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Do You IMDB?

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.”

 

In January 1996, Needham launched IMDB.com as a commercial Web site. He put his first Web server on a credit card. Within a couple of weeks, he sold the first advertising campaign. (“We’d never sold any ads before. And the people who we sold to had never bought any ads before.”) He was able to pay off the credit card before the bill was even due and use other ad’s money to buy even more servers.

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 Time magazine’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.”

Which leads to an existential question unique to Hollywood itself: What criteria constitutes a real movie? IMDB has had this problem of editorial discretion and decision making since the inception of the site. Someone will say, “Hey, I filmed a home movie of Grandma’s 90th birthday, and we screened it in front of 200 people. Now, that’s a real movie, right?” To which Simanton and his editors must answer, “No, it’s not.” But it’s a different story if it were screened at a film festival or in the Directors Guild theater.

Still another dilemma is the many transformations, mutations and even perversions a movie property endures before it ever gets into theaters. For instance: Is Planet of the Apes starring Mark Wahlberg and directed by Tim Burton the same film as Planet of the Apes that was supposed to star Arnold Schwarzenegger and be directed by James Cameron? Or is it a separate project deserving of its own IMDB page? “At some point in time, it comes off Arnold’s biography and then goes into his trivia. ‘Schwarzenegger once considered this project along with a “Crusades” movie,’” Simanton explains. “That’s why the site is incredibly invigorating to work for because it’s ever changing and ever evolving. We deal with these things on a daily basis.”

Then there’s when to start listing a sequel. Simanton maintains that, five months after Sony’s Spider-Man came out, “We felt pretty good with putting Spider-Man 2 as a real title. Now, whether that was going to involve Jake Gyllenhaal or Tobey Maguire in the role of the title character, that’s something that gets figured out in the wash along the way.”

Other sticky situations were smoothed out effortlessly. IMDB dealt with those 1950s blacklisted writers like Dalton Trumbo who were omitted entirely from the credits of movies by putting “uncredited” or “originally uncredited” by their names and explaining what happened in the trivia section. The same goes for stars not listed in a movie’s credits, like Debra Winger’s nearly unrecognizable portrayal of that Man-God character named “Emmett” in Made in Heaven, which starred her then-husband Timothy Hutton.

Speaking of God, one of IMDB’s most notorious goofs occurred this year when, on the morning of February 25, Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ opened. That same day, reports noted that IMDB had God — with a capital G — listed as a credited contributor to the movie and with his own personal IMDB.com page. By noontime, the credit was gone. By nighttime, the page was gone, too. But not before it referred users to other films in which He had been portrayed, from The Prince of Egypt to Oh, God!

Another reported mistake occurred when Oscar winner William Goldman, famous for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, was listed as an uncredited screenwriter on Ben Affleck and Matt Damon’s Good Will Hunting. The reason appears to have been a long-running rumor that Goldman script-doctored the pair’s Oscar-winning screenplay. After Goldman denied doing it, IMDB excised his name from the movie’s credits.

And then there are those entries that seem like mistakes but aren’t. (No, we’re not talking about Gigli.), IMDBPro.com was launched in January 2002 to create an online subscription service designed to meet the needs of show-biz pros. Along with exhaustive box-office breakdowns, unbridled celebrity gossip and industry news briefings, included was a market-research tool called the StarMeter, which indicates who is hot in Hollywood based on who in the database is visited the most. “And the thing that just scared us to death is we kept getting this one guy in the No. 1 or No. 2 spot, and he wouldn’t get off of there. We thought something went horribly wrong with our data. And we checked it and scrubbed it. And it was Orlando Bloom.” From an unknown British actor to a high-profile role in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Bloom was suddenly one of the Internet’s hottest stars, and only IMDB had quantified that. Bloom became even more bankable right after.

 

If there is something still lacking on IMDB, it is probably the too succinct biographical info and the often ridiculous trivia. Perhaps the most famously idiotic celebrity tidbit is listed for Tom Cruise: “Is right-handed when writing, but does most things left-handed.” Like everything, IMDB considers it yet another work in progress.

E-mail at deadlinehollywood@gmail.com.


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