Interview: Col Needham, Founder of IMDb, the world’s number one movie database

Sharks in your swimming pool, 80s build-it-yourself computers and the rise of the World Wide Web, find out how IMDb came to exist
25th April 2017

When you get to start a story about an internet company founded in Bristol before the internet even existed, you know you’re in for a treat. IMDb, the world’s number one movie and TV database, was started by local film-obsessed technology fan Col Needham over 30 years ago and has spanned several generations of technological evolutions.

“I’ve been tracking everything and I’ve seen for the last 37 years… in that time I have seen 10,315 unique films”

 

From one man’s movie obsession to a collaborative effort from film and technology enthusiasts from around the world, many things contributed to Col’s journey to create the impressive internet-based database, some more surprising than others. Think, a childhood spate with Jaws and an ’80s build-it-yourself computer and you’ll be in the right ballpark.

But we are getting ahead of ourselves, read on to get the full story on how IMDb was created, as well as some of Col’s personal highlights over the past 30 years and his top tips for budding technology entrepreneurs looking to follow in his footsteps…

TechSPARK: What inspired you to set up IMDb right from the very beginning?

Col Needham: IMDb comes about from two passions of mine. One is my obsession with film and the second is my interest in technology.

“Well, typically local councils in the UK don’t put sharks in their swimming pools”

 

The first movie I ever saw in the cinema was Snow White and Seven Dwarfs, and after that, at the age of 9, I pleaded with my mother to take me to see Jaws – which is too young to see Jaws!

I was scared of going in a swimming pool afterwards. Typically local councils don’t put sharks in their swimming pools but I was still scared in case there might be one in mine. I often say this, but this experience showed me the power of film.

TS: And the tech aspect?

CN: I got my first computer when I was 12 years old, in 1979, for Christmas. A build-it-yourself kit with 128 bytes of memory. Bytes of memory. So not even enough for a whole tweet.

But that fueled my interest in technology. I had started to write down what films I had seen but my paper diary lasted all of two weeks because I thought, ‘why am I bothering with a paper diary when I could create a computer database?’

So in 1981, by which time I have a computer with 48 kilobytes of memory and an audio cassette interface to write data to – not even a floppy disk! – I began my database.

“I’ve been tracking everything I’ve seen for the last 37 years and in that time to now I have seen 10,315 unique films”

 

I would type in the director, the writer, the producers and the main cast just for my own use. Ridiculously geeky, but it worked out alright in the end! I’ve been tracking everything I’ve seen for the last 37 years and in that time I have seen 10,315 unique films.

Anyway, one thing led to another and cutting a long story short, on the 17 October 1990 I posted the very first version of the IMDb database software which you would grab from a dial-up newsgroup, download onto your own computer, install it and you’d be able to search for… well, all we had when we launched were actors, actresses and directors.

“Have you heard of this worldwide web thing… because I think it might be quite big”

 

The software had been out there for a couple of weeks when I got an email from someone in the US and he said: ‘Oh, I love the database software. I’m a big fan of writers, have you thought of adding writers to the database?’ And so I sent him a copy of the software so he could add them in.

Over time more and more followers and voluntary collaborators contributed to the growth of data available on the downloadable version of IMDb.

Then in 1993, I received an email from a PhD student at Cardiff University which kicked off the start of what we now know as IMDb.com.

“We found our traffic in a two-week period doubled and two weeks later that doubled and two weeks later that doubled”

 

His email went something like: “Hey Col, I’ve installed the movie database software, I think it’s really good but have you heard of this worldwide web thing? Because I think it might be quite big. How about a wrapper around the database software to make it available on the web?”

And so I wrote back and said: “Yep, sounds like a good idea.” A few weeks later, I received another email from him saying: “OK, so the website’s just launched at Cardiff University an hour ago and we’ve had 60 hits!” And it was kind of like, wow sixty hits! I can’t believe it!

Fairly soon, that capacity was exhausted and we found ourselves asking for all the universities around the world if they would host a copy of the database and several did.

Something like 1995, the web is getting well known and you’ve got TV shows on the BBC such as ‘The Net’, introducing people to what you could do on the web.

And so we found our traffic in a two-week period doubled and two weeks later that doubled and two weeks later that doubled – so it was just going completely crazy.

“Back then I was running another list of our volunteer shareholders and who was crazy enough to give up their job next”

 

We found ourselves in a situation where we could either say: “That was a fun five years but we can’t cope any more.” Or, we could incorporate and see if we could fund the future growth of IMDb from advertising. Now you’re probably thinking, ‘Well, isn’t that a no brainer?’ But in 1995 you could count the number of websites that were ad supported on two hands and you didn’t know if they were really making any money or whether it was going to last even if they were.

We agonised over several months over what should we do and how should we do it, but obviously we finally landed and we incorporated in January ’96. We bought our first web server on a credit card, well it was just a PC really.

This was before the days you could rent space on servers, but one of our people had a contact at his local internet service provider. So he went to see them and said: “Hey you know IMDb?” and they were like “Oh yeah, the movie and TV thing” and he said “Well we’re about to launch IMDb.com, how about if we have our server in your server room and we’ll promote your service on the home page in exchange for doing that?”

“IMDb.com was launched just in time for the Oscars in 1996”

 

They said yes, so we had one of our guys put the operating system, the IMDb software, the web server software and all the IMDb data onto the hard disk – a 4-gigabyte hard disk – and we FedExed the disk out to Wisconsin which is where our guy was based. He plugged it into the computer we’d bought, drove it to the internet service provider, plugged it in – over in the UK we made some changes – and IMDb.com was launched just in time for the Oscars in 1996!

Two weeks later I sold our first piece of advertising – I had never sold any advertising before, and the people buying had never bought internet advertising before and so they were like: “Well how much is that for a month?” And I was like well… not sure erm.. this much? And they said yes!

A couple of months after that we sold our first piece of advertising to a film studio for the film Independence Day, to 20th Century Fox. That was my cue to give up my day job, so I did, and became our first employee.

From that point onwards as the revenue grew and we could afford another salary. I ran another list, this time of our volunteer shareholders. When you reached the top of the list and we had some more money in, I would call you up and I would say: “Hey we can afford to pay you, give in your notice” and away we go!

In January 1998, at their request, I had a meeting with Jeff Bezos – founder and CEO of Amazon in London. Jeff explained how Amazon would be going from selling books, to music, to video, VHS tapes of those shiny new round things called DVDs.

“I was so excited about the first 60 hits in an hour because it was the first time we knew customers were using IMDb in real time”

 

They were looking for a company to partner with to help them launch the world’s best video store and asked whether we would we consider either a licensing deal, to license the IMDb data, but much more interesting to Jeff would be if we would agree to an acquisition and become a more permanent part of the Amazon family.

Obviously, we found ourselves going down that route and so 19 years ago this month on the 24 April, IMDb became a wholly owned subsidiary of Amazon.com and were able to invest in IMDb and really take it to the next level.

TS: So what have your highlights been since IMDb was founded as a business?

CN: I was so excited about the first 60 hits in an hour because it was the first time we knew customers were using IMDb in real time.

Other things that stand out include the one day I got home from work and my wife told me the New York Times had called.

And so I rang the New York Times and somebody in their entertainment and reviews group answered the phone and he told me that he wanted to run a feature on IMDb because everybody in the film industry was using it and all his friends were using it at the New York Times. It was a really big surprise that that was happening and another big highlight.

“What we’ve been able to achieve is radically massively different, thanks to advances in technology”

 

So another one is obviously the meeting with Jeff has also enabled us to grow IMDb to where we are today which is 250 million unique users per month and more than 115 million downloads of the app (pictured right). It’s kind of mind-boggling sometimes.

We also acquired a film festival submission company in 2008 called Without a Box which launched us into the film festival world. So, walking my first red carpet at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2008 was another highlight for me.

TS: How do your visions of what IMDb might look like compare from when you started to now?

CN: The crazy thing now is you can look something up on IMDb on your phone and then you can start streaming it to the phone via Amazon video right there, so I never foresaw anything like that.

So in a way, what we’ve been able to achieve is radically different thanks to advances in technology, but underlying it all we have kept the same vision – of sharing our own passion with all the people who love TV and film.

TS: What do you know now that you wish you knew in the early days setting up IMDb?

CN: I think the importance of having a good team and having the right people kind of riding along with you on the journey.

I would’ve brought more people on board sooner because we had great people but they were volunteers – they weren’t on the team. So the thing I’ve learnt most of all is the importance of building a good team around you.

TS: What advice would you give to young tech startup looking to follow in your footsteps?

CN: I think every journey is different and the world in which you operate is different as well. But there are things that stay fundamentally the same. So, first of all, be passionate about what you do.

“Bristol is a lovely city for being a blend of lots of different cultures, backgrounds, technology and media that gives you really interesting people to recruit”

 

And when things get tough, because they inevitably will, when things aren’t quite going to the plan that you had, it’s the fact that you fundamentally love what you are doing that will help see you through some of those trickier moments.

The other advice I would give is the importance of finding like-minded people in good teams that you can really engage with.

TS: IMDb has been based in Bristol from pretty much the very beginning and still has a tech team based here, what are the benefits of having the IMDb tech team based here?

CN: I love Bristol, so there are several things that factor into this. Firstly there is a great deal of local talent to hire from because one of the things that HP Labs did, the tech company I worked for before IMDb, was bring people into the area and then companies have spun off out of that.

Secondly, there’s a thriving tech community here and there are good media roots, including the BBC who have a big presence and ITV have always been here since they got going. Aardman Animations too.

“The Watershed is not just a cinema… it’s the place that has fueled and inspired and provided space for startups”

 

So Bristol is a lovely city for being a blend of lots of different cultures, backgrounds, technology and media that gives you really interesting people to recruit. And then, of course, once you’ve got a critical mass of other tech and media companies, that brings more people in and that then brings additional investment and so it feeds itself.

TS: So you mentioned HP Labs, but what other tech companies or people do you admire in the South West region?

CN: Over the years we’ve done a lot of work with Dick Penny and the Watershed team.

The Watershed is not just a cinema, not just the media centre, it’s the place that has fueled and inspired and provided space for startups… whether it be meeting space, office space or whatever.

I’ve always been inspired by the way that Dick just connects people together and the whole First Friday networking event he runs. So I’m big fan of everything that the Watershed has done, it’s so much more than a cinema.

TS: And what’s your favourite geeky tech feature on the IMDb website?

A few years ago we launched something called X-Ray for movies and TV (screenshot pictured left). So you can be watching a movie or a TV show and somebody walks into the scene and you’re thinking ‘where do I know that person from?’ and instead of having to pick up IMDb, type in the name of the film and try and scroll through the cast list to find out exactly which person that is, you can just tap the screen and up will pop the head shots of everybody in the current scene.

You can then tap on a head shot, the film will pause and then it will pop up that actor’s biography, what they’re known for and all their films and TV shows.

We then layered in the ability to find soundtracks and trivia while watching too. It adds a whole new level of data to the film and TV watching experience, so that’s my favourite.

Many thanks to Col for taking the time out of his hectic schedule to chat to us about the making of IMDb. You can check out the database for yourself at www.IMDb.com and stay up to date with the database’s latest news and developments on Twitter: @IMDb.