British computer engineer and movie buff Col Needham founded the Internet Movie Database in 1990, starting it as a fan-operated film and TV database on the Usenet group rec.arts.movies and migrating it to the then-new web in 1993. The company, a Hollywood resource for celebrity and contact info as well as movie dates, casts and crew, was gobbled up by Amazon in 1998.
To date, Needham has seen and rated more than 14,700 films. He’s watched more than 1,200 new films in the last 18 months alone, which works out to more than a quarter of his waking hours, if you assume a typical two-hour run time. Right now he’s high on the 2023 Sundance Festival romantic comedy offering “Rye Lane,” though his favorite film of all time remains Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 thriller “Vertigo.”
But Needham hardly fits the stereotype of the crusty, old-school movie critic who deplores digital advances in entertainment. He launched a computer games software business at age 14 and continues to approach technology with fascination, not fear.
“The vision has remained the same, but the way you do it is constantly evolving,” Needham told TheWrap for this week’s Office With a View. “There are better ways for storytellers to tell their stories and reach an audience, and IMDb just wants to help people achieve those skills.
“The crazy thing is, if you ask [Amazon’s] Alexa an entertainment-related question, there’s a really good chance she will answer using IMDb data. If you had told me in 1990 that someone would just walk into a room and talk to a device this [small] in order to search IMDb, I’d be like, ‘That’s something from a science fiction movie.'”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Speaking of innovation, Amazon’s streaming service IMDb TV recently rebranded as Amazon Freevee and announced plans to unveil more original series and movies. How do you feel about the new name?
Completely, completely fine. The service is operated by Prime Video. They get to choose the name. I’m perfectly happy, fine and good with that.
In 1998, the year Amazon bought IMDb, Jeff Bezos’ net worth was around $1.6 billion. Lately it’s been around $135 billion. How does it feel to look back on meeting him for the first time in 1998?
It’s an honor to be able to call him a friend. Not only is he a friend, genuinely he is my big business hero. He is so smart. He’s so customer-obsessed.
That first meeting was in a hotel room in London in January of 1998. We were running as a small independent company, with people all around the world. We were not looking to sell at all. We were invited to this meeting with Jeff and with someone else from Amazon. We thought we were going to talk about an advertising deal.
“We’re not here to talk about an ad deal,” he told me. “Jeff explained how Amazon was going from selling books, to music, and then onwards to video, including VHS tapes and these shiny new round things called DVDs.”
On April 24, 1998, IMDb became a wholly owned subsidiary of Amazon.com. We were their first acquisition, along with a U.K. bookseller and a German bookseller. That was 25 years ago.
One of IMDb’s latest innovations is a partnership with TikTok, providing a new feature that allows TikTok users to link movie titles in the videos they create. Can you tell us the thinking behind that?
One of my one of my big things is that basically everybody has a story to tell. And everybody loves a good story. And now, thanks to these services like TikTok, it’s very easy to become a storyteller, to reach an audience.
We have room on the database for any kind of content. One of the things that we’ve expanded into more recently is music videos and podcasts — now it’s all listed on IMDb. Somebody can make a web series, or a short film, and if they can upload it somewhere on to YouTube or another service where people can watch it. It gets an IMDb page, and people can now follow them on IMDb. And if a short film by a favorite creator references a 1930s horror movie, the audience can click on that and then they arrive on IMDb. And usually we can direct you where to watch the thing as well.
You’re changing things up with IMDb Pro, which a lot of people in Hollywood rely on. Can you share the thinking behind that?
We launched a free-tier version of IMDb Pro towards the end of last year. So you can still subscribe to IMDb Pro as you’ve always been able to do, but now people can register for Pro for free and get the opportunity to provide information about themselves that will help them get hired, help them get get discovered. We are trying to do our best to help the industry become much more diverse and more inclusive, more equitable.
Does technology still leave room for the traditional film or TV critic to serve the consumer?
Once upon a time, you know, if you wanted to be a critic… you’d get a job at a magazine or a newspaper, and try and fight your way into the right department. And then you’d convince your conventional, typical, classic hard-nosed movie editor to “give the kid a shot.” Whereas now you can start small, you can write your own reviews on IMDb, on TikTok and other services. You can build that audience and build your knowledge as you’re doing whatever else you might be doing for a paid gig.