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Then came another milestone: IMDB’s first movie-related ad campaign. It was the summer of 1996, and Fox was hyping Independence Day.That was also when Needham and his volunteer editors quit their day jobs one by one and joined IMDB full time. They were now paid employees of an incorporated company.
By January 1998, IMDB was becoming one of the most popular Web sites in the world, with more than 18 million visitors a month. It offered a searchable database of almost 400,000 movies and entertainment programs, and about 1.4 million industry cast and crew members. Coverage included films from the birth of motion pictures in 1891 to future releases. It encompassed every genre of film, television show and video game. And the site featured cast lists, quotes, trivia, reviews, box-office data, celebrity biographies, photographs, film festivals and major events, and streaming trailers. Next thing Needham knew, he was contacted by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos (one year before Bezos was named Timemagazine’s Man of the Year).
The two entrepreneurs met in a London hotel, and Needham, now IMDB’s managing director, listened intently as Bezos described how Amazon was expanding from selling books to launching a music store, and possibly even a video and DVD store later in 1998. The two men talked about potential partnerships and decided that acquisition would be the best route. “Amazon was looking for someone to help build out the video store. And we were a scrappy little start-up looking to grow bigger,” Needham says.
The synergy was obvious. Say you look up James Dean on IMDB. Immediately, the site asks if you’d like to start shopping Amazon for videos or DVDs starring him. It’s a hand-in-glove kind of thing, plus it provides an instant movie-fan base to exploit. So, in April 1998, Amazon acquired IMDB. IMDB still operates as an independent Web site, one of the “10 Essential,” according to Time magazine.
“For a long time, we were everyone’s best-kept secret, along the lines of, ‘Hey, I can find the name of this spaghetti Western that no one can figure out because I know how to use IMDB,’” says IMDB managing editor Keith Simanton. “Now, we’re part of the vernacular in Hollywood. ‘I’ll IMDB you’ means looking up a person’s résumé. When something works, it doesn’t take very long to find it.”
But how does IMDB work? It’s easy to imagine some airplane hangar in a dusty, out-of-the-way desert location, and inside is a sea of desktop computers manned by 20-something Oompa Loompas in T-shirts, jeans and Converse. You’d think that, but you’d be wrong. “We’re not something out of Brazil with row upon row of automatons. We’re officially a kind of virtual business located in cyberspace,” Simanton explains.
“It’s a lot of people really spread out across the world. We have a good portion of the editors in the United Kingdom, and most of the editorial business and sales staff are out of Seattle. We have folks in Switzerland and Germany. We’ve got a person in the Midwest who does our soundtracks. It’s an aggregate, essentially.”
The “party line” — as Simanton puts it — is that IMDB employees number only around 100. Some work at home. “And I talk with a guy who’s in Bristol, England, many more times a day than I talk to the person who’s in the office next to me in Seattle,” Simanton points out. What unites them is that 100 percent of them work on the site. “We all attempt to be very diligent about what’s there. But we also know what’s not there, so it drives us crazy and we try to get that information.”
To spackle those holes, IMDB has a virtual Hollywood construction crew — spies, really — some of whom can’t be identified or risk losing their day jobs. “We get our info from disparate sources, but these contributors are our lifeblood. It’s a large group of trusted users and submitters in whom we’ve gained a level of confidence, much like you begin to trust a movie reviewer,” Simanton says. “It could be a professor from UCLA, the screenwriters of the film themselves, the maiden aunt of someone who died years ago. But it’s the gleaning aspect and process that really makes the IMDB what it is.”
Yet Hollywood is also a town where lying has been elevated to an art form. And in the cutthroat world of movie financing, film folk have been known to make up out of whole cloth the news that stars are suddenly attached to scripts — when the truth is that someone like a Cameron Diaz or David Fincher have never even taken so much as a first meeting about it. Sussing out those people who make up stuff, determining what’s real and what’s not in the motherland of make-believe, is all part of IMDB’s job. So is looking for corroboration.
“It didn’t used to be a problem because all we would do is accept information for established credits — something concrete which we could go out and verify either in the theater or by tape,” sighs Simanton. “More and more it’s incumbent upon us to have in-production news, which does raise the hoary head of what projects listed as under way are bogus because the people behind them are just attempting to get financing.”