Decades back, when the internet was still very much it in its infancy, there was a film lover who took his passion for cataloguing and record-keeping that one step further, and has since gone on to become a major industry player. Col Needham is the CEO and founder of IMDb, the world’s largest source for movie, TV and celebrity content.
We were lucky enough to grab some time recently with this remarkable web entrepreneur, where he revealed the humble beginnings and phenomenal rise of the site, and where he sees IMDb’s future.
HeyUGuys: What inspired you to start the site?
Col Needham: I’m a lifelong film fan. My earliest memories are visits to the cinemas in Manchester, where I grew up. I was also interested in technology around the same time as my obsession with film began. I got in on the home computer revolution pretty early and my Christmas present in 1979 was the first build-it-yourself computer.
I watched so many films in the early 80s that I began to lose track of which ones I’d seen and ones I hadn’t. I did the classic film geek thing, which was to create a paper diary. It lasted all of two weeks because I thought it would be much better to create a database. I started it for my own personal use only, and so every time we had a new VHS tape, or I recorded any films off the TV, I would rewind after watching and note down the basic credits just to help me keep track of what was going on, and who was appearing in what. Having a home computer back then meant I went online early. I’ve actually had an email address since 1985. Almost thirty years now.
Wow. Who were you emailing at that time? Employees of the US government?
(Laughs) It was actually a big system. In fact, I had more than one email address at that time. I was doing a computer degree at Leeds University, so there was the UK academic network, which required an email. I also did a lot of dial-up bulletin board stuff, too. Believe it or not, there were people around [online] back then.
In the late 1980s, I became involved in an online film discussion group. Given the demographic of those chatting online at that time, the topic of the day was often things like ‘who was the most attractive actress?’. That led to the creation of a text file with actress credits inside of it, and I was able to import that into my database and generate a list of the actresses who were missing, plus their additional information. An actor’s file was then established, and finally on 17th October 1990, the very first version of the IMDb software was published online. This allowed you to take those files and create a searchable database from the information obtained. This pre-dates the web, so it was downloadable software that you would grab from the internet.
Did you ever have even the slightest idea back then that the site would become the indispensable source of info it is now?
It was a volunteer hobby run out of our lounge initially, in a small house in Bristol (laughs). There’s no way we could have foreseen in terms of where we’re at today. It’s an unimaginable leap forward in progress from the way the internet has changed through the years, and the way we’re been able to innovate on top of the database. We’re now at 160 million unique users every month. That places on the top 30 mobile property, looking at our apps and our mobile website; top 30 website in the US and UK and somewhere around the top 50, worldwide. It’s an enormous privilege to be here.
That’s quite an achievement. When did you start to feel it gaining traction?
There are a couple of things that happened around the same time. Early in 1995, when the web was beginning to really grow, we suddenly discovered that the amount of the traffic to the website had doubled in two weeks. A fortnight after that, it doubled again. Then another two weeks later it doubled once more. This crazy growth took off.
The other turning point occurred when I returned home from my day job, the site was still a hobby back then, and my wife told me that the New York Times had phoned and wanted to interview me about the site! I called them back and discovered that one of their film reviewers was technology-savvy and every time he talked to people in the film industry, they were already using IMDb.
Was it that point when you began thinking about managing the site as a full-time occupation?
Yeah, that year was when it changed. It became something we just couldn’t do as a hobby anymore. Nobody knew if anyone was making money from the internet back then in 1995. You could probably count the number of profitable websites on two hands, so it wasn’t the kind of slam dunk thing that people would call it today. This was very early days and nobody knew how things worked and what would happen. We debated it for quite a while to see if it was feasible.
That’s almost 20 years ago. How much has the internet changed the most since you started the site?
Speaking as a film lover, I actually think the ability to stream or download full-length movies in great quality over the internet, and the massive range of choice available, is an incredible transformation. We used to be a source of information about film, TV and celebrities. Now you can browse the site and if you’re interested in a film at that moment, depending on its availability, we can link to it. You click a button and watch away.
In partnership with Amazon last September, we launched the Kindle Fire HD device. A straightforward feature, it means that if you’re watching a film on the [Kindle] device, you can identify actors by tapping the image, and up pops the headshots and info of everyone in the scene. We’re very happy with this feature and our customers love it.
Do you ever get feedback from any of the studios?
We’re very widely used in the entertainment industry, so yes we do. We’re talking to industry people all the time. More and more of the data contributed is now supplied by official sources, direct from the studio’s publicity department and agents. We still have hundreds of thousands of data contributors sending us information on top of that, too.
You must have a huge number of contributors.
In 2012 alone, we added over 300,000 titles to the database. That includes individual episodes of TV shows, shorts and feature films from almost every country in the world. It’s still growing over 30% a year because there are so many different things out there to choose from and watch.
Are there any films you’ve fallen in love with which you had no idea about until you found them on the site?
Yeah, there have been a number over the years. I remember the film Triangle. That came out of a recommendation and I really liked the twist in that film. Interestingly, as a result of seeing that, I was recommended Time Crimes. It set me off discovering a load of similar features. I think I went through a few days where I was running a ‘time–loop’ film festival, which, as the Oracle from the Matrix would say, could really bake your noodle.
Where do you see the site heading in the future?
First of all, we’re a very customer-focused company. We’re also listening to comments from our users and what the current trends are. We want to be wherever people engage with entertainment content. What we’re looking at is getting on as many different devices as we can. We’re really invested in helping people make viewing decisions, like recommendations or the watch list, which enables you to keep track of what you want to see. It’s a very exciting area for us.
Fundamentally, our vision hasn’t changed since 1990. We wanted to be on as many devices back then, although there was little to choose from. It’s great to be a part of how technology is revolutionising the viewing experience, and our aim is to be with our customers, wherever they are.