Where does the hub of the world’s film knowledge lie?
Is it in the Hollywood Museum in LA? Archived in the British Film Institute Library in Central London? Buried under the Walk of Fame on Hollywood and Vine?
Nope. It’s actually located just outside Bristol Parkway train station in the UK, a couple of miles from the M32 motorway.
Here, in an anonymous, modern, detached suburban house, 41-year-old Colin ‘Col’ Needham, founder of The Internet Movie Database (IMDb), sits at the centre of a vast digital web that holds details of over 1.2m movies from all around the world.
Disappointment awaits anyone who arrives expecting a vast open-plan office staffed by hundreds, surrounded by banks of whirring, purring servers clicking and humming their arcane binary language.
This isn’t the pampered playboy mansion of a dotcom millionaire. The unassuming, casually attired Needham won’t be drawn on the size of his bank balance following IMDb’s link-up with Amazon.
“I’m not about that, I’m just about the site,” he says, prodding his spectacles back onto the bridge of his nose.
But the bubbly enthusiasm and cat-who-got-the-cream grin suggest there’s a happy accountant somewhere...
The only clues that we're sitting at the heart of the world’s most popular film database is an original framed poster for Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo - and Needham’s endearingly geeky love of anything movie-related.
The moment we whip out our tape recorder to start the interview, he regales us with a goof in 1990 Harrison Ford flick Presumed Innocent where a dictaphone appears to be recording even though it doesn’t actually have a cassette inside it…
This man lives, sleeps and breathes movies. He has to. He’s Mr IMDb – and what began as his hobby has blossomed into an indispensable resource for the film industry.
IMDb has existed, in one form or another, for almost as long as the internet itself. It began, says Needham, “back in the internet Stone Age” before web browsers existed – before the web even existed – as rec.arts.movies, a text-only Usenet bulletin board.
Working at Hewlett-Packard’s UK research labs in Bristol, Needham was an early citizen of the internet and proudly tells totalfilm.com that he had an email address way back in 1985, at a time when most people were still struggling to load games on to their ZX Spectrums.
The only thing that rivalled his love of computers was his love of movies - a passion that once led him to watch a rented VHS copy of Alien 14 times in 14 days.
The two interests merged in the mid-’80s when he wrote
a database programme to keep track of what films he'd seen, who was in them and what he thought of them.
“This sounds terribly geeky, doesn’t it?” he laughs as we sip tea in the kitchen of the house that was once his home and now serves only as an oversized office. “But it worked out alright, though…”
By 1989, Needham was a regular contributor to the rec.arts.movies bulletin board. “Most of the users were male, American college students.” He smiles... “So what was the most frequent topic of conversation? ‘Who is the most attractive actress and what films can you see her in?’”
After another member of the group began to compile a list of films that starred actresses like Michelle Pfeiffer and Kim Basinger, Needham coded some software that would import the list into his own database and spot any missing titles. He then sent the updated list to the newsgroup.
As the list grew, more and more bulletin board users began adding to it and Needham decided to share the Unix Shell Scripts he’d written to create his database with the other users.
As more and more film fans began to contribute, sexy actresses were soon joined by actors, directors, producers, composers, even set decorators.
“Within a few weeks I was getting messages from people saying, ‘We love the database. But have you thought about adding screenwriters?’ I’d say, ‘Great idea! Would you like to manage it?’”
The volunteer army was global: film fans as far-flung as America, Germany, Australia and even Iceland contributed to the snowballing roster, simply for fun.
It’s a model that continues today, with IMDb users able to collaborate electronically with the full-time staff who manage the site. They work together to verify credits information and keep on top of the latest movie developments for films that are in-production.
“Essentially, everyone was agreeing to publish film information in a format that was compatible with my software,” Needham explains in his broad Mancunian accent.
“Although I was running it, there was nothing formal. It was like an open democracy of film fans.”
By the summer of 1990, this democracy had collated 10,000 movie titles.
Today, it’s hard to understand why this was so exciting. Back then, though, this much information on movies had never been collected in one place outside of an unwieldy movie encyclopaedia.
Yet unlike Halliwell’s or Leonard Maltin’s Movie And Video Guide – which were always out of date and limited by space – IMDb was a film fan’s dream come true: a constantly updated, instantly searchable, ever-growing movie mecca.
The internet as we know it arrived somewhere around the summer of 1993. With a new-fangled web browser, computer users could... watch weather satellite images!
“That was the coolest thing on the web back then," laughs Needham. "‘Wow! There’s a fog bank on the Golden Gate Bridge two hours ago!’”
Early adopters could also visit one of the other nine sites that were live. The Internet Movie Database quickly joined this elite list of fledgeling websites as the net’s first film resource.
Initially hosted for free on borrowed server space at Cardiff University, IMDb quickly developed into an incorporated company with Needham as founder and managing director and a dedicated private web server in, of all places, Wisconsin.
The volunteer staff joined the books one by one, giving up their day jobs to run the ever-growing database that was doubling in size every fortnight.
Staff and user contributions helped the site to continue growing until Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos offered shareholders a partnership deal in 1998.
IMDb would continue as a separate company; the only difference was it would now be hosted on Amazon’s servers in Seattle and give users the chance to purchase film titles in the database through the world’s leading e-commerce retailer.
As part of the deal, IMDb’s shareholders were paid several million dollars’ worth of Amazon shares and what started as a hobby became one of the internet’s bona fide success stories.
As Needham excitedly tells us, with a listophile’s love of number crunching, the original 10,000-title database has grown into a list of 1.2m titles with over 21m filmography credits.
IMDb serves 2.5bn pages of information a month to over 57m unique users. “And it’s all,” grins its creator, “from a humble beginning in a Bristol bedroom”.
Eventually, even the most revolutionary technology
is taken for granted. Few people who drive to work ponder the wonders of the internal combustion engine.
Hardly anyone watching a film gets distracted by the alchemy involved in capturing reality on a strip of celluloid.
Likewise, few users of IMDb take time out to wonder at what a marvel it is.
To say that the IMDb has revolutionised the film industry is no understatement. In the past, specialist bureaus used to supply Hollywood types with credits information on request.
“If a film exec was sat there going, ‘So, what else has this Steven Spielberg guy done?’ they had to phone up a company and request a list and pay $80 a time for the privilege,” explains Needham. “It was prime business information.”
In the film industry, people talk a lot about “credits” - for a good reason. Your past work is always worth something; it has a currency.
IMDb is the place where that currency can be measured. It has become an important industry resource – particularly the subscription-only IMDb Pro launched in 2002 – for industry professionals, from agents to producers to actors.
“People base their whole careers on what they’ve done already and IMDb gives us a quick way to check that,” says Leo Barraclough, the London News Editor of Variety.
“It acts as a bond within the industry to let us get a sense of what people are doing and it’s extremely useful as a point of reference to check on who’s done what.”
Yet what’s ironic is the way this great British success story is so ignored at home. “It’s been kind of odd that the UK media doesn’t pay much attention,” sighs Needham.
He works in his upstairs office, hemmed in by bookshelves groaning under the weight of volumes on Hitchcock (his favourite director) and film noir (his favourite genre).
Despite the carefully arranged collections of UK film mags, no publication has ever given Needham or the IMDb its due. (Until now).
As well as offering millions of technical credits, goofs and star ratings, IMDb has also revolutionised film culture in other ways.
Barraclough suggests it’s become “one of the main bridgeheads between the public and the industry”, giving ordinary film fans access to the kind of information (who’s hot and who’s not; what actors are doing next; what directors are attached to future productions) that they never used to get, far beyond a small clique of industry pros.
It’s an essential marketing tool, too: eager movie fans now get access to trailers and in-production details in ways they never could before, when the only chance of seeing what the new Bond film would look like was sneaking into your local Odeon to watch the pre-feature trailer reel.
While some may miss the thrill of those pre-internet days, when films arrived with no hype and fewer expectations, the sheer number of IMDb users suggests they’re in a minority.
It’s not just movie fans, either. Film journalists have also been swept up in the Internet Movie Database’s revolution.
“I can’t imagine doing the job now without the IMDb,” says The Guardian’s film critic Peter Bradshaw. “It is one of the wonders of the internet.
A lot of critics used to be compendium-isers and encyclopaedists. They knew everything and could do
a kind of nerdy top ten one-upmanship on everybody else.
The IMDb has shorn away what used to be valued in criticism – sheer brute quantum knowledge.
Critics now have to persuade. They have to be performers. They have to be evangelisers. They have to fight their corner because they can’t just say, ‘We know more about it than you’ anymore.”
Bradshaw agrees that it’s a travesty the way the IMDb is so overlooked at home. “Why aren’t they in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list? Dyson gets a gong for inventing his vacuum cleaner. These guys should get a knighthood for inventing the IMDb. It should be Sir Col Needham in my opinion.”
For Needham, though, the pleasure lies in his own list, not the Queen’s.
What started as a compulsive desire to record information on every movie he’d ever watched has now developed into an international collective of film fans working together to create the biggest database of “film, television and celebrity” anywhere, ever.
As IMDb is about to enter its 19th year, the future looks bright for the site: full-length, downloadable films from the IMDb and Amazon aren’t far away.
But the cataloguing task remains immense. Every minute, the list grows a little longer and Needham – still the same square-eyed film fan he’s always been – keeps his own personal film tally growing.
“My original database of what I’ve seen and when has now been imported into my IMDb ‘My Movies’ list,” he laughs. “I guess the listing has come full circle…”
Interview By Jamie Russell