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June 17, 2006

Internet Movie Database: Col Newmark is the man behind the curtain


Until I read Richard Siklos's story in the May 28 New York Times Business section, I thought IMDB.com (Internet Movie Database) was owned and run by the New York Times.

Only when I read the article did I learn that in fact Amazon quietly purchased the site back in 1998 and has been letting it run pretty much as it was then, only subtly benefiting by directing visitors to the parent site when they want to buy a video (then) or DVD (now).

Col Needham (above) started the site as a hobby back in 1990 when he was 23.

At the time it was simply a bulletin board database of movie credits called rec.arts.movies, run by him and some film-buff friends from his home in Stoke Gifford, a suburb of Bristol in the U.K.

Needham's full-time job then was as an engineer with Hewlett-Packard in Bristol.

Like Craig Newmark's hobby, Needham's grew like Topsy until now he finds himself atop a spectacularly successful enterprise, currently the 10th-most visited entertainment website in the world, with over 18 million visitors last month, up 67% from a year earlier.

Here's the Times piece.

    From a Small Stream, a Gusher of Movie Facts

    The closest that Col Needham gets to corporate life is the Dilbert calendar in his neat office — a converted bedroom in a quaint house in the ancient village of Stoke Gifford, a suburb of Bristol, the harbor city that is 90 minutes west of London by train.

    As the founder and managing director of the Internet Movie Database, Mr. Needham might just be the archetype of the telecommuting Web-head.

    The site he founded and runs, www.imdb.com, ranks as the 10th-most-popular entertainment spot online, according to ComScore Media Metrix.

    It had 18.6 million unique visitors in April, a 67 percent surge from a year earlier.

    In Stoke Gifford, Mr. Needham works solo — without even an assistant — but is in constant contact by instant message with other employees scattered across the globe and at the Seattle headquarters of Amazon.com, which acquired the business eight years ago.

    "Everybody assumes that we have a massive office complex on Wilshire Boulevard," Mr. Needham said with a grin.

    "I always say, 'We're headquartered on the Internet.' "

    Mr. Needham, a boyish, closely-shorn 39-year-old walked to the kitchen, put on the kettle and made tea.

    Part of what makes him a curiosity — beyond his enviable work setup — is that Internet Movie Database, or Imdb for short, has become a classic example of a hobby that turns out to be a powerful media asset.

    For years, it has quietly gone about its business almost entirely separately from its parent, and only subtly does it encourage users to go to the Amazon site to buy videos.

    "We didn't sit down and think, 'What's the best way to make money on the Internet?' " Mr. Needham said.

    "This is very much a labor of love. When we started the company, there was no commercial use of the Internet."

    Even so, Imdb's convergence moment may soon be at hand, say studio executives who have worked with Amazon on developing a download service that could let people burn DVD's on their desktops.

    Though Amazon and Mr. Needham decline to talk about plans, Imdb could play a more prominent role in the retailer's media strategy.

    Paramount Pictures, Universal Studios and Warner Brothers are all involved in the project, executives close to the project have said.

    Several weeks ago, one media executive who had been briefed on Amazon's strategy but did not want to be identified because it was still being formulated, pointed out one aspect of Imdb's popularity: if you use search engines to look for the title of virtually any past movie or television show, or the names of celebrities from those realms, Imdb often comes up as the first result.

    In the retail business, that is the equivalent of excellent shelf frontage, or, in television, of having a single-digit channel number rather than being relegated to Channel 284 on the cable lineup.

    There are glimpses of a grander media plan beyond Imdb.

    For instance, Amazon has quietly built up its own www.a9.com search engine, which places more emphasis on displaying results in multiple media formats than bigger rivals like Google and Yahoo.

    But even if Amazon's foray into downloading fizzles, Imdb holds its own. Its climb also provides some interesting lessons for burgeoning digital media barons.

    Internet Movie Database began in 1990 as a bulletin board database of movie credits.

    It was started by Mr. Needham and some film-buff friends.

    At the time, Mr. Needham was working as an engineer in Bristol at Hewlett-Packard (or, as he says in his native Manchester lilt, "Hewlett Pa-Cod") and had only a rudimentary strategy for financing the site.

    By 1998, the database had established itself as a favorite on the early Internet, and Mr. Needham was amused to receive a number of buyout approaches.

    One was an invitation to a London hotel in January to meet with Jeffrey P. Bezos, the founder of Amazon. Mr. Bezos told Mr. Needham that he thought the movie database could help Amazon sell VHS cassettes and DVD's — Mr. Needham points out that it was in that order in those days — but also recognized that the site would need to be run separately to maintain its personality.

    Amazon, of course, could handle the technological end and pour resources into upgrades.

    Today, Imdb makes money a variety of ways: from advertising, selling publicity photos, licensing its content, selling movie tickets through partners and offering a premium Imdb Pro service (started in 2002).

    For $99 a year, Imdb Pro subscribers get granular access to all kinds of industry data, like movie budgets and details about films in production.

    By chronicling everyone who ever worked on a film, the service has become a de facto directory of most everyone from key grips to producers, actors and directors.

    Its most clever feature is probably the Starmeter and Movimeter ratings, which gauge the popularity of people and films, based on search topics.

    To no one's surprise, Audrey Tautou was No. 1 last week on the Starmeter, up from No. 215 early last year, when she joined the cast of "The Da Vinci Code."

    Like the social networking sites that are now so popular in media, Imdb has found that much of its success is built on the participation of site visitors.

    Last year, Mr. Needham said, its users submitted information to the database 16 million times, adding minutiae like what commercials Hollywood actors have performed in abroad, or what video games they have done voice-overs for.

    When its users are not adding information, they are perusing — or debating and challenging — material related to the 787,000 film, television and video game titles detailed on the site.

    One can learn, for example, that while Jennifer Grey played Jeanie in the film "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" (1986), Jennifer Aniston played Jeanie in the TV series "Ferris Bueller" (1990).

    Those submissions are then monitored — vetted is too strong a word — by a team of editors who take their entertainment geekdom seriously.

    Any factual mistakes they may not find on their own are usually brought to their attention by users, who also make frequent accusations that some Hollywood wannabes who submit their biographies to the site are padding their résumés.

    In Mr. Needham's office, the only visible connection to Amazon is a separate laptop that has a secure feed to the company's internal server in Seattle.

    On the wall is a gift from Mr. Bezos: a framed original poster of "Vertigo," Mr. Needham's favorite film.

    While Mr. Needham is thrilled to talk about the business, he is reticent about giving too many details.

    He does say that the company is profitable, that there are more than 50 employees and that they are in the United States, Britain, Switzerland and Germany.

    At Imdb, he says repeatedly that "the customer is the celebrity," and that the company is not.

    AS for his own fortunes, a clue is found in the original announcement of Imdb's acquisition in April 1998.

    It said Imdb and two separate European businesses were bought mostly for Amazon shares then worth close to $55 million.

    Though it is impossible to know how the shares were divided among the three companies, the shares would be worth roughly $213 million now.

    For his part, Mr. Needham dresses like a regular guy, and he drives a Toyota to take me to the train station.

    But it does turn out that the house in Stoke Gifford is actually just his former home; it now serves only as offices for him and his wife, although it retains all the furnishings, including his daughters' bunk beds.

    The Needhams live in what he calls their "dream house" about 15 minutes away.

    It is there that Mr. Needham keeps his prized possession: an ever-growing collection of 7,500 films, mostly DVD's.

    Asked whether someday it would all be digital, with his collection floating on a hard drive, Mr. Needham thought not: "I like to kick the tires of things I own."


Whenever I read about companies or websites that emerge out of an obsessive interest or passion, I'm reminded of Steve Wozniak's remark, to wit: "Apple was a science project that got out of control."

June 17, 2006 at 04:01 PM | Permalink


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