IMDb CEO on Growing Pains — and Turning 20

As the Internet Movie Database's 20th anniversary celebration kicks off with a series of original-content projects, Col Needham talks about big gambles and key decisions

Back in 1990, Col Needham, a frequent user of the Usenet newsgroup rec.arts.movies, began combining user-posted lists to create a searchable database of actors, actresses and directors. It might not have seemed like much at the time – but 20 years later, that modest list has grown into the Internet Movie Database, the colossus of web-based information about the entertainment industry.

IMDb will celebrate its anniversary on Oct.17, but in the weeks leading up to that date it has launched a daily series of videos, lists and other features to commemorate the two decades in which a onetime fan project rode the growth of the web as it expanded, incorporated, was purchased by Amazon.com and became an indispensable bookmark for movie fans and industry professionals.

The celebrity interviews, which launch on Tuesday with Kevin Spacey, will be available at www.imdb.com/20. As the anniversary countdown began,IMDb founder and CEO Needham spoke to TheWrap about the astonishing growth of his company.    

Col NeedhamFor your anniversary you’re now making content, instead of just listing it.
Yeah, this is our first foray into original video content that we’ve shot ourselves. Every day for the next 20 days we’re going to have a different star of the day talk about their favorite films, and sometimes about how they’ve used IMDb over the years.

Obviously we’re well aware of how widely used we are, but it’s one thing to know that, and it’s another thing to have, perhaps, a favorite director mention an anecdote about using IMDb. You go, wow.

I imagine that you’ve had plenty of moments along the way of thinking, this is bigger than I imagined.
Yes. I mean, it started as a hobby 20 years ago. Really, from day two it’s always been bigger than I imagined, even when I let that imagination go wild.

One of the key points was back in 1995, when I returned home  from work one day and my wife said, “The New York Times called.” I said, “The New York Times? What did they want?” “They want to talk to you about the site.” That was kind of key.

What were the key decisions you made, the times when the site could have gone in a different direction?
I guess there are a couple of key transitions. One was toward the end of 1995. We were running a volunteer operation in our free time. And we were faced with a difficult decision, because at the beginning of that year traffic was doubling every two weeks. We had to make a key choice: Can  we incorporate this as a business and provide a better service to our users as a professional organization than we can as a group of volunteers?

That was quite a hard decision, because back in '95 you could literally count the number of websites that had an advertising-supported model on two hands. There were other services in other areas back in that mid-'90s time frame, but they just couldn’t cope with the growth and simply closed down.

Did you struggle to get those first ads, or did the model work right away?
It was surprisingly good. We did the classic startup thing: We literally bought our first web server using a credit card, and we didn’t really know how we were going to pay that off. And within two weeks of launching IMDd.com, we had sold our first advertising deal, so we immediately paid off the credit card before the debt became due. And then we used the rest of the money to buy another two servers. It’s a bold claim, but I think we may have become the world’s first profitable Internet company. 

The sale to Amazon obviously changed your financial picture in 1998.
That was another key choice point, when we had a meeting with Jeff Bezo. In that meeting Jeff outlined how Amazon was expanding its product range and would soon be adding a video store, and that they were looking for an ideal site to partner with for the launch of that video store.

And from that meeting arose the decision to sell IMDb to Amazon, which had worked out really really well in terms of the resources and the support that we get. We’ve been able to grow at a much faster rate than we ever would have been able to if we were alone.

Obviously, you’ve become the industry’s de facto database, and in general the information is accurate. When I interview actors and bring up IMDb information, though, a fairly common comment is, “You can’t believe everything you read on IMDb.”
You’ll notice that’s not an outright denial, though.

Well, no. But do you think you should put more emphasis on vetting user-supplied information, or are you comfortable with the way it works now?
I think we’ve struck the right balance at the moment. When people send updates to us, it actually goes to an editorial team of experts that know who submitted it, they know the accuracy rate of the person who submitted it, and they’ve got secondary resources they can check.

And you’ll be used to this in our industry: The place where it gets slightly hard is for upcoming projects. Sometimes we hear of people saying, “No, I’m not doing this movie,” and then you look, and their agent is actually in negotiations. Things can always be in flux until that credit sequence is added, but we do our best to strike the right balance in terms of making the information accessible to our customers as early as we can.

Your system of users rating movies has also come under fire occasionally, because we’ve seen instances where, say, fans of “The Dark Knight” seem to go to the site en masse  and give “The Godfather” a rating of one out of 10, in order to knock it out of the number-one spot and get their movie to the top. Are you happy with the way that system works?
The first thing is to bear is mind is that we’re always tweaking the algorithms and figuring out ways to improve the ratings. But as somebody who myself is primarily a movie consumer, the first thing I do if I’m gonna go to the theater or buy a DVD is to check the IMDb user rating.

I’m very, very happy with the way things have balanced out. Movies are a very subjective thing, but I think there’s a great balance on our Top 250 of absolute classics and modern releases.

After you see a movie, do you go straight to IMDb and rate it?
Oh geez, absolutely. Every movie that I can remember seeing has my own rating factored in there. I’ve voted for absolutely every film.

And as part of the anniversary, we’re encouraging our listeners to make lists of anything and everything they like or dislike that has to do with entertainment. Users can very easily create lists of titles, names, characters, and add their own commentary. And you can publish those lists through social media, share them with your friends on Facebook, tweet about them. And then as part of the anniversary editorial section, we’re going to pick some of the best user lists and feature them as we go through the 20 day countdown. It’s IMDb back to its listing roots, which is very exciting to me.

I do have a bone to pick with you: Back in 1990 I worked on an A&E show called “The Inside Track with Graham Nash,” and there’s no record of it on IMDb.
(Laughs) You know, I think the worrying thing there is that if nobody has entered it yet, maybe it didn’t air!

Hey, I know they aired about 15 episodes. But it’s hard to prove it without IMDb.
The beauty is that a lot of the TV networks and production companies are digging through their archives and making a lot of content available on streaming video. And one of the other things we’re trying to do is that if a movie or TV show is available for streaming anywhere online, we’ll try to link to it. What we want to do is have a play button on every title page.

So maybe the owners of your TV show will start to make it available, and then that’ll get people watching it, and then those credits will appear on IMDb.