Do You IMDB? 

How a fanatic helped put Hollywood under one big tent

Thursday, Aug 5 2004

It settles screaming matches, decides friendly bets, and solves nagging questions. It’s a globally recognized authority, yet it had humble beginnings. It’s rarely wrong, always up to date and sometimes even ahead of the curve. In fact, it’s not too much of an exaggeration to say it functions in its field like a god (God, with a capital G, even had his own credits page, albeit briefly), deciding when life is created or mutated or ended — which is why we bow and scrape to its all-knowing supremacy and celebrate its uniqueness. We need it, we love it and we applaud it. Heck, if it were a drug, we’d be hopelessly addicted to it.

But it’s not. It’s the Internet Movie Database, located at www.IMDB.com, the Web’s most comprehensive, authoritative and, best of all, free source of information on movies and the film industry. Despite its high-profile success, little is known about IMDB as an organization. Everything is secretive: who compiles it, where it’s based, what criteria it uses. In fact, it’s barely on the radar of owner Amazon.com’s don’t-call-us-we’ll-e-mail-you PR department. It’s as if everybody behind IMDB is in the FBI’s Witness Protection Program.

For those who don’t consider themselves semi-authorities on entertainment and don’t let a day go by without consulting it, and consulting it, and consulting it again, IMDB works like this: Let’s say you and your crew are arguing whether Quentin Tarantino really was the first to resurrect blaxploitation star Pam Grier’s career. You consult IMDB: It says she had a role in the sequel to Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. Then one of your pals asks the name of that forgettable flick. IMDB says it was Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey, also known as Bill & Ted Go to Hell. Someone jokes that the director probably never worked again. IMDB says yes, Peter Hewitt did work again, but his career trajectory became, well, bizarre. After directing hours No. 1 and No. 2 of the trendoid TV series Wild Palms — along with better-known Kathryn Bigelow (hour No. 4), Keith Gordon (No. 3 and No. 5), and Phil Joanou (No. 6) — Hewitt turned to mostly kiddie fare, like this summer’s Garfield: The Movie, with Bill Murray as the voice of that cat best known for clinging to the rear windows of Volvo station wagons and Jennifer Love Hewitt (no relations) as Garfield’s veterinarian. Just the thought of J-Love turns the conversation into an argument over which Party of Five hottie is hotter, JLH or Neve Campbell. Hang on; one guy wants to know what movies Neve is doing lately. Well, IMDB says . . . And so on, and so on.

Actually, it was babelicious actresses that led to Col Needham — a 37-year-old lifelong movie fanatic and computer wiz living in Britain who is fond of saying he was scared out of swimming pools after seeing Jaws in 1975, wowed by Star Wars in 1977, and terrified by Alien in 1979 — founding IMDB.

On a typical Saturday, Needham would watch 10 films back to back. In a year, he’d screen 1,100. Not surprisingly, he began to lose track of which films he’d seen and which he hadn’t. So, at age 23, he started a personal database to keep a log that also could be printed out for his friends to take to the video store. “It’s a terribly geeky thing to do, but it turned out all right in the end,” says Needham.

That’s a bit of an understatement considering Needham ended up transforming a small hobby into an international business. But remember, back in 1989, terms like “World Wide Web” were totally foreign. Needham joined a movie discussion group on what was then the fledgling university-linked Internet. The members were almost all American male college students, and their favorite topic was — you guessed it — who’s the most attractive actress and what movies has she been in.

Soon, the guys volunteered their private databases and actresses begat actors, which begat directors, which begat writers, which begat cinematographers, which begat plot summaries.

It wasn’t until 1993 that this first-of-its-kind database moved onto the Web with help from the computer sciences department at Cardiff University. The Web traffic soon overwhelmed Cardiff’s server capacity, and Needham put out calls for more universities to host. He ended up with sites in Mississippi, Germany, Italy, Australia, South Africa, Korea, Japan and Iceland. By 1995, Needham was finding that, as the Internet took off, traffic to the Web site would double every couple of weeks. His volunteer editors were snowed under with work.

“So we were faced with this very difficult decision. Do we give up and say it was a fun five years? Or do we see if we can make a business out of this?” says Needham. “Bear in mind that, at the time, there was very little commercial use of the Internet. There was Yahoo, there was Hot Wired, and there was an overwhelming attitude by Internet users that they didn’t want to be overtaken by commercialism.”

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