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Sunday, August 08, 2004

Do You Imdb? Or how keeping a personal film database can make you rich!

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 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 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.”


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 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.

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