In 1993, the IMDb made the leap to the new World Wide Web, accessible via browsers like AOL. It was arguably one of the world’s first websites. Needham demures: “I wouldn’t say one of the first — I don’t want a lot of angry theoretical physicists — but it was probably one of the first dozen or so websites that wasn’t to do with an experiment at a university.” Also, in those days, there was a website that listed every site that launched daily; the IMDb was one of just four that went live that day.
A period of rapid growth followed. “By 1995, traffic was doubling every couple of weeks,” Needham says. In 1996, he incorporated the IMDb as a company, underwritten by a credit card. Within two weeks, it attracted advertising, with Hollywood studio ads quickly following. Needham was soon able to quit the day job and, as he likes to point out, the IMDb has a claim to being “the world’s first profitable Internet company.”
Its success was soon noted across the pond. Amazon.com was branching out from selling books to videotapes and “these shiny new things called DVDs,” as Needham puts it. Amazon boss Jeff Bezos thought that the IMDb’s data would complement his site and, in April 1998, he bought the IMDb in a deal estimated to be worth tens of millions of dollars at the time. Given that Amazon shares were involved, you likely can add at least one zero to that today. Needham won’t disclose the actual dollar amount, but it was clearly a pretty good payday. “I think it would be fair to say that,” he agrees.
Needham didn’t light out for the Caribbean, however, or go bling crazy. “I’m much more likely to treat a group of friends to a movie and a meal than buy a sports car,” he chuckles. He bought a nicer house for his family (by then, he and Karen had two daughters) and a lot of DVDs — and he got on with running the IMDb.
With its U.S. presence established, the company developed closer ties with Hollywood: 2001 saw the launch of IMDbPro, an enhanced database available via subscription that offers industry contact information, box-office figures and details of upcoming productions. Then came the IMDb’s STARmeter, a rating system based on data collated from the billions of clicks made by the site’s millions of users that show exactly which movies, actors and filmmakers are being looked at in a given week.
As a barometer of public taste, the STARmeter proved compulsive reading for Hollywood insiders — and proved seriously influential. “Robert Pattinson was cast [in the Twilight films] due to STARmeter,” Needham proudly reports. “They were having trouble finding the right actor for the role of Edward, and somebody got on IMDbPro and did some research, and [thanks to] a small but key role in the Harry Potter movies, he was top of the list.”
In 2006, the site ramped up its detailed information about TV shows, and in 2008, it acquired websites devoted to box-office reporting and film-festival organization. The following year, the IMDb released its first set of mobile apps, downloads of which have now exceeded 50 million. And last year, the company debuted an app called X-Ray (available through the Kindle and the Wii U), which automatically recognizes actors on-screen and offers career information after just a couple of taps — it’s the most efficient means yet of answering the question, “Who’s that guy?”
All of this has made Needham a significant player in the industry of which he was once a devoted fan. He attended the Sundance Film Festival as well as the Oscars (as he puts it, “It’s not the kind of thing that’s easy to get into if you’re not nominated or presenting something …”). “I definitely pinch myself on a regular basis,” he admits. “If I meet an actor, actress or director, I might say ‘I’m a big fan of your work,’ and then they’ll say, ‘I’m a big fan of your work!’ That puts a spring in your step!”
At heart, Needham still just loves watching movies. His tally these days is “about 400 a year. If more than a day goes by without watching a film, I definitely start to get cranky.” It’s lucky, then, that Karen shares her husband’s love of films: Oscars aside, the couple has a regular Tuesday-afternoon movie date at the local multiplex. In fact, although Needham built the IMDb as a program and a business, it never could have happened without his wife’s love for films and her tolerance of his cinematic obsession. Maybe in the end it’s less a case of “Who’s that guy?” and more “Who’s that girl?” As Needham admits, “It wouldn’t have worked if Karen didn’t have that passion for movies.”
BEN WALTERS lives in London and writes about film, arts and culture for TimeOut London, The Guardian and other publications.