Film Independent Mon 12.24.2018

IMDb’s Col Needham on the Website’s Start, Independent Film and Why Right Now Is So Exciting

If you’ve ever been even tangentially involved in making, watching or even just caring about film, there’s a good chance that IMDb.com has been an indispensible a part of your life for a long time. The service—the web’s earliest, most comprehensive repository of information about the movies, stretching all the way back to the dawn of cinema—is, for film nerds, all but a public utility. And Film Independent Board Member and Arts Circle supporter Col Needham has been there from the beginning, starting what would eventually become IMDb as a movie-mad teenager growing up in 1980s England.

This year, IMDb also celebrated a key milestone: the 20-year anniversary of the site’s acquisition by Amazon—the behemoth online retailer’s first-ever business acquisition—a partnership that is now nearly old enough to drink. Needham has been giving back to the film world ever since, beginning his involvement with Film Independent as a donor, then eventually as a board member.

But don’t worry, you don’t have to be the founder of revolutionary website to lend your support to Film Independent. Giving at any level is appreciated. But time to make a tax-deductible contribution for the year 2018 is running out. So please consider helping us in all that we do to support filmmakers worldwide.

We recently spoke to the UK-based Needham about his love of film, IMDb’s humble origins, his company’s historic partnership with Jeff Bezos and just why, exactly, right now is such an exciting time to be an independent filmmaker.



Col Needham

The first thing I wanted to ask is what is your relationship to film that led to you founding IMDb? 

Needham: I’ve been obsessed with film my entire life. I’m quite fortunate, in a sense, as to when I was born. When I was becoming a teenager two things were going on in the world: the home computer revolution and the home video revolution. So as someone obsessed with film, I was able to see more movies than I’d ever been able to see before. I started to see so many movies I couldn’t accurately remember which ones I’d seen and which ones I hadn’t. So with my love of film and my interest in technology, I basically created a database to track every film that I saw. If I saw it on VHS, I would rewind the tape and I would type the main credits into my database. I would pause on each frame and type in the main credits, just for my own use.

And how did the site evolve from there?

Needham: Essentially, I’ve been tracking everything I’ve ever seen since the beginning of January 1980. I got online fairly early—I’ve actually had an email address for 33 years—so I then met likeminded film fans via email lists, before the web existed. In these kinds of discussions frequently people were asking, “What else has he done?” and “What else did she make?” Those kinds of questions were always coming up. One thing led to another, and I wrote the very first version of the IMDb software based on my film diary database. IMDb launched online on the 17th of October 1990. It was downloadable software in those days. You would grab it from one of these discussion groups and install it on your own computer and run searches on your own computer. The transition into a commercial operation began in 1996. Our wonderful little hobby grew so big that we couldn’t do it as a hobby anymore, so we launched IMDb.com just in time for the Oscars in 1996. We sold our first piece of advertising a few weeks later. I quit my day job and became our first full-time employee.

When did Amazon become involved?

Needham: It was 21 years ago next week, actually. I got an email from someone whose job title was “General Counsel, Amazon.com” who emailed me and said Jeff Bezos wanted to discuss a business idea. So we organized a time, and Jeff said Amazon was going to go from selling books to launching a video store—and that he was looking for someone to partner with. IMDb was at the top of the list, and what did we think about a possible acquisition? And we found ourselves saying “yes.” We became a fully owned subsidiary of Amazon.com. They kept me on; they kept everyone else and hired everyone else who was waiting to join the team as a volunteer. And we’ve been growing within Amazon ever since.

And what is it about Film Independent that’s inspired you to become involved and give back in the ways that you have? 

Needham: I think this is a really important time for diverse storytelling. Diversity among all of the usual lines, but diversity among international lines as well. If you have the passion and the talent and the skills, you can be an independent filmmaker. As someone from the UK, we have a healthy film industry, but I also love it when I discover independent films from all over the world. One of the things happening thanks to the proliferation of technology is that it’s never been easier for people to tell their stories. You can start to experiment with film as an art form and discover if you have some talent. The ability to capture activity on film is easier than ever, as is the ability to take those fragments and edit them together in a coherent story. I’m still in awe of what Sean Baker did with Tangerine. It wasn’t even shot on an iPhone X because they didn’t exist at the time—an entire feature film shot on an iPhone 5, released at a major film festival! You can shoot your film and get it to a worldwide audience easier than it’s ever been before.

IMDb.com homepage as of December 21, 2018

You’re involved as both a supporter of Film Independent, but also a board member. I’d be interested to hear how both of these came to be.

Needham: I became aware of Film Independent through the festival circuit, both at Film Independent events going on at festivals and filmmakers that have come up through some level of involvement with Film Independent. I had the opportunity to meet with Josh Welsh [president of Film Independent]; I think it was 2009. So I got to know Josh and see what an impact Film Independent was having in terms of helping filmmakers reach their audiences, both through film festivals but also the Spirit Awards. I love the Spirit Awards! I watch a lot of movies. We’ve got a couple more weeks, but I will have seen around about 700-ish films by the end of the year.

Holy cow.

Needham: And about 300 of those will be 2018 releases. It’s almost one per day in the theater on average. For many other awards, when the nominations are announced, it’s like, “Okay, great. I like that movie, but I’ve seen all these.” The nice thing about the Spirit Awards is no matter how many hundreds of films that I’ve seen there are always some great surprises. Like, “Damn, how’d I miss that?”

I wanted to end by talking a little bit more about IMDb and if you had any thoughts or predictions as to where the film world might be headed in 2019 and beyond, and your role in that. 

Needham: So building on what I was saying earlier, definitely more opportunities for storytellers to tell their stories through film, more opportunities for those films to connect with audiences. However, this does create a challenge, doesn’t it? If there’s more and more great content being created, how can you, as the audience member, find the right thing to watch for you? I’m a very big believer in every film having an audience. One of the things we see at IMDb is our role—one of our roles—is to connect the filmmaker with their audience, to help people find something great for them to watch next. That’s where the richness of IMDb comes in. My secret maniacal plan, though of course if can’t be that secret if I’m about to mention it to you, is to make everyone love film and TV and entertainment as much as I do.

And get everyone to see 700 movies a year. 

Needham: That’s right. You should feel disappointed if you haven’t seen 700 movies in a particular year [laughs]. My all-time favorite movie quote is actually from Lawrence Kasdan’s Grand Canyon in 1991. It’s a quote spoken by Steve Martin’s character: “All of life’s riddles are answered in the movies.”


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