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The list goes on…

The Internet Movie Database changed the way we think about films, and now it’s influencing the industry itself, writes Richard Johnstone

Richard Johnstone 4 May 2011 2603 words

Shown here with Everett Marshall, Dolores del Rio is wearing a gown by Orry-Kelly, “one of Australia’s greatest cultural exports,” in I Live for Love, 1935.

IN OCTOBER last year, Col Needham, the founder and CEO of the Internet Movie Database, helped mark the twentieth anniversary of that extraordinarily influential website – the ninth most popular in the world, according to Urlfan – by issuing a list of his favourite films of the past twenty years. At number one on the list (and second only, Needham notes, to Vertigo as his all-time favourite) sits Christopher Nolan’s Inception (2010), in which Leonardo DiCaprio plays a corporate thief who steals secrets from inside the heads of his dreaming victims. The film is described on IMDb as taking place “in a world where technology exists to enter the human mind,” which serves quite nicely as a summary of the impact of IMDb itself on the way people make, watch and think about movies. For anyone with an interest in film, the IMDb has managed, like Leonardo DiCaprio in Inception, to get inside our heads.

Lists form the bedrock of IMDb, beginning with the credits that are shown, in reverse chronological order, for millions of individual films and film-makers – actors, directors, cinematographers, scriptwriters, art directors, costume designers. We can, for example, browse the 310 (and counting) titles in which the actor Vernon Dobtcheff, at once instantly recognisable and difficult to place, has appeared, or focus instead on the single entry for a forgotten child actor of the forties that prompts us to ask, as IMDb is forever prompting us to ask, whatever happened to her? On top of these lists of credits is a superstructure of other lists, some compiled by staff of IMDb but most by regular users of the site. These take the process of list-making a step further, to produce an ever-expanding network of rankings. The best of film noir, the best splatter movies, the five worst movies of 1979, the best performances by men playing women, the worst ones by women playing men, the “ten top questionable hairstyles at the 2011 Golden Globes.” The list, as they say, is endless.

IMDb is a vast mosaic of interconnectedness, where it seems that everyone who has ever had anything to do with making a film has his or her own dedicated page that then links, through infinite permutations, to other careers and other lives. This in itself represents an extraordinary project of recovery, of both films and careers. It is not so long ago, for example, that the careers of even the best-known actors and directors were difficult to document in their entirety. Those early forays, for example, in which they had only a line or two of dialogue, or oversaw a few action sequences as second assistant director, remained unknown except perhaps to themselves and to their most dedicated fans.

Now, thanks to the contributions of thousands of people over two decades, IMDb comprehensively chronicles the careers of the famous and the obscure alike, ensuring that the parts they played are given their due, and ensuring too that the ones they would rather have forgotten about are also up there with the rest. It will even credit the uncredited, those cases in which an individual contribution to a film has not been acknowledged by any of the official means (although IMDb does draw the line at “filmographies consisting exclusively of uncredited work”).

The Internet Movie Database satisfies our innate need to identify patterns. Rather in the manner of the parlour game “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” we can make our own connections – and hence our own lists – by tracing the points where individual careers and biographies intersect with one another. IMDb encourages us in this pattern-making by facilitating the search for pairings and for other, more wide-ranging combinations. We can, for example, find all the films made in Argentina between 1920 and 1930, in itself a relatively straightforward enquiry, or, to quote one of IMDb’s own sample questions, we can – in the unlikely event that we really want to – “get a list of comedies from the 1970s that have at least 1000 votes and an average rating of 7.5 or higher.” And if, just for fun, we want to look for all the people born in Kiama in New South Wales, we can find that, in addition to one of Australia’s greatest cultural exports, the costume designer Orry-Kelly, four other names come up, among them an Alfred Hustwick, who died in Los Angeles in 1958 and whose credits include the screenplay for The Beast of Borneo (1934).

The two essential pillars of IMDb – lists and rankings – have been there since the beginning, when Needham collated two separate newsgroup projects into a “Combined List and Movie Ratings Report.” At that point it contained some 10,000 titles, a figure that has since grown to 1,845,052 (as at April 2011), along with a mind-boggling 4,084,246 entries against the names of individuals. (These figures cover both the mainstream site and the “adult” content, which is accessible only to registered users who specifically request access – a feature that is in the interests, as IMDb rather coyly puts it, of providing “some level of control for those of a sensitive nature.”)

By the mid 1990s, the site had already migrated to the web, adopted the name by which it is now known and attracted large numbers of volunteer contributors. At the same time, it was beginning to outgrow its capacity to survive on goodwill and enthusiasm alone. Its decision to accept advertising, its employment of a full-time CEO and staff, its acquisition by Amazon as a subsidiary company in 1998, and its subsequent introduction of a professional section called IMDbPro in 2001, all signalled to the purists that the golden days were over, and that the site had sold out to commercialism, to fandom, and to those who hoped to make it in pictures.

Whether or not these developments constitute a sell-out, there is no doubt that the balance has shifted. A major redesign of the site was undertaken in 2010, and while it still has some way to go before it is complete, the overall effect is clear. Clicking on a “name” now produces a glitzier page than long-time visitors have been used to, often with only a partial rather than full list of credits immediately visible. In many cases this partial list is almost crowded out by other stuff – photographs from opening nights and awards ceremonies, images from the DVD covers of some of the best-known films on which the subjects have worked, links to the latest gossip about them and, further down the page, their star signs. For those who hanker for the way things used to be, there’s an option to customise the site to reinstate the old-style just-give-me-the-facts look, but it must only be a matter of time before that option is allowed to fade quietly away.

AND YET what is remarkable about IMDb is how it has managed, admittedly sometimes a bit shakily, to maintain a balance between its shifting identities; on the one hand a community of people who like films, and on the other a commercial operation that gives as much emphasis to the future – projects in development, rumoured castings – as it does to the past. When the IMDb message board function was first introduced in 2002, it supplemented another feature by which users could post film reviews, the result of which is now thousands upon thousands of reviews, accumulated over a dozen years and constituting a fascinating record of public taste and personal enthusiasms. The review function is linked only to individual movies, but the message boards are linked to every person and film in the database – with the exception, so far, of individual episodes of television series – as well as to a bewildering array of special topics, from “Actors and Actresses” to “Home Theatre Equipment” to more general categories like “The Soapbox,” a free-for-all where the posts increasingly refer only tangentially, if at all, to movies.

For some, the message boards marked the real beginning of the end, opening the way for contributors to flood the actors’ pages with posts headed “Hot or not?” or “Looks like?” and generally fail to take things seriously. According to one recent comment from the old guard, it all began well enough; at first “the boards were populated by true and mature film fans who had meaningful, if sometimes contentious, discussions.” Now, by contrast, they are “troll heaven.” Yet all may not be lost. A recently introduced beta function – providing the ability to search a vast array of message board postings and threads (though not the lot, because older posts are eventually “expired”) – shows that the enthusiasts and the “mature fans” continue to flourish among the trolls, that “inappropriate” postings are generally (though not always) deleted in good time, and that there are still many instances that taken together demonstrate a collective love and knowledge of the byways of film.

IMDb has always relied heavily on volunteers to supplement its data by contributing plot summaries, “mini-biographies” and items of film trivia, thus helping to ensure that the site continues to grow in range and, up to a point, reliability. A list of the top contributors is published every year, and each of them receives a letter of appreciation from the CEO. When one of the most prolific contributors recently discovered that a newly implemented search function returned only the first 1000 of his 5378 plot summaries, he understandably went into panic mode, fearing that the rest of them might be lost forever. Within twenty-four hours Needham had publicly assured him that the quirk in the search function had been fixed.

Equally, IMDb can take a very stern line with its contributors. “An administrator can delete anything,” says a response to a frequently asked question. And those seeking more than a generic explanation as to why their contribution has been rejected will get short shrift. “We cannot provide a more detailed explanation… so please don’t ask.” The submission guidelines themselves, formidable in their detail, sometimes betray a note of impatience with those who don’t follow them or who might be contemplating some form of circumvention. If you’re thinking, for example, of updating the credit for an actor who once played the part of a superhero, you’ll need to be clear on whether to list the superhero and his alter-ego as two separate characters or as one character with two different names; IMDb provides detailed directions. The rules for submitting “mini-biographies” are similarly comprehensive, though there’s a hint of resignation in the instruction to use the third person – “he attended, not first person: I attended” – suggesting an acceptance of the fact that at least some of the more glowing biographies are written by the subjects themselves.

It might be expected that the biographical focus would be on the stars and the big-name directors, but in fact the unsung attract as much if not more biographical attention. The particular enthusiasms of the most prolific contributors can also skew the emphasis; a preference, for instance, for Russian actors and film-makers (for which the often-informative entries by Steve Shelokhonov are worth clicking on), or for composers, cinematographers or, in the case of more than one prolific contributor, for porn starlets. For what they add to the experience of using IMDb though, and entertaining as the occasional snippet can be, there’s a question mark over whether the “mini-biographies” add a great deal to what it is that makes the site indispensable.

The IMDb “experience,” for want of a better term, goes back to the lists. IMDb is far and away the most comprehensive record of who did what. There are errors, of course, and lacunae, and it’s also true that, just occasionally, someone can be clever enough to create an entire career out of nothing and slip it onto the site. A decade or so ago, a film buff from Melbourne with an impressive knowledge of British cinema came up with Rita Waterhouse, a dancer, actor and director from Bendigo who in her short life – from 1913 to 1949 – built up a long list of credits in France, Britain and the United States, all after running away from a Swiss finishing school to try her luck on the stage. Rita attracted the interest of researchers, and from there found her way into reference books and journal articles. And though her page and the various links to her were removed in 2006, she can still be tracked down in the internet archives. She survives too in a single reference on IMDb itself, where she is listed, against the rules, as “Girl in Blue Dress (uncredited)” in Gone with the Wind. This last remaining entry could be an oversight, but I like to think of it as deliberate, a sly acknowledgement of the site’s capacity to confer eternal life on the real and imagined alike.

Whether for film buff or industry professional, the core value of IMDb lies in the ability it gives us to see a film or a career at a glance and to go on to explore the links. Meanwhile, the range of the site is constantly being extended, into television series and the full documentation of individual episodes (a huge undertaking over recent years), and to more comprehensive coverage of foreign-language film and TV. Despite its massive growth over the past two decades, and the changes in its look and feel, it is remarkable how consistently IMDb has managed to hang on to its original, documentary agenda. In doing so, it has coped with VHS and the introduction of DVDs, as well as new formats and distribution methods, including the rise of YouTube and the capacity to produce films for streaming directly over the internet, thus bypassing theatres and traditional broadcasting networks altogether. As a consequence of all these developments, it is now very much more of a challenge than it was in 1990 to determine what, exactly, is a movie.

The most significant change that has occurred since IMDb began, and the one that lies at the heart of the uneasiness that many of its long-time supporters feel, is the way it has transformed – or, perhaps more accurately, could not help but be transformed – from a disinterested collector of information to something rather more than that, namely an active and influential player in the film business. This can’t simply be put down to the advent of the professional components such as IMDbPro, which by their very nature encourage the kind of self-advertisement and hype that has found its way into other areas of the site – in the form, for example, of the promotional trailers that now dominate the top of the front page. It is due far more to the fact that IMDb, as a consequence of its extraordinary success, now has the power of validation. As the director Eli Roth says in a short video clip made to help celebrate the twentieth anniversary, the fact that his first film appeared on the site as an in-development project helped him to secure the finance he needed to complete it. “If your movie doesn’t have an IMDb page,” says Roth, “it’s not a real movie.” •

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