No one is more surprised that IMDb has become an entertainment industry go-to than its good-natured founder and CEO, Col Needham.
“I had no idea IMDb would become what it is,” says Needham. “I’m always very skeptical when I hear all the people who have started companies say ‘of course, I always knew we’d end up like this.’ I’m always like, ‘really? This has been sort of surprising.’”
Today, for its 250 million unique monthly visitors, IMDb is well known as the world’s repository for movie-industry-related information. What’s not as well known is that it was Amazon’s first acquisition 20 years ago (technically, it’s tied for first with two other European websites Amazon bought on the same day).
It’s also not widely known that Needham is now one of the 40 longest-tenured employees at Amazon. Needham’s rare “silver badge” ID, in a company overflowing with newbie “blue badges,” underscores how lasting his nearly 20-year relationship has been with the company.
That this union is blossoming nearly two decades after it began speaks to a shared vision that wasn’t necessarily obvious beyond the two founders: Needham and Amazon CEO, Jeff Bezos.
Although the two came from different backgrounds, from the very beginning they shared a strong belief that technology and innovation could be put to use to thoroughly delight customers.
And it began with an unexpected email.
One day, Needham received an email from Amazon’s then-general counsel, saying, “Hi Col, Jeff Bezos and I were discussing film websites the other day and naturally IMDb came up in the conversation. We’re going to be in the UK next week and we’d love to meet with you."
“If you receive that email today, and you’re a small startup, you’d be over the moon with delight,” Needham says. But, in late 1997, Amazon only sold books. It had only been a publicly traded company for seven months, and it had never before acquired another company.
The world’s best video store
Needham started IMDb in Bristol, England in 1990 as a passion project to catalog the thousands of movies he’d watched since he was a teenager (at last count, he’s seen more than 10,800 films). A small group of like-minded people who also loved movies volunteered to collaborate with him. This group created a publicly-accessible website that let people not only search for films, but also search for the actors, directors, and other talent who worked on movies.
“Back in the 1990s, the idea of being able to go to a video store online, or even in the physical world, where you could say, ‘I’m a big fan of this writer, director, or actor’ and then have someone help you find all the individuals’ TV shows and movies was an alien concept,” said Needham. “I want to stay humble, but before IMDb you couldn’t get this information unless it was in a printed book. And to tie it up in a searchable database was revolutionary. IMDb was the only one who was really doing it.”
Bezos, by contrast, was a book lover who cut his teeth on Wall Street and, in 1994, had moved to Seattle to start an online bookstore offering customers the world’s largest collection of titles. Amazon went public in 1997 but had never acquired another company – let alone one outside its core book business.
And yet, when Jeff and Col sat down to talk – the book lover and the cinephile who crowd-sourced a free movie database – a spark was lit.
“Jeff painted such a clear vision of where Amazon was going and how IMDb could fit within the family,” Needham says, recalling their first meeting. “Jeff said that IMDb would retain its website and brand, and our information would be optimized for search and browse and contribution. And at the same time, Amazon would use the same database to create the world’s best video store.”
The more Needham and Bezos talked, the more sense it made for IMDb to join Amazon.
“We were able to align on things very early because IMDb was entirely built by customers for customers. And when Jeff came along and said Amazon aimed to be the most customer-centric company – well, I said, ‘we may have something in common here.’”
After their first meeting, things moved quickly. Amazon acquired IMDb on April 27, 1998. That same day, Amazon also acquired a UK and a German book-selling website. These sites became Amazon’s online storefronts in the UK and in Germany.
Of the 16 IMDb employees who were with the company before Amazon acquired it, five employees are still with the company today – nearly 20 years later – as part of the global team.
While Needham has remained in Bristol, where IMDb maintains an office, IMDb’s breadth and scope have dramatically expanded over the past two decades. It’s now a global operation that also occupies an entire floor of the Day 1 building in downtown Seattle and has an office in Santa Monica, California.
“We were able to align on things very early because IMDb was entirely built by customers for customers. And when Jeff came along and said Amazon aimed to be the most customer-centric company – well, I said, ‘we may have something in common here.'”
A new generation of IMDb products
The services that Needham could only dream of offering customers when he first started IMDb are now coming to life.
IMDb just launched a daily flash briefing on Echo devices that provides recommendations on what to watch on TV based on trending IMDb data. Its data also powers IMDbPro – a suite of services to complement its encyclopedic catalog of movie and TV-related information – which provides casting directors, actors, and other entertainment industry professionals information they can use to advance their careers.
And one of the clearest examples of how IMDb’s catalog is enhancing Amazon’s services is X-Ray. X-Ray lets viewers see, in real time, information about the movie or TV show they’re watching lightly overlaid on top of the action they’re viewing. This information provides a sort of third dimension to the viewing experience – giving people the opportunity to learn about an actor’s career even as they watch them onscreen.
“Back in 1998, if you went online you could just about view a movie trailer about the size of a postage stamp,” says Needham. “You could see a blurry image that would stutter and pause and you could barely hear audio.”
“But, Jeff and I both had this shared passion for engaging with customers and enabling customers do things they wouldn’t otherwise be able to do. It’s a little corny – but Amazon and IMDb are a proverbial match made in heaven.”