goes more than a day without watching a movie, I get a little cranky."