Col Needham

The Movie Database

Air Date: February 21, 2015

Col Needham explores the creation of the Internet Movie Database (IMDb).

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I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind.

When today’s movie-goers search for show times, trailers or reviews, they need not consult the newspaper. Instead, they browse the Internet Movie Database or IMDb as most identify the top visited destination for contemporary and historical films with a combined digital audience of more than 190 million.

It’s a pleasure to welcome Col Needham of the United Kingdom today, the Website’s brainchild, founder and CEO, a technology prodigy whose teenage interest in the movies led him to expand his personal database of films into the Bristol based international venue we now know, with staff members in countries around the world.

This year, IMDb celebrates its 25th anniversary as it achieves a milestone approaching 200 million parcels of data…essentially the entire historical memory of the industry and the films that shape us as a people. The Google for the moving image, IMDb in recent years has added original content beyond its encyclopedic summaries of actors and their films.

I want to ask Col Needham to reflect today on his innovation – a quarter of a century later – and on the state of the movies. The leading New Yorker film critic David Denby’s “Do the Movies Have a Future?” a question he poses in his book, comes to mind. I suspect the answer from Col is an absolute yes, but let me ask him about it. In our age of viral, binge-streaming content, is he afraid we are collectively losing the cathartic and historically pro-social value of the motion picture?

NEEDHAM: No, I don’t think we are at all. It’s, I think one of the things that’s going on is, as technology, as technology expands, it enables more and more people to tell their stories. So I view this as a great opportunity for people to get out there, to make short films, document the world, create, you know, brilliant, inventive, new kind of narratives. It’s, it’s, it’s a bold new world. I mean Ithink, I think if anything this is like a new golden age for story telling through, through visual media.

HEFFNER: A new golden age.

NEEDHAM: Yes. Yeah, absolutely, yeah.

HEFFNER: And many would say that that golden age began with the creation of your website.

NEEDHAM: Ohhh … laugh …

HEFFNER: So can you expound on that for our viewers and tell them a bit about the creation of IMDb.

NEEDHAM: Right. Okay, well … I’m a lifelong movie fan. Okay. My earliest memories are all in movie theaters. The first movie I ever got to see was “Snow White and The Seven Dwarves” … I, I won a competition to go and see it at the local movie theater in Manchster in England. And I just fell in love with film on that very, very day. I was kind of like four years old. I was at the right age to see “Star Wars” on its opening weekend in the UK. And so, so I was, as a child, just growing up with this, just this passion for movies.

And then at the same time I had an interest in technology. I got my first home computer when I was 12 years old. It was, it was so primitive, you had to assemble it yourself before you could start to program it. And, and so, kind of these two things, these two passions …this love of movies … this love of technology were on this collision course to the creation of IMDb.

So the early 1980s, I was seeing so many films that I was losing track of which ones I’d seen and which ones I hadn’t seen. Now, the classic film geek thing to do is to kind of start a paper diary and start to write down what you saw on what day.

So I did that for all of two weeks, because it’s kind of like “Why don’t I create a database of everything that I’ve seen”. So I began to type in the credits from the, from the, from the VHS tapes as I was watching them, or, you know, or writing things down in movie theaters and things like that. Would take my little note pad in to write down … and, and just … you know, just for my own personal use.

It sounds a little bit geeky, but I’m kind of proud of, of how it’s all turned out after all, after all of these years.

So I got online reallyi early. I’m had an email address since 1985 … so 30 years online … (laugh) … and, and so I found myself in the late 1980s in a film discussion group with other fans of movies and of TV and we would talk together about the movies that we’d seen and we would kind of exchange information and exchange ideas.

And that led to me kind of writing my software and publishing it in a format that would work on any computer connected to the internet. And that was launched on October 17th, 1990. That pre-dates the world wide web by several years.

And we were just volunteers gathering information and publishing it and making it available for people around the world to, to access current movies, current TV, and it kind of, you know, we recruited volunteers who were experts in particular fields. So somebody would mail me and they’d say, “I love this database, but it needs composers”.

And so I would write back and I would say “Well, would you like to manage a composer section?” And they would think, “Mmmm, okay” … laugh … and, and then I would give them all of the composers information from my database and then we’d add composers to the software.

And so we kind of grew and grew over those early 1990s years. We got our first website in 1993, on the University web server in Cardiff in Wales. And, and that was kind of like our, our launch onto the worldwide web.

But at the time there was no commercial use really of the Internet and so, again, we were just volunteers who were passionate about sharing our knowledge. We ran like that for a couple of years, growing and growing … and then all of a sudden in 1995, I think the Internet just kind of really hit that public consciousness and all of a sudden everybody was going online and there was media coverage everywhere and so our traffic just grew in that such a huge amount in such a short space of time. So we thought well, “We can’t really do this as a, as a hobby anymore.” So either we could say, “That was a fun five years, but we can’t continue, or we could see if we could incorporate as a business and see if we could take it to the next level. And obviously we went the incorporation route.

We bought our first web server on a credit card and, and we launched IMDb.com in time for the Oscars in 1996. And then very fortunately a couple of weeks later I managed to sell our first piece of advertising. And we, we paid off the credit card debt before it became due and I think I can claim this now, became the world’s first profitable Internet company (laugh) and we, we, we’ve grown … we’ve grown from that …

HEFFNER: Well that is a historic achievement

NEEDHAM: Thank you.

HEFFNER: … and you are a pioneer … the reason that I asked you that opening question is because the industry obviously has had to be responsive to emerging technology …

NEEDHAM: Yes.

HEFFNER: … the creation of IMDb, but more recently of Amazon Prime and Netflix and some of these organs of creative product that are not going to the theater … “Snow White” …

NEEDHAM: Yes, yeah.

HEFFNER: … or “Star Wars” and so I, I don’t want to push you too far on this, but I want to push you a little bit more …

NEEDHAM: Okay.

HEFFNER: … the quality of film, of the motion picture …

NEEDHAM: Yes.

HEFFNER: … to you it hasn’t been diluted through …

NEEDHAM: No.

HEFFNER: … a, a, a lesser focus on the escape …

NEEDHAM: Right. Okay.

HEFFNER: … because the escape is what might have drawn you …

NEEDHAM: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: … as a historian of film …

NEEDHAM: Yes.

HEFFNER: … into the motion picture, into the theater.

NEEDHAM: Yes. Yeah. So I’m, I’m a big believer that every film has an audience and I think one of the great things about technology today and one of things that we pride ourselves on at IMDb is helping to connect a film and a filmmaker to their audience wherever they, wherever they may be.

So, while it’s, while it’s true that you know … I’m trying to think how many, how many, how many people … how many people would go to a movie theater in a year. I mean it’s, it’s still, you know, the, the, the numbers … the audience sizes are still, still huge.

But then, at the same time, there’s all of this choice and other, other stories, other short forms, web series … and all of this, all of this kind of this kind of thing and I think there’s an audience for all of that.

And, and just because something was, you know, something was maybe, you know, not put together on the highest quality kind of … highest quality cameras or, or whatever … shot with the highest quality cameras, doesn’t mean that the story can’t get through to that, to that right audience. So I, I think it’s a really thrilling time to either be, be a storyteller or to be, you know, an audience, an audience member out there.

HEFFNER: As a viewer myself of “Alpha House” and HBO “go” content … I, I sympathize with that, with that idea and certainly there’s a way in which you can view yourself traveling into an escape …

NEEDHAM: … Aha, yes.

HEFFNER: Even at home.

NEEDHAM: Yes, yeah.

HEFFNER: And full disclosure, my uncle, who’s the producer behind the “Saw” movies would very much covet that …

NEEDHAM: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: … particular niche audience with …

NEEDHAM: Right, yes.

HEFFNER: … with which you’re familiar.

NEEDHAM: Exactly.

HEFFNER: … so, as you look towards the future of, of movies, how do we insure that films have the cathartic effect that is going to be positively generated for a society that, that seems sometimes to be losing it’s, it’s moral compass.

NEEDHAM: Right, okay. Well the … I think, I think one of the things there again in terms of kind of like the way the, the, the … more and more people can, can tell their stories and those stories can relate to that audience where, wherever, wherever they … wherever they may be. I, I think that’s, that’s still a great, a great opportunity …

HEFFNER: I think David Denby’s fear is that the holy chamber that is the, the theater …

NEEDHAM: Right. Okay.

HEFFNER: And the creative …

NEEDHAM: … aha …

HEFFNER: … enterprise that is fueling that …

NEEDHAM: Right.

HEFFNER: … something will be lost, but I think what, what we’re both saying here is that there are examples where it’s, where it’s not lost …

NEEDHAM: Yeah.

HEFFNER: … online and so …

NEEDHAM: Yeah, I mean … I mean I’m, I’m a huge believer in seeing … you know experiencing … films, TV, even web series with an audience and I think there’s a real place. There’s, to me there’s nothing like on earth … going into a movie theater … you know, excited about what, you know, what the film is going to be. You know a, a great recent example for me is when I saw “Interstellar” which, you know, is just a, a mind-blowing experience of visual imagery, visual effects, great performances, amazing sound, you know, with an audience that was literally on the edge of their seat and some moments during that film.

But then at the same time, technology is enabling us to take that experience out to people in kind of like a, a shared setting. So, so, so one of the things that we’ve been looking at at IMDb is this whole kind of what we call a second screen experience, where you might be watching a movie or a show on your main TV, and then you might be experiencing the IMDb content associated with it on a handheld device that’s in your hands and we launched a feature a little while ago called “X-ray” for movies and TV.

It works like this. You’re watching the, the … say a TV show and somebody walks into the scene on screen and you think “Where do I know that person from?” And you can simply tap the screen on your lap and up will pop the head shots of everybody in the current scene … and you can go “Oh, it’s that person, but where have I seen them before?” So you tap again and up pops their IMDb biography, what they’re known for and all of their other movies and shows and you can tap and add those to your watch list and as soon as you finish watching whatever you’re watching right now, you can watch the next thing that they’ve done. And, you know, some of those things we’re kind of looking about how we create that kind of social viewing kind of experience. Even if the people you’re watching it with are not even in the same room as you. (laughter)

HEFFNER: Right. But are we not too distracted as it already is?

NEEDHAM: Oh, you know … that’s …

HEFFNER: (Laughter)

NEEDHAM: … I worried about this, you know, when we were kind of like developing the, the idea for “X-ray” because I was like thinking … well, is this a distraction?

And then I thought to myself, I thought “How many times have I sat there and, and kind of been taken out of the action by thinking, “Who is that person, what else have they done, what was that other show that they did?”, whereas now if you just tap … get the answer …and go straight back in there.

I mean … my … a great example, you know, just thinking … I, I have twin daughters, they’re 21 years old, and they’ve grown up with all of this technology around them. And I remember one day, kind of like last year … and one of my daughters is … she’s, she’s watching a show on TV, she’s playing a game with somebody in another part … I think she was playing a game with somebody in South Korea and then she has her mobile phone on, on the edge of her seat there and she’s texting with, with her friends.

And it’s kind of like, it’s just all part of this kind of like experience …

HEFFNER: These are the realities.

NEEDHAM: Yeah, that’s right.

HEFFNER: And, and this is the multi-tasking generation.

NEEDHAM: Yeah.

HEFFNER: But you are at heart an archivist …

NEEDHAM: Yes.

HEFFNER: Storing … right?

NEEDHAM: I am, yes. (Laughter)

HEFFNER: And, and so when you were describing the initial process and creation of the website I thought about a recent two part special we did with Sue Gardner …

NEEDHAM: Oh right …okay.

HEFFNER: … of Wikimedia …

NEEDHAM: Yes.

HEFFNER: … and Wikipedia … and inherently there’s an educational value to …

NEEDHAM: Yes.

HEFFNER: … to IMDb as well …

NEEDHAM: Yes.

HEFFNER: … so I’m wondering how are you going to bring the historical classics that are so easily forgotten by this multi-taking distracted …

NEEDHAM: Aha, yes.

HEFFNER: … generation … the “Judgments at Nuremburg”, the older films that really possess historical knowledge that this generation needs.

NEEDHAM: Yeah, well, my, my all time favorite movie quotes … is it’s from Lawrence Kasdan’s “Grand Canyon” and it’s a line that’s spoken by Steve Martin’s character. And he says, “All of life’s riddles are answered in the movies”. And that, that kind of like sums up my, my kind of philosophy.

So, so one of the things that customers tell us is, is great about IMDb is just having instant access to all of the information about all of these great films and great shows from the past and kind of making connections, so that if you, you know, you might see a great science fiction film in a theater or on TV. And then it’s kind of like well, we’ll say, “Well, did you see 2001 and then you’re like “Oh, this looks really interesting. Oh I can read reviews, I can find out the trivia behind it and I can see its in … we do a thing called “The IMDb Top 250” and this is the 250 highest rated movies by our audience, 190 million people …

HEFFNER: A very discerning audience by the way …

NEEDHAM: Oh, thank you … (laughter)

HEFFNER: It’s always been said by movie critics and layman alike that they’re tough graders.

NEEDHAM: Right … yes, yes.

HEFFNER: I didn’t mean to interrupt you.

NEEDHAM: No, no, no, no and one of the things we love about the IMDb Top 250 is it has a full range of movies from, you know, some more recent movies will get in there … there are absolute classics going all the way back to the dawn of cinema … and, and what we find is that if you’re a fan of modern film, you kind of go “Oh, I’ll, I’ll watch these newer ones, and then you’re like, “Oh well, I’ll, I’ll dip my toe in this water of …” we’ll maybe get them to watch a 1970s movie and then maybe a ’50s movie and then we get them into the ’40s and, and so on.

You know one of my … you know, one of my kind of like “secret” ambitions with IMDb is to try and convert every, every person in the world into as big a fan of movies and TV as I am.

HEFFNER: Well, you say it’s the riddle, but I also think it possesses a common social …

NEEDHAM: Yes. Yes. Yeah, yeah … exactly …

HEFFNER: Comraderie, trust and, and really can … movies like music can be a transcendent force …

NEEDHAM: One, one minute you now, one minute you can be living in, you know, 1920’s New York, the next minute you can be living in 1970’s Moscow, the following … you know you can be taken into a, you know world in another galaxy and you know some of those story elements are kind of like universal to people around the world. And I like to think that, you know, jut that the whole, the whole visual arts really kind of makes the world a smaller place. Makes people kind of understand other cultures. I, I feel like I’ve learned so much from the nearly 9,000 full length features that I’ve seen in my life. (Laughter) 9,000

HEFFNER: Well, thankfully we have IMDb which is a reflection of your knowledge …

NEEDHAM: Oh, thank you … well … if, if I could say …

HEFFNER: Sure.

NEEDHAM: I mean one, one, one of the things now, it’s, it’s my passion, it’s the team’s passion, it’s our customer’s passion and all of the data, 180 million data items that we have in IMDb has been contributed by users of IMDb across the last 25 years.

And so, you know, we, we have the most obscure films from the most obscure countries in the early time periods all the way through to things that, that haven’t been released yet. And, and that’s from this great passionate audience around the world that is continually sending our editorial team new nuggets of information for us to collect and organize. And it’s, it’s a real privilege to be able to do that.

HEFFNER: Well, obviously, you check IMDb when you want to see what’s coming soon.

NEEDHAM: Aha.

HEFFNER: But from the historical perspective what films can you advertise that, that are, that are going to be that throwback to an earlier generation in, in pursue of these kind of collective human values.

NEEDHAM: Right.

HEFFNER: Because we live always it seems in a very precarious world.

NEEDHAM: MmmHmm. Yes.

HEFFNER: And, and to try to find a degree of social harmony through all the difficulties …

NEEDHAM: Right. Yes.

HEFFNER: It sounds like movies from your perspective can be a great negotiating or diplomatic tool …

NEEDHAM: Yes. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

HEFFNER: So for your twin daughters and for the larger IMDb base of users …

NEEDHAM: Yes. Yes.

HEFFNER: … what are some of those films, and they don’t have to be older films necessarily … but that really captured to you the, the importance of human values in film?

NEEDHAM: Wow … that’s a, that’s a, that’s a really, really good question.

So, so kind of like … I, I’m kind of like … I, I like … I like movies from kind of like every, you know, every time period. One, one of the things and I think we touched on this a little bit earlier is … one of the things is that movies can help you escape the world that you’re in.

And I, I remember … there’s a great film from Preston Sturgis called “Sullivan’s Travels” in which Joel McCrea plays a, a director who’s kind of searching to make this meaningful movie that’s going to kind of reach out. And he kind of goes on this road trip around the USA. And then he discovers that the thing that kind of reaches out to people universally is comedy (laughter). And so, you know, so, so some of those, you know, the early kind of like Harold Lloyd movies … that, that stand up so well in, you know, kind of like today’s world. They’re wonderful in their silence and so you don’t have to worry about any kind of language barrier. The, the humor is kind of like all visual … so those, those are kind of like, all kind of like films that are good to kind of start with.

My all time favorite comedy is “Bringing Up Baby” from 1938, Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn … you know, is a kind of like a film that can, you know, just, just make anybody laugh and tells kind of like such a, such a universal, you know such a universal story. So, you know, I’m kind of like a … you know, a fan of those kind of like early, you know, very visually based, very visually based comedies. Is, is something for me.

HEFFNER: Do you think that there’s a space now, given the shorter attention span of this generation …

NEEDHAM: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: … there’s, there’s a void in, in coverage of particular kinds of movies that are released?

NEEDHAM: No, I mean if, if … I mean, if I were …I would think actually there’s this kind of … there almost …

HEFFNER: An overabundance?

NEEDHAM: There’s an unlimited choice, there’s an unlimited choice …

NEEDHAM: One of the … yes, so, so one of the things that we’ve started to do recently is we’ve started to get into creating our own original content. So we, we have a feature, a web series called “What to Watch”. And it’s kind of funny because you can go to IMDb and you can search “What to Watch” and in IMDb is the information about the show that we make. (Laughter)

And we found that, that began as kind of like a way to recommend current movies for people to see. But we’ve recently started to do kind of like career retrospectives. We, we filmed an episode recently with Ethan Hawke in front of a live audience and that was really engaging to kind of like hear his story of how he got into film and he’s kind of like talking about some of the, some of the people that inspired him to become an actor. And that’s, you know, a good way to kind of like have somebody that today’s audiences can relate to recommending, you know, people from, people from the past, you know, historic movies that have inspired them.

But the, the beauty as well of IMDb with our, with our approach is … we also have recommendations technology, so as you kind of like, as you vote for films on IMDb you can come back and you can get personalized recommendations for you. And then we can introduce, you know, kind of like a … something, you know … “Oh, this film that you’ve just loved recently is, is just like this film from 1944 and you should watch that. And then you watch that and then we can recommend some other things. So … it’s, it’s quite a privilege to be able to kind of like engage our customers and draw them in to kind of like this, you know, this vast, vast selection of movies and shows that are available for people to watch.

And as we were kind of saying, the one of the great things about technology as well, we’re making it easier and easier to find these things.

I, I remember scouring old video stores looking for VHS tapes and laser disks (laughter) and now from, from the comfort your, you know, your arm chair at home, you can kind of like have a movie recommended to you. And you can go “I’d like to watch that now” and at the press of a button it will start to play. And you know, again, the technology that’s available in people’s homes, greater and greater sound systems, the visual image is, is so much clearer and so you can have a really great viewing experience …

HEFFNER: Col, unfortunately, we’ve, we’ve run out of time. I want to thank you again for being here. And, and also just want to comment that I hope that the open access that you’ve created, as you said in a very optimistic, chipper way …

NEEDHAM: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: … engages people further.

NEEDHAM: Yes.

HEFFNER: As opposed to making them more complacent.

NEEDHAM: Right.

HEFFNER: Because aside from the personalization in the next decade of film, we, we hope not only are, are younger people connected to the movies that are …

NEEDHAM: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: … that are coming, but also to the rich history …

NEEDHAM: Yes.

HEFFNER: … that you preserve.

NEEDHAM: Oh, thank you.

HEFFNER: Thank you, Col.

NEEDHAM: Thanks.

HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time…for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind.

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