Col Needham at the Festival of Ideas [#foiimdb]

It is safe to say I’m a fan of Not only does it combine two of my favourite things – movies & technology (well three really these days with all the TV coverage!) but it is also a company born in Bristol (albeit by a Manc!) that has genuine worldwide impact. It has always amused me that the Bristol connection gets lost every few years and then somehow makes the news again (and again). I’ve also never really understood how the fact that a second tier web brand like IMDb (it isn’t in the league of Google, Facebook, Yahoo or its parent Amazon but it is a pretty big player) being from the UK doesn’t get more play in the tech press and places like Wired UK (I mean how can the CEO of IMDb *not* be in the UK Top 100 Digital folk?).

Since I’ve had my iPad I’ve used the IMDb app as much, or more, than anything – mainly as I have a classic case of ‘what have I seen them in before-itis’ and so cannot watch a movie (or a HBO show) without checking the cast (and often the Directors & writers these days).

So given this background you can imagine how pleased I was to get to listen to Col Needham, founder and CEO of at the Watershed yesterday as a part of the Festival of Ideas.

I had a great time and was amazed at what a down to earth guy Col seemed – and also was impressed that most of all it was his love of movies that shone through above all else. His anecdotes about his first trip to the cinema and also when he spoke of his favourite movie (Vertigo btw) were wonderful.

IMDb has quite an amazing story really – it predates the web and is truly a product of the early internet of mailing lists and usenet and is also probably one of the first examples of a virtual company that was built on user generated content. While Col contributed much of the original content & the core database it was volunteers from all over the world that help build the wider coverage. It has existed in some form since the summer of 1990 (orginally the entirely database was distributed as a download and people ran their own copies locally).

In 1993 Rob Hartill, who was based at Cardiff Uni, suggested that the site might work well on the new, fangled WWW and the site was launched on some spare capacity on the Uni servers – within the first day or so they were impressed to be getting 60 or so hits…they now average about 100 million users a month!!. They became a real company in ’95 and by ’96 (the year I graduated uni) they sold their first major ad, to Fox Studios for Independence Day. By August of ’98 they had sold to Amazon (one of the very first acquisitions Amazon made and not a bad route to ‘exit’) and went on to open offices in Seattle and Los Angeles. Col has remained based in Bristol throughout and until very recently the only local ‘office’ was his former home in Stoke Gifford!

Currently one of their big focuses is the IMDb Everywhere project – making IMDb content available on as many platforms as possible – whether that is web, mobile, IPTV, set-top boxes or whatever. Libby asked a question about APIs around this stuff & it seemed like it was something that might be on the cards but not immediately. They are already combining things like on-demand movie streaming & cinema ticket sales with their info services in the US and tools like Starmeter & Moviemeter take search data and use it to rank who/what is hot or cooling at the box office – something that is apparently hugely popular in Hollywood 🙂

The IMDb Pro stuff is obviously one hell of a popular tool in the industry (especially given the talking heads they dragged out for the ‘glitzty’ promo video – I remember Danny DeVito, Kevin Smith, Uma Thurman, Russel Brand and Josh Brolin amongst others singings its praises!).

Anyway it was a great talk and I am now more jealous than ever that my friend K is going to be working at IMDb in the very near future – I think IMDb or Mozilla are now the only two companies for whom I’d ever seriously considering moving jobs for!

Thanks to Col for the talk and the Festival of Ideas team for making it happen.

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